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"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.