Kansas City, Mo. – When the Kansas City Missouri school board made the dramatic decision last month to close almost half of the district's schools, it was a tight vote, five to four. So tomorrow's election to fill five seats is certain to change the board's dynamic at a critical time.
Many people are seeing the upcoming election as a kind of a referendum on the school closing plan. Two groups of candidates are lining up for and against, if not the plan, then the way it was proposed and approved.
Both of these groups began mobilizing before the superintendent even arrived in Kansas City. And they're creating some energy behind a school board election that hasn't seen a real race in many years.
About 75 people have gathered at a "get out the vote" rally at the headquarters of Freedom Inc, the long-standing African American political organization. School board member Airick Leonard West rallies volunteers to knock on doors and make phone calls.
"They need to hear from us, the community," West says, "That there are a group of people who believe in what's possible for our scholars."
West isn't up for re-election this year, but he's been instrumental in recruiting and supporting more than half of the ten candidates running in this election. In less than a year, his campaign to transform the school board has grown from a small, grassroots effort to attracting substantial campaign contributions and endorsements from the likes of the Chamber of Commerce and Civic Council.
Kyleen Carroll is a former district teacher, and running for the school board at-large. She's excited about the potential for change with the new superintendent.
"To have a massive overhaul of the entire educational system that is going to be not just focused on student achievement, and focused on the learning of the student, but actually supportive of educators, that's something we have not seen for a very long time in the Kansas City school district," Carroll says.
Carroll's one of six candidates running for two at-large seats. That means they're elected by the entire district. The other at-large candidate on this slate is Crispin Rea. Until recently he was on Mayor Mark Funkhouser's staff, and now works in youth development at Mattie Rhodes. He says the district needs better transparency, financial stability and to reverse enrollment trends, but the clearest sign of change will be in student achievement.
"We see a slight increase in ACT scores, we see MAP scores going up," Rea says. "You know I'm going to be realistic and some of these things are going to take a long, long time, but I want to see some improvement."
Running with Rea and Carroll is Joseph Jackson. He's up for the fourth sub-district seat, which is east of midtown. Jackson retired from the air force, and has been a parent leader. Of all the candidates running for school board this year, he's the only one with children in the district. His son's school, Longan Elementary, is slated to be closed.
"I've had to hear my children say, 'Daddy, why are you letting them close the school? You know, you're running for the board.' And I tell them I have to look at the needs of the many, over the needs of the few. And to ensure everybody gets a quality education, not just one school gets a quality education."
A few neighborhoods away in midtown, about a dozen people are gathered at a vegetarian restaurant, at a meeting for the group of candidates calling themselves Team 180.
Spark Bookhart manages this group of candidates, which is headed up by School Board President Marilyn Simmons, who's unopposed in this election. They've been holding small meetings to get parents and residents engaged in the issues facing the district's schools.
"People in our community really, really, really care, and they really want to get involved," says Kenneth Hughlon, who is running at-large. He's a national board member of the NAACP, and says school board members need to know the community's values as they set policies that govern the district.
This group of candidates says they've supported the superintendent in some of his attempts to work with residents, but that the school closure plan was developed without enough community input.
Current board member Cokethea Hill, who's now running at-large, says that's part of the reason why she voted against it.
"Our fiduciary responsibility is to make sure taxpayer dollars are not squandered, they're not wasted," Hill says. "And I didn't feel like I had enough information."
"If parents leave this district because they don't like the plan, this district will fail," says Linwood Tauheed, an economics professor at UMKC . He's running for the fourth sub-district seat, against Jackson.
Tauheed says that the Team 180 candidates agree that closing schools is necessary, but that the current plan will not lead to financial stability for the district, or the city's neighborhoods.
"You can't separate the economic plight and economic condition of these neighborhoods away from the educational condition of the kids, they're connected together," Tauheed says. "And if we economically distress this community, these children will suffer educationally."
Tauheed also serves on the board of the African Centered Schools. He says that as a school board member, that will mean he's seen how some of the most successful schools in the city functions.
Two Independent Candidates Support School Closures
Another candidate, separate from these two slates, says he's also seen success in the Kansas City school district, when he went to elementary school as the child of immigrants some 70 years ago.
"If it weren't for the quality of the school district at that time, I'd probably have a very different lifestyle today," Robert Peterson became a dentist and a professor at UMKC's dental school. He's served on the Park Hill School board, as well as the board for the Stowers Institute.
Rose Marie Bell also supports the superintendent's school closure plan. She's an academic advisor at UMKC, and seen how the district has under-educated even the most conscientious students.
"Basically, I just want to make sure we have the facilities, and the resources that will help our students learn," Bell says.
In the other two seats up for re-election this year, current school board member Derek Richey, who was appointed last year to fill a resignation, is running for the second sub-district, which is western midtown. And school board president Marilyn Simmons is running unopposed in the fifth sub-district, which is on the eastern side of the district. Neither of their names will appear on the ballot.
Each of these ten candidates have played a part in grabbing the public's attention about the challenges and potential of Kansas City's schools. The real test will come when the new board, along with their new superintendent, actually try to make a difference in student achievement.