But observers say the outcome of this one race may shift the board's center of power. "What's at stake in this election," says one supporter of Burnett and Smith, "is keeping Michael Byrd out of office and stopping the Black United Front from controlling the school district."
Should Byrd win, he and new board member Marilyn Simmons would be the district's most visible presence of the Black United Front, which has been accused recently of behind-the-scenes power plays to redraw election maps, put a favored job applicant in a high post in the district, take control of a parent-advisory group and change the leadership of Southeast High School. For more than twenty years, the Black United Front has tutored schoolchildren and advocated black history and African culture and geography as part of the district's curriculum, but its political activities have drawn more attention in recent months. Byrd declares himself "a very proud member."
Byrd's two opponents have a powerful ally: board member Al Mauro. Mauro recruited Burnett and Smith and helped collect signatures for their ballot petitions. He did the same for a longtime friend, Joel Pelofsky, who is running unopposed in the predominantly white 2nd District. If all three win and join Mauro and Harriet Plowman (who often votes with Mauro on district issues) on the board, those five members could form a potentially district-controlling majority coalition.
Is Mauro building a Mauro Majority?
No, he says. "I don't believe in the coalition," Mauro says. "If you're saying, 'Do I want five votes?' I want nine votes. If I were president of that board I'd want a unanimous decision. If you can't get that, get a majority. And then move on."
If anything, Mauro says, coalitions of board members working in secret have hindered democracy on the board. "My frustration," he explains, "is that I feel that certain people have gotten together and decided what they're going to present [outside of board meetings], and then you sort of hear about it at a board meeting."
Mauro refuses to identify those "certain people," but it's a safe bet Michael Byrd is one of them. Though Byrd and Mauro get along at public meetings, they often line up on opposite sides of political battles. Mauro led the charge when the board eliminated the salary of Black United Front member Linwood Tauheed, who had briefly secured a top-level administrative position with the district last fall.
Allegations of political patronage have plagued the district for years (see Kansas City Strip, below). Often, these accusations have targeted African-American leaders and organizations, though whites have usually held more power in the district. "One thing everybody can agree on," says one black leader, "is that African-Americans have never controlled the Kansas City school board. Ever. Never ever."
Kansas City's white leadership -- which some refer to as "the majority community" -- has a poor track record controlling the troubled school district.
· Until 1969, the white majority held virtually complete control in elections because all school board seats were "at large" rather than assigned to districts. Still, the school system was hardly stellar. "I can remember back in 1949," Pelofsky says, "we lost our accreditation, even though the school board at that time was all picked out of the southwest corridor by political parties in the primary election, and nobody ran against anybody."
· In 1969, black students became the majority in the district. Kansas Citians have not approved a tax levy increase for schools since then. During the '70s, white leaders did little while white students fled some parts of the school system, resulting in a desegregation lawsuit.
· The white community got involved, however, when large sums of state tax money flowed into the district to "solve" the segregation problem. While the money was being spent in the late '80s and early '90s, the Civic Council, a clandestine organization of Kansas City's top business CEOs, was well-represented on the school board. Local white-owned companies got a healthy chunk of that money.
· More recently, the white business and civic communities threw support behind former superintendent Benjamin Demps while many in the African-American community said Demps -- himself black -- didn't try hard enough to understand them.
Mauro is clearly connected to that majority community's power and wealth.
Mauro's long list of contributors to his 2000 bid for the school board includes Chamber of Commerce officials, downtown property owners and developers, and major corporation executives. Over a two-month period, Mauro raised more than $63,000. School district contractors are also represented on Mauro's list of supporters -- the law firm Blackwell Sanders Peper Martin, Truman Medical Center, UMB Bank and Dunn Construction ponied up more than $1,200.
Mauro says his connections are irrelevant. "Look, I don't want to go into all that," he says. "If they perceive it that way, fine. You could talk that one to death."
Power and money were the least of Mauro's concerns when he ran for the school board in 2000, he says. "I ran for the school board because I'm concerned about what's happening with this school district," he says. "We should have more than 35,000 kids in the district. [Years ago] we were at 70,000. OK? Why are parents leaving the district? It's not because it's doing a good job. It's because it hasn't done a good job. And who's kidding anybody?"
There's no guarantee that a Mauro majority would vote as a bloc on all issues. Indeed, at candidate forums and in individual interviews with the Pitch, Mauro's candidates have shown a united overall vision but different opinions on various issues. Likewise, blacks could hold a majority of the board's seats -- five -- after this election without necessarily building a voting bloc. That's because Elma Warrick (who faces no election contest) has lately been at odds with Byrd, and David Smith is Mauro's one black candidate.
Smith grew up in Kansas City, graduated from the predominantly black Central High School in the late '60s and has continued to live in the heart of the city. As president of the Boys and Girls Club of Kansas City, he worked with kids.
"Often we don't really give each other the opportunity, or have the patience to get to what the real issues are," Smith says. "So I'm going to always be trying to guide and lead toward a discussion of what the real issues are."
And the real issue, he says, "is not about whether whites control the school board." The issue is: "Is it good for the children?"
Some leaders in the African-American community agree. "I'm concerned about ensuring a good education for our children, and that [candidates] are committed to that," says Alvin Brooks, mayor pro tem. "I want to see people serve who don't have personal agendas."
"Our main concern is that the persons seeking office are committed to quality education for our children," adds Anita Russell, president of the Kansas City branch of the NAACP. "I would think that if you're running for a seat, that would be your major concern as well."
Mauro says his desire for harmony on the board is part of the quest to improve education in Kansas City. But some black leaders say privately that Mauro's recruitment of candidates to run against Byrd proves otherwise.
"Any group coming up out of the African-American community that is concerned about the education of its children -- whether you like them or not, whether they agree with you all the time, whether you even like what they're calling themselves -- needs to be at the table," says one Black United Front representative who asked not to be named. "In effect," the representative continues, "what you've got is Al Mauro saying, 'I don't like those folks in the Black United Front and the people they represent. Those are not the people I think should be at the table talking about what's in the best interest of their children. I think I need to have my own people there. And I want eight or nine people that I can bring to the table who we can all get along and do things the way I want them done.'"
All of which raises questions about whether Mauro can work with the Black United Front.
"They don't represent anybody," Mauro says. "Why are they any different than any other group in town? You got Freedom [Inc., a black political group]. You got the Black United Front. You got -- you got the Hispanic group. I mean, they all have a right to express themselves. But I don't? Why do I have to work with -- I have to go make a deal with any group? Is that what you're asking me to do?" Asked again whether he can work with Black United Front, Mauro says: "I'll work with anybody who is interested in the quality education for the kids. I don't care who they are."
In fact, Mauro has not tried to shut out the Black United Front; he didn't recruit a candidate to run in the 6th District against Black United Front member Marilyn Simmons. Moreover, all of the Mauro-supported candidates say they condone African-centered education, which the Black United Front strongly advocates. Pelofsky says he would like to see it taught in all schools.
Clearly no one group represents the black community's interests, and some black leaders openly criticize the Black United Front. Board member Warrick recently told the Pitch that the Front is a "a militant group that, for the most part, looks at a separatist approach to operation in the community."
Others disagree. "I've worked with [the Black United Front] for twenty years, ever since they've been in existence," the Reverend Nelson "Fuzzy" Thompson recently told the Pitch. "I know them all personally, and they are top-notch people. They've done a lot for this city and a lot for the metropolitan area. Their record is above reproach. They're not separatists."
"Their only agenda since I've known them has been about education," says City Councilman Terry Riley, who once served on the school board. He says the group's president, Ajamu Webster, is honest. "If you want to talk about someone who is above-board, Ajamu is the most above-board person I know."
The Black United Front is "authentic," adds Wallace Hartsfield, pastor at Metropolitan Missionary Baptist church and past president of the Congress of National Black Churches. "There are a number of things they say they support that many in the African-American community would support."
At board meetings, Byrd is typically cordial and cooperative. When he speaks, it's usually to bolster the school district's image and encourage public involvement in education. Behind the scenes, though, Byrd and his supporters have played hardball school board politics.
Byrd was among the board members who called an "emergency" closed-door meeting to fire former superintendent Benjamin Demps in late April 2001. Byrd and four other board members -- not all of whom are black or members of the Black United Front -- planned the meeting by phone but didn't notify Demps' three supporters on the board -- among them Mauro and Plowman -- of the meeting until it had convened. "I don't see that as hardball politics," Byrd says. "I think it was based, for me, on the information that was provided to us [about Demps]."
Last fall, board president Helen Ragsdale established a committee to adjust the board's voting-district boundaries to reflect population changes documented in the 2000 census. Some board members claim that the group's meetings violated Missouri's Sunshine Law. Two Black United Front members -- Webster and Mickey Dean -- wound up on the committee, and the revised election map was drawn by fellow member Tauheed.
The map radically shifted districts and drew ire from some board members. On it, three of the six voting districts would hold predominantly black populations, and the wealthy, white 2nd District would have been broken up. Steve Glorioso, a white political consultant who has long been involved with Kansas City Democrats, says the map "would have broken every constitutional requirement I've ever seen. It was gerrymandering to re-elect Michael Byrd."
Byrd didn't deny the political motivation. "I would like to have a district that is drawn with lines that can get me elected," he said at a board meeting during the furor.
The board rejected the map and passed the task to the Kansas City Election Board, which commissioned Glorioso to help draw a new map. Glorioso, who had helped Mauro's campaign for an at-large seat in 2000, was paid $5,000 on a no-bid contract to do the job.
After several heated public meetings, the election board approved a Glorioso map that created three largely black districts by breaking up the 6th District, which was predominantly white but poorer than the 2nd District, which was kept intact. "My thought was to do it with the least amount of disruption possible," Glorioso explains.
Byrd declined to comment on the redistricting efforts, but such exercises are always targets of political manipulation, and some African-American leaders say this brand of politics is necessary because the power structures that shape the city -- and the school board -- are arrayed against black leaders. "They have to push harder even to be heard," says Hartsfield. "If you just speak softly or just concur with whatever is going on, then what you wind up with is the way things have always been. That is what has happened to us all along."
And on the Kansas City school board -- which is beholden to a student body that's more than 70 percent African American and a voting population in which whites outnumber blacks -- this push reaches an intensity unequaled in other local political arenas. "The only place where all of this comes together is on the school board," Webster says. "Other than that, we can all go back to our corners and kind of accommodate our racial issues. With the school board, we've got to face them."
Here's how the three at-large candidates propose to face these issues:
· Burnett says her experience as a counselor and mediator will bring balance to the board. "I have an ability to work with people who have conflicted points of view and get to the heart of the issue," she says. Regarding race, she points out that her home is in Northeast Kansas City, one of the most diverse parts of town. She has worked with people of all races on community organizing efforts at her church, St. Anthony. "You know, we didn't all agree at those meetings," she says.
· Byrd says, "When it comes down to it, every parent wants the same thing for their children. They want a quality education. So this whole racial divide thing, I think there's more common ground than there is difference. And if we go about it in a fact-based, objective manner, then we'll get where we want."
· Smith says, "My interest is going to be in promoting, 'Is it good for the children?'" He would like to see that question prominently displayed on a banner in the board room at 1211 McGee.