In 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 6, we're profiling each of the candidates, starting from the top of the ballot.
Now a college graduate, Rea still lives in the Northeast. As a youth development liaison for the Mattie Rhodes Center,
he works daily with kids who are better schooled in street violence
than spelling and arithmetic. "I've got bullet holes in my backdoor,"
he says. "I fall asleep with helicopters hovering too many nights. I
understand what they're facing and what they're up against."
As an adult poised to start a family of his own, Rea also understands what parents are up against. He knows many distrust the Kansas City, Missouri, School District
and work long hours for tuition costs or relocate their family
altogether. "I don't want to have to make the same decision my parents
had to make," he says.
As a candidate for the school board, Rea wants to change the district to make that decision a no-brainer.
Rea characterizes himself as an average student with average grades. His senior year at St. Mary's he started making plans to join the military, not attend college. It was just two weeks before graduation that Rea was awarded an athletic scholarship at Park University to run cross country and track. His mother had always been involved in civic affairs, often taking her son to community meetings and lobby days at the state legislature, so Rea jumped into political science and public administration. He was hooked after his first course. By 2007, as Kansas City's mayoral race picked up, Rea already knew the work of Mark Funkhouser by way of studying his audits and financial reports in his classes.
"At the time, I thought that might be a cool campaign to jump on," he says. "So I volunteered, knocked on doors, did all that stuff and he offered me a job. I don't think any college junior would turn down a full-time position like that. So I took advantage of the opportunity."
Just weeks into Funkhouser's tenure the first controversy erupted, when the mayor appointed an anti-illegal immigration activist to the city's Parks Board. "We had chaos within the first few weeks with the Frances Semler situation," he says. "I was naïve enough in that position that I didn't know what I was walking into, that it would present challenges I hadn't considered. I was really torn."
At that time, Rea says, there were no other Hispanic men or women in the upper ranks of city government, either serving as department heads or working with the mayor, city manager or city council members. "As the political pressure picked up, I wouldn't have felt good about abandoning that post," he says.
The chaos never settled, but Rea stuck around to see through some of Funkhouser's initiatives. Most notably, the aide worked on the Mayor's Night Kicks program, a summer soccer league for at-risk kids, and helped cement a new partnership with the Cristo Rey school, helping students secure city jobs to help pay their tuition. Last year, when the Mayor traveled to New York to tour to Harlem Children's Zone, Rea was part of the city delegation.
With his background in youth development, Rea says, he'd already considered a bid for the school board. But when the resignations of Ingrid Burnett and David Smith opened two seats in 2008, Rea, just 23 years old, was too young to serve. By the end of 2009, he was ready to leave Funkhouser's administration and felt the field didn't reflect the district's diversity. "Nobody stepped up as far as the Hispanic community goes, so I decided to leave the office take the opportunity," he says.
He didn't tell his family until Christmas eve and only had two weeks to collect signatures. Despite the snow storms, Rea and his volunteers gathered more signatures than any other candidate. He chalks up the support to the voters' desire for change. Like his parents, he knows residents are leery of taking a chance on public schools and that hesitancy is causing Kansas City to hemorrhage taxpayers. "We're talking about a shrinking tax base with already strained resources," he says. "We've got to make the district a viable option, make it attractive for families, not make it an incentive or motivation to leave."
To do that, Rea says, the board needs to be more transparent. If he gets a seat at the table, he'll push to stream meetings live on the Internet or on television. He'll make sure the board sticks to governance, not management, and avoid personality conflicts that send officials packing if they "cross the wrong board member." Even more importantly, he says, he'll make sure the board follows through on it promises.
"In the history of the district they do all these great plans and then put them on the shelf," Rea says. The evolving Strategic Plan, pulling input from hundreds of Kansas City residents, can't be another exercise that gathers dust once its completed, Rea says. "If we fail to follow-through we're going to destroy the already fractured sense of trust we have [within the community]," he says. "There's a lot at stake with this plan right now."
As for Rea's strategy, safety is a top priority. "Parents feel very uneasy sending their kids to the Kansas City School District," he says. "Their perception is that it's not safe; it's rowdy and raucous and disorderly." Last week, a survey from the district's teachers' union showed a staggering number of educators had either been victim of or threatened with physical violence from a student. "Try teaching -- or learning -- in that kind of environment," Rea says.
That's not to say the district is devoid of success stories. To regain community trust, Rea thinks the district needs to do a better job highlighting -- and expanding on -- what's working. He wants to see all of Kansas City's high schools participating in the A+ Schools program, a state partnership that provides college financial aid for high-achieving students. He wants to see parents getting phone calls, not just when their kids are in danger of dropping out, but when their students improve their grades. He wants to see school board members writing opinion pieces for the newspapers and working harder to win community partners. "I don't think we've allowed civic or philanthropic organizations to be at the table," he says. "We've pushed folks away who have a lot of money and influence."
With schools closing and possible teacher lay-offs, Rea knows he's jumping into a political firestorm. But he says he's ready. "Leaving the mayor's office, there is no more chaotic environment that you can find," he says.
This week's candidate forums:
American Federation of Teachers
Thursday, February 18
Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1700 Westport Road
KCMSD District Advisory Committee
Monday, February 22
Manual Career and Technical Center, 1215 Truman Road
The Kansas City Call
Tuesday, February 23
Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center, 3700 Blue Parkway