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.
A board elected on such a shortage of actual votes indicates more than mere apathy or frustration. The makeup and selection of Kansas City's school board are unlike those of any other in the state of Missouri. They stem from a 1967 law instituting subdistricts and mandating that six of the nine candidates be selected from specific sections of the city by voters in their respective areas.
That change assured black residents a place on a board previously dominated by Plaza-dwelling white men. But the change also restricted the field of candidates by geography and made it possible to win an election with a small number of votes from a narrow constituency. According to a 2009 report issued by the Missouri Legislature's Joint Committee on Education, boards elected by subdistricts "experience the greatest amount of conflict."
Bill Eddy agrees. After his uncontested election to the board in 2004, the longtime educator was struck by the group's inability to work together. "Probably the first board retreat I went on, I said, 'I've served on a lot of boards, and this is the most unfriendly, contentious board I've ever been connected with,'" he says.
Though nearly 75 percent of the district's students are not meeting state standards for reading and math skills, Eddy says the board spent most of its time considering and approving contracts — with little evaluation of whether those contracts would improve student success. "Nobody is paying enough attention to the kids," he says. When he left the board in 2008, he penned a sharp criticism, lashing out at the "fiefdoms, economic advantages [and] vested interests" that he contended had hijacked the board's focus.
Ingrid Burnett, who resigned her board post in 2008 before the end of her term, was frustrated by that same culture. "It became this kind of mini city council, where each member wanted to direct funds to their constituents, whether that be their district or employee group or consultant group or whatever," she says.
Relationships between school board members and certain consultants and contractors are far from imaginary. For instance, Simmons works for Dubois Consultants, which is run by Ajamu Webster. Webster is also the president of the board at ACE. In 2008, his company got more than $57,000 in contracts, one of which was for construction work at ACE.
Simmons declined to speak with The Pitch.
Burnett says the problem is perception rather than wrongdoing. It's not that the consultants are unqualified — Dubois does excellent work, she says. But the connections have soured the board's reputation. "When the public sees that even once, it poisons the well," she says.
That reputation has dried up the pool of school board candidates in recent years. In 2006, the school board election was canceled because no one challenged the incumbents. In 2008, there was just one race with two names on the ballot. Before the end of that year, two incumbents quit.
This year, seven newcomers are making the race far more interesting.
Airick West made a crowded ballot his personal mission.
When he ran for the school board in 2008, West was no stranger to grass-roots politics. His daily schedule kept him busy with the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council, light-rail task force meetings and a seat on the board of the Black Archives. But he admits that he was naïve about the inner workings of the school district.
"I thought we were going to talk about our scholars," West says with an ironic laugh. "We never really talked about student achievement. The entire committee process was built almost exclusively around discussing specific contracts." That meant managing the district's day-to-day operations as well. "I was amazed at the extent to which we, as a board, directly gave instructions and orders to district staff," he says. "That was the really scary part."
West compares the first few months on the board with jumping into ice-cold water. As he acclimated, he started to see how the board's actions affected the schools. "There were just so many situations in my first year in office that were entirely outside of my experience related to what a functional board should be about," he says. "I didn't realize this going in, but what quickly became apparent to me was that almost every significant dysfunction in the district — whether it's the lowest level of trying to replace a boiler or the high-level decision making — I could identify where failures in governance directly contributed to a failure to serve our scholars."
So with an election on the horizon, West wanted to see new faces around the table. In late 2009, he created "School Board School," a daylong workshop designed to demystify the political process of running a campaign and also to teach potential candidates the difference between a board that governs and a board that micromanages. "The original intent of School Board School was to expand the conversation about running for the school board, to get more people involved and excited about it," he says.
It did just that. Seven people who attended School Board School in September and November started gathering signatures to run in the April election. A few of those were so eager to get their names at the top of the ballot that they showed up at district headquarters before dawn on the first day of filing. West was there, with doughnuts, to keep them company.
His assistance didn't stop with the workshop. He offered to build Web sites and advise any candidate for free. To put candidates in front of the public, Kansas Citians United for Educational Achievement, a political committee headed by West, organized more than a dozen forums with various community groups. "I find it a point of personal failure that two of the races are not contested," West says.
The candidates who went through School Board School aren't a homogeneous group. Rea, a former staffer for Mayor Mark Funkhouser, has ties to the city's Northeast neighborhoods, working with at-risk youth for the Mattie Rhodes Center. Carroll is a former teacher in the district, and Bell has spent her career advising students at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Robert Peterson worked at UMKC, too, teaching in the School of Dentistry after he sold his private practice. And Jackson, a father of four, has spent the past nine years advocating for parents and volunteering in the district's schools.
The candidates do share several opinions. Each of them has criticized the conduct and direction of the current board. Each has expressed strong support for the school-closings plan and wants to keep Covington.
West says he considered putting together a political slate — a group of candidates running under one banner. "But putting together a slate would actually diminish the number of people willing to get involved," he says. "So every effort was made to engage as many people as possible in the process and leave it to the wisdom of the voters."
But another crop of candidates is asking residents to vote a straight ticket.
Spark Bookhart doesn't call his candidates a slate — too political, he says. His candidates are his "team."
On a recent Wednesday, they're at Bookhart's restaurant, Café Seed, to explain their candidacy. The youngest is Kenneth Hughlon, the 25-year-old manager of board relations for the NAACP. Cokethea Hill, just a few months past her 30th birthday, works as a community organizer for the Green Impact Zone. Linwood Tauheed is a professor of economics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
What these three — plus their fourth team member, Marilyn Simmons — are selling is a vision. They're hoping to be elected as a bloc so that they have the power to direct the board's policy.
They've worked together in the past. In 2008, Bookhart and Tauheed were tapped by Funkhouser to serve on the New Tools Task Force. The group was charged with dreaming up innovative ways to jump-start economic development in the struggling urban core. The City Council forked over $150,000 to support the effort, including the hiring of community organizers. Hill was one of them, earning $18,000 for her six-month stint.
Despite what he calls a "bold and audacious" agenda, Bookhart acknowledges that the task force didn't make a huge splash. Its recommendations to the city have been left to cool on the back burner.
Many of the same people rallied around another cause. In 2009, a bill introduced in the Missouri Legislature aimed to change the selection of school board members from election to appointment. Bookhart led an effort to maintain the current system, a campaign he called "All Hands on KCMSD." At a hearing this summer, Hill, Tauheed, Bookhart and Simmons testified in favor of keeping the current system of elected officials voted by subdistrict.
A few months later, the quartet began collecting signatures to put their names on the school board ballot. Bookhart says it only makes sense: "We fought to save the democratic process so we could participate in it."
He adds that the team isn't running a traditional campaign. Bookhart's candidates haven't participated in many public forums. They haven't printed fliers, buttons or yard signs. Instead, the focus has been on small groups, which Bookhart calls "circles of success." During sessions held around the city, Bookhart has offered his take on the district's history and has urged voters to stop blaming elected officials for the district's failures. The real culprit for low student achievement and high superintendent turnover, he contends, is the desegregation lawsuit that kept the district under court order for nearly two decades.
It makes sense that Bookhart and his candidates don't point fingers at the school board — they're part of it. Hill has been a member since 2008. Simmons has served for nearly 10 years. Tauheed has done work for the district, too, including, most recently, a $25,000 contract to develop an evaluation system for the superintendent. (He received $11,500 of that contract before Covington halted the project.) What drew Tauheed into the race, he says, was the opportunity to build on Simmons' leadership. "I'm running because this board provides a base of stability from which things can go forward," he says.
Tauheed says he knows how to move students forward. He sees it happening at ACE, which contracts with the district. A member of the Black United Front, a civil rights group that advocates such specialized education, Tauheed was an early advocate for African-centered education. Now he sits on ACE's board (and says he'll keep the seat if elected to the school board) with Ajamu Webster, Simmons' boss at Dubois Consultants.
Anyone who doesn't recognize the success of ACE, Tauheed suggests, is just playing politics. According to state data, ACE is one of the district's high-performing schools. The Council of the Great City Schools, Tauheed points out, "likes the involvement of the Black United Front." He cites a 2006 report from the council that praised ACE. "Everyone should like that. We know how to educate children."
When asked about his team's platform, Bookhart lists just one goal. "All children who graduate from the Kansas City Missouri School District will be in the top 10 percent of the nation," Bookhart explains. "It's that simple. Who can be against that?"
It's early on a Monday morning, but every chair in the small meeting room at Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church is occupied. Perched in a corner, Airick West trains a video camera on a trio of school board candidates. At the podium, a former school principal tells Tauheed, Jackson and Natalie Lewis, a write-in candidate, that he's going to be asking the tough questions.
At its weekly meetings, the Black Agenda Group often discusses issues of education, but today its members are grilling the school board candidates running in Subdistrict 4. Jackson and Tauheed, whose names appear on the ballot, differ in many of their answers during the debate. Jackson says the district needs stability through a long-tenured superintendent; Tauheed says the revolving door of administrators is mostly a newspaper-promoted exaggeration. Jackson says he's not happy with the conduct and direction of the current board; Tauheed backs Simmons' leadership.
Unspoken alliances — and animosity — make the brief silence between questions uncomfortable, especially when Tauheed talks up his team. "The problem is, if you're in the minority, you can't get anything done," he says. "That is why I'm running with Ms. Simmons. With her and the two other members on that team, now we have a majority. So the process of moving things forward can occur."
A few people whistle; others laugh anxiously. Jackson jumps in.
"I am not running as a member of a slate or a team," he says. "It's going to take independent people working together, not representing the status quo. But the status quo is what we'll end up having because it will be one group down there that controls the entire board. The other members won't be relevant because we have a team running the board. We must look at individuals who don't have a common agenda but an agenda for all the children in the district."
When the discussion turns to school closings and Covington, the temperature rises again. Tauheed has some sharp criticisms.
"This superintendent could have gone and talked to the parents and said, 'I'm new here. I have a board I can work with. Don't leave,'" Tauheed says. "Instead, what he's done is created for parents more uncertainty, and now they're going to leave at a faster pace."
"You don't support the superintendent?" Carol Coe, a neighborhood activist, asks from the other side of the table.
Tauheed bristles. "You don't know who I support," he says.
The debate moderators jump in, trying to defuse the start of an argument.
Now, with less than a week to go, two sides have clearly emerged. West's group formally endorsed Carroll, Rea and Jackson: A trio that would, if elected, create a majority with West and current member Derek Richey. In that case, West might become board president. Almost certainly, the board would continue to back Covington's plan to close more than two dozen schools.
If Bookhart's team gets elected, Tauheed says, board member Ray Wilson will vote with them to let Simmons keep the gavel. Both Tauheed and Hughlon have expressed frustration with the superintendent and dismay at the school closings. Hughlon held a press event at Paseo Middle School for the Arts, drawing attention to the building's closing.
On March 10, Wilson tried to spare the middle school, as well as ACE, from the superintendent's ax. Hill loudly attacked Covington, expressing "utter disdain" and alleging that the plan didn't account for student achievement. Simmons accused him of trying to do "too much at once." Still, Wilson, Hill and Simmons were one vote short of defeating the plan.
At the auditorium that night, ACE parents and students roared their dissatisfaction with the board's vote. Simmons tried to calm the crowd.
"What happened today is what happened today," she said.
The vote on April 6 will determine what happens next.