As recently as 2006, there was so little interest -- or confidence -- in the Kansas City, Missouri, School Board that not one person challenged the incumbents and the election was canceled. This year, the race is packed with candidates vying for at-large and sub-district seats. From now until the election on April 6th, we're profiling each of the candidates, starting from the top of the ballot.
Rose Bell remembers when kids in Kansas City schools had pride in their district. She knows, because she was one of them -- 40 years ago.
"That was during segregation time," she says. "We lived in a black neighborhood and had very close bonds in our neighborhood. Education, at the time, was a priority and so parents and community members really pushed us. I didn't realize my books were second-hand from the suburban schools; we had really good teachers."
Her classmates, she recalls, went on to be doctors and lawyers and business leaders. "We just had our 40th reunion and everybody is doing great," she says.
But many children in the district today, she says, are burdened with the opposite emotion. Their district isn't fully accredited. Their courses often leave them unprepared for higher education or the job market. "Our children do not deserve to have to go to college or a job with that stigma over them," she says. "When I was in school, I was so proud to be a Centralite. I'm hoping that a lot of students are still proud, but I have a feeling a lot of them aren't."
Bell is running for the school board to revive that sense of pride and add a dash of military discipline to the struggling district.
When she graduated from Central High School in 1967, Bell joined the Women's Army Corps, hoping it would pay for her higher education and give her a chance to travel outside the United States. During the Vietnam War, the 20-year-old served in Japan, working in medical facilities and assisting the soldiers. An aspiring opera singer, Bell had a singing career on the side, touring army installations and Japanese clubs in a rock and roll band. But marriage, divorce and motherhood made her hang up her hot-pants.
In 1976, after she returned to Kansas City, she started classes at the University of Missouri- Kansas City in the pre-law program. "I was 27, divorced, with a four-year-old," she says. "So it was kind of hard. And all that time I was still in the Army Reserve."
It took her 12 years to finish the two-year program and raising her four children nudged her into a different career track. Law school wasn't a viable option, but during her schooling she started working at the university. "I really loved it here and enjoyed working with the students," she says. After she completed a masters in higher education administration, she started her long tenure at UMKC -- first as an executive assistant to the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and then as an academic advisor.
Aside from a short time in Hickman Mills, Bell put her four children through Kansas City schools. Their experiences, she says, were mixed. Two of her daughters graduated high school, went on to college and earned degrees in business and accounting. But one of her daughters had special educational needs. Her son struggled with drugs. The district didn't have the staff or resources to meet their unique needs. Despite her advocacy on their behalf, both dropped out of school. (Her son later got his GED; her daughter also went on to get a medical assistant certificate.)
"The reality is we have a lot of children who have so many issues that we need to work with," she says. "I'm not saying we need to be their parents or counselors, but we need to understand where they're coming from and develop ways to reach them."
To do that, Bell says, teachers and administrators need to find ways to stimulate students. Gone are the days when a teacher could lecture at the front of the class and expect kids to absorb the information. "Now kids are wired completely differently," Bell says. "We need to make sure our teachers are learning how to work with this new generation of students."
She's not seeing that in the students who walk through her door at UMKC. Many kids coming out of the Kansas City district require remedial courses to catch up to their college peers. Bell herself has led freshman orientation classes that teach basic study strategies and reading skills. "Why don't we have that class in the high schools?" she wonders. "Why do we have to have it in college?"
And it's not just the college-bound students who struggle, Bell says. "Our children are not able to get good jobs; they don't have the skills employers are looking for," she says. "Employers are not coming to the city because we don't have a trainable population."
For years, Bell had it in the back of her mind to run for the school board, but she never filed because she wanted to be able to devote daily attention to the district's needs. "This type of job is going to require a lot more than anything I've ever done," she says. "And I am a workaholic. I believe in doing it right." Now that she's left the Army Reserve and set a date for her UMKC retirement -- January 2011 -- she decided it was time to jump in.
Bell believes the school board could benefit from her military mindset. She's got a clear goal: moving the district to full accreditation. She's got a no-nonsense attitude. No more revolving door for staff and superintendents; Bell wants consistency. "We need to settle down and get to work," she says. And, most importantly, she wants the board to adhere to its mission.
"I spent 24 years in the military," she says. "I did unit training in a four-state region. Even a private is taught the difference between strategy and tactics. Why can't our school board deal with strategy and policy making and let the people they hire take care of the management?"
When she sat in on school board meetings, she says, her jaw dropped. She watched as the same agenda items resurfaced, week after week, for months. "I am a stickler for making sure we get our business taken care of, and we're not going off on tangents," she says. "If something has been worked on for such a long length of time, you need to figure out why. If staff are not doing their job, you don't just keep moving it up, you find out why, right away."
Bell says she hates grandstanding and doesn't consider herself a politician, but she's well-versed in community service. She's been a bible school teacher and youth choir director. She was part of the Citizen Task Force on Light Rail and acted as an advisory board member for the Prospect Corridor initiative. Most recently, she was appointed to the Board of Trustees for the Kansas City Public Library -- a board that, she says, should be a model for the school district. The members are all civil to each other and the staff makes sure they have information in a complete and timely manner. They start on time and end on time and get their business done. "I don't see why the school board can't be like that," Bell says.
But Bell isn't all brass knuckles. She admits she gets nervous when it comes to public speaking. "I'm not a politician," she says. "I just talk from my heart most times." She wants her campaign to be a two-way conversation anyway. "My calendar is insane," she says. "And, when I'm elected, I want to be able to continue connecting with the community."
While she's doing her research on the intricacies of district policy, she hopes the voters do their homework, too. "I hope that they're not going to be impressed by the hype," Bell says. "I hope that they will look into the issues themselves and judge us by the substance of what we say. No matter who wins, it's very, very important that we get people in there that are going to do the work and not just use this as a stepping stone for other things."