Natalie Lewis really wants to be on the Kansas City Public School board. How much? Last week she moved into the district to an apartment just off the Plaza for the express purpose of running for the open seat in Sub-District 1, which covers much of downtown.
"Yes, it was drastic. But that fact that we had no one on the ballot required a drastic reaction," she says.
The Sub-District 1 seat is one of three open seats for which not a single candidate filed by the January deadline, meaning the seats must now be filled by write-in candidates. (An at-large seat is also open. Jennifer Wolfsie successfully filed for this seat, and since nobody else filed, she will automatically win it on the April 5 ballot.)
Lewis' credentials are impressive: a former teacher at Southeast Middle School and Derrick Thomas Academy, MIT-trained engineer, MBA from the University of Texas, a stint working for the Kauffman Scholars program. She clearly has the experience and motivation.
“It’s too critical a time period for us to drop the ball now because we can’t sustain a strong board and do the role of a board in moving our district forward.”
Here’s the catch: she may not be eligible. Since she just moved into the district she may have missed a critical deadline. Lewis insists she's "double-, triple-, and quadruple-checked" with multiple lawyers to ensure her eligibility. Yet, the district's website says all candidates had to be living in the district by late December in order to run. (A Lewis campaign adviser says there is "significant ambiguity" around that deadline for write-in candidates.)
Are You Crazy?
It seems strange to discourage someone like Lewis from the job when nobody else appears to want it. John Fierro can empathize.
“People come up to me and say, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’, or ‘Are you crazy?’ or ‘Wow, that’s a thankless job,'" he says.
Fierro, the President and CEO of the Mattie Rhodes Center and a long-time resident of the Historic Northeast, has announced he is running as a write-in candidate in Sub-District 3. He doesn’t face any eligibility questions but something maybe just as deflating: political apathy.
“I was very disappointed nobody filed. It’s the second time that’s occurred in four years in this particular sub-district. I felt as a civic leader, I needed to step up."
Why Did No Candidates File?
Several local education watchers say there is quirk of campaigning for Kansas City School Board that may dissuade many potential candidates.
Kansas City is one of only three districts in Missouri that requires school board candidates to submit a petition to get on the ballot. Fierro and Lewis would have had to gather 250 signatures to file. In fact, there were two other people who tried to do this but didn’t have enough signatures. So there’s that hurdle.
Then, there’s the not-so-secret opinion held by many around town that the job's not worth the time, energy and heartache.
“It’s not an easy gig," says former Board member Bill Eddy. "You have to go to a lot of evening meetings, meet with community groups. You hear a lot of complaints, and often times you don’t get positive feedback.”
Eddy served on the Board more than a decade ago. He now helps run the school watchdog group ‘Do The Right Thing For Kids’. He says the drawbacks of the job — long hours, no pay — can be overcome. But he admits even well-intentioned reformers get ground down.
“I was surprised at all the regulations and the pieces of red tape. We hardly ever got a chance to tackle the bigger questions of where the district should be going and so forth.”
A Board That's Improving
Outgoing Board Chairman Jon Hile, whose Sub-District 1 seat Natalie Lewis is now eyeing, echoes Eddy's sentiment. But he also says whoever gets elected next will be stepping onto a board that’s turned a corner.
He points out that when he came on in 2012, there was a "general consensus" that the state was going to take over the district.
"The thinking was my time on the Board was going to be pretty short."
The district was given a two-year reprieve, and when test scores went up slightly, it gained back provisional accreditation. Hile says the Board, which has long had a well-earned reputation as a meddler…is getting better.
“We stay out of our administration’s work, and we direct by policy. Which is an important improvement.”
With a new superintendent beginning this summer, Hile thinks the next class of new Board members, whether they’re write-ins or not, can build on that legacy. He should know: when he was elected in 2012 with his name on the ballot, the other three new Board members that year had all been write-in candidates.
A former teacher, Kyle Palmer is KCUR's morning newscaster and reporter. You can follow him @kcurkyle.