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New KC School Board Seeks Both Stability And Change

Troost Elementary School.
Sylvia Maria Gross
Troost Elementary School.

Just after winning re-election by a couple hundred write-in votes, Kansas City Missouri's school board president Airick Leonard West and three newly elected board members immediately got down to business at their first meeting last night.  The agenda included a plan to overhaul the structure of the board itself.

Election Results Took More Than A Week

The recent turmoil brought about by the school district's loss of accreditation might explain why only one of four school board races actually had candidates listed on the ballot.  A flurry of write-in candidates later emerged for the other three seats.  That's why it took the election board until yesterday to count all the votes.

School Board Chair Airick Leonard West himself only decided to run for re-election a few weeks ahead of time. Just before last night's meeting, he agreed it was a messy process.

"It is certainly is not where I planned to be. But I'm honored to serve," West said. "I'm ready to serve. I know I'm much better prepared to do so on behalf of the scholars of this district than I was four years ago."

Seven of the nine members on the new board have been endorsed by West, or by the organization he helped found, Kansas Citians United for Educational Achievement.

Among the new members are parent Marisol Montero, who won in the 3rd Sub-District, and John Hile, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Kansas City, who defeated incumbent Arthur Benson in the 1st Sub-District.  The fourth winner, not part of that slate, was former principal Curtis Rogers in the 5th Sub-District. 

Parent leader Jamekia Kendrix, a member of the District Advisory Committee, says she expects this will be a very united board. But she urges them to reach out more.

"What I do want, or expect, is that there will be more intentional engagement of the community when major decisions are made," Kendrix said.

Getting To Work

The new board members were sworn in last night. Airick Leonard West was elected chair again, and Crispin Rea vice-chair.  And immediately, West introduced a plan to address some of the criticism of the board that has accompanied the district's loss of accreditation.   

"This is an old conversation about how to instill good governance," West said. "It's actually a lot of practices that most districts already engage in.  And we're just looking to play catch up."

The plan would create a three-member advisory board, appointed by the mayor, to work alongside the elected board. The proposal would also call for new state legislation to reduce the number of board members from 9 to 7, one from each Sub-District, but all elected at-large.  And it would move school board elections from April to August, in the hopes of getting better turnout.

Are The School Boards' Days Numbered?

Some think these attempts to restructure the board are too little too late. Bill Eddy is a former board member and former Dean of UMKC's Bloch School of Business and Public Administration.  Eddy is now part of Do The Right Thing For Kids, an organization that monitors the Kansas City school board and is advocating for an alternative form of governance.

"My perception of the board and the perception of our organization … has been that this board is well-intentioned," Eddy said. "It's fairly benign in terms of its influence on the administration.  But we have felt like a major turn-around effort is needed if this district is going to be saved and the kids are going to be educated in the way they ought to be."

Eddy supports state legislation that would immediately give the state the authority to appoint an advisory board to replace the elected board. It's one of the more likely possibilities among a number of bills dealing with the Kansas City school district, including one that would turn over schools to surrounding districts.

School board supporters hope Superintendent Steve Green's permanent contract, the slew of write-in candidates who eventually ran for election, and this new proposal to remake the board, will be enough to convince to Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to hold off on a takeover.  

"What's critical is that the plan for restoring achievement doesn't change," school board chair Airick Leonard West said. "We have a plan in place. DESE signed off on it. Our community wrote it.  But we need a stronger governance system to continue to shepherd it."

The board will host a community meeting at Manual High School on Thursday, April 19 at 6pm to discuss the proposal.  Board members plan to vote on it on April 25.   

Sylvia Maria Gross is storytelling editor at KCUR 89.3. Reach her on Twitter @pubradiosly.
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