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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.