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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."