At 5:30 on a rainy Wednesday afternoon, two yellow buses idle next to the headquarters of the Kansas City, Missouri, School District.
Afrikan Centered Education Collegium Campus students and parents exit the bus, their expressions somber. Teenagers wear identical black blazers with the school's red-and-orange shield sewn onto the lapels. A mother keeps track of her son with her right hand and holds a sign — "Right-sizing is the wrong plan for ACE!" — in her left. A little girl with braided pigtails waves a homemade poster that's as tall as she is: "Save our School — ACE!"
An hour before the meeting of the district's school board, the auditorium overflows with parents and students. Observers crowd the hallways. Officials direct people to a second room with a video link. Within 10 minutes, that room is full, too.
The district's new superintendent, John Covington, has recommended the closure of half of the district's schools to avert a financial crisis that could lead to a state takeover. His plan to shutter buildings and consolidate classrooms has sharply divided the community. Groups that support the plan as a painful but necessary sacrifice have bought full-page newspaper ads. Parents whose children attend schools on the chopping block have shouted their outrage at meetings and forums.
Tonight the nine-member school board votes.
When the public comment period is opened, Kansas City Councilwoman Sharon Sanders-Brooks unleashes her anger at Covington and the board. The school closings will devastate the 3rd District, she warns. "Those of you who are aiding and abetting the economic demise of the urban core, you will be remembered," she says.
Ron Hunt, a local anti-crime activist, tells the board that its decision tonight will speak louder than Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. "You have a lot of power," Hunt says. "Don't take it lightly. Today is judgment day."
Hunt stares down the superintendent. "Change is coming, and when it comes, Dr. Covington, it will come like a thief in the night," he says, to applause.
Covington wins this round. By a 5-4 vote, the plan passes.
But Hunt is right: Change is coming. On April 6, voters could put three new members on the board, causing a power shift.
Some candidates are here tonight. Kyleen Carroll sits cross-legged on the floor in front of the stage. Kenneth Hughlon is in a chair three rows back, and Joseph Jackson hugs the wall behind the television cameras. In the overflow room, Crispin Rea crouches at the front of the crowd, and Rose Bell is sandwiched between parents near the door.
Some of them are running under a common agenda; others are independent candidates.
The results will determine the direction of a district facing the most dramatic transformation of any in the country.
Several nights each month, the Kansas City, Missouri, School Board meets in front of an auditorium full of parents, teachers and community members. But very few of the observers have cast a ballot for their representatives.
Derek Richey and Cokethea Hill have never earned a single vote. Both were appointed in 2008 when other members quit midterm. Joel Pelofsky and Ray Wilson both joined the board after uncontested races, and Arthur Benson earned his position with fewer than 400 write-in votes for a seat that nobody bothered to file for. Airick West won in a race that was contested in name only; he challenged an incumbent who got so fed up with the district that he dropped his effort in the middle of the campaign. Helen Ragsdale and board President Marilyn Simmons both faced challengers in 2002, but each won with barely 1,000 votes, respectively. Duane Kelly has kept his seat for a decade with just one contested election and a grand total of 920 votes.