Seven Of These Candidates For School Board Will Shape Kansas City Public's Future | KCUR

Seven Of These Candidates For School Board Will Shape Kansas City Public's Future

Mar 20, 2019

The Kansas City Public Schools have made some big gains under the leadership of Superintendent Mark Bedell.

Now it’ll be up to the school board voters elect next month to sustain that progress.

“There’s a little bit of sadness about the old board leaving,” said incumbent member-at-large Jennifer Wolfsie.

The new board won’t bear much resemblance to the old board because state lawmakers dictated that a new map be drawn, taking the board down to seven seats from nine. Only Wolfsie and the other at-large member, Pattie Mansur, will definitely be back.

Click here to view the new school board sub-district maps on the Kansas City Election Board website.

“People may think it looks clunky, and it’s very process-driven, but frankly, I’m really proud of the way our team works,” Mansur said.

The current board gets a lot of credit for working well with each other and administration. When members disagreed, they did so respectfully, shaking off a dysfunctional reputation from the era when meetings routinely devolved into chaos.

“I just want to make sure everyone understands that even though you got this nice, calm, consistent decision-making, there was a lot of back-and-forth,” Wolfsie said.

Now a new board will have to figure out how to work together. There will be key decisions to make whenever KCPS regains full accreditation, something that could happen later this year. Four races have been settled already because no one else filed, and three are up for grabs April 2.

Mansur’s advice to new board members?

“They campaign on their own individual ideas, but when they come onto a board, you have to start to work together,” she said. “You have to build consensus collaboratively.”

Here’s what candidates in both contested and uncontested races say matters most this election.

Sub-district 1, two-year term

Credit Elle Moxley / KCUR 89.3

RITA CORTÉS

Cortès is an attorney and the executive director of the Menorah Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit that supports greater Kansas City’s Jewish community. Her organization works closely with Jewish Vocational Services, one of the organizations that supporting refugee families in KCPS. She’s a former high school basketball coach and has served on the boards of several private schools.

Why are you running for school board?

Fundamentally, I believe that every child should have access to great education regardless of where they live, the economic circumstances of their family and the challenges they have faced. ... I’ve had the opportunity to serve in a number of leadership roles in educational institutions, in both faith-based and independent schools. I understand the complexity of schools and school systems, and I bring 25 years of business experience here in Kansas City.

How do you think the current administration has done?

I think the district is on a positive trajectory. From a timing standpoint, I just want to see that sustained. I’m concerned that Bedell’s first three years, he might not have felt any honeymoon about it, but every new leader goes through a bit of a honeymoon period. As his tenure extends, he and the board are going to have to be stronger. ... I think having someone on the board who can extend the communication of the district beyond its immediate constituency of parents is really important. In sub-district 1, there are a lot of families that make other choices than KCPS.

What should KCPS do to support the growing Latino population and other English language learners?

There are a number of strategies out there, but I think one is effectively employed at a school like Carver where they have a dual language program that’s built on both native English speakers and native Spanish speakers. Those programs show success. One of the challenges is extending those skills when kids have the ability to read and speak two languages. What happens to them at the end of sixth grade? What happens at the end of seventh grade? Are they actively maintaining those skills? We know it helps their brains evolve.

Do you support the proposed pre-K sales tax?

Yes. If it doesn’t pass, there is no obvious path to funding universal pre-K or early childhood education for the students in the district. ... Those who have suggested that the district could seek a property tax levy seem to have conveniently forgotten that it’s been more than 50 years since this city has passed any kind of levy increase for the district. So when I look at all the alternatives – the legislature, a property tax levy – even though I think the mayor’s plan could have been done in a more inclusive way, I still think it’s the best path to getting kids into early childhood education.

Credit Elle Moxley / KCUR 89.3

MATTHEW OATES

Oates currently serves as board treasurer. He is an electrical engineer at Burns & McDonnell who graduated from Paseo High School. Oates was part of a community coalition that pushed KCPS to reopen Hale Cook Elementary in the Waldo neighborhood. He is a youth baseball coach and Lead to Read mentor.

Why run for school board again?

When I graduated back in 2003, I got my diploma from an unaccredited school district. I had a front row seat to the impact adult decision making can have on student outcomes. When I got into the College of Engineering at the University of Missouri, one thing that became clear to me was students from other districts had experiences I didn’t have. It became very important to me to come back home and get involved.

How do you think the current administration has done?

I got elected to the board right as we were starting the search process, and hiring Dr. Bedell was probably the biggest decision that I’ve had to make. Hiring him has been very catalytic for this district. He’s very committed to this district, very committed to the students, very committed to his staff, and that behavior worked its way down into all the buildings and all the classrooms. I’ve been very happy with the progress we’ve made. Obviously, accreditation would be an incredible milestone, but we’ve all agreed this is not the end.

What should KCPS do to support the growing Latino population and other English language learners?

Going forward, it’s going to be very important that we are intentional about engaging our Latino community because it is the fastest growing population in the district. Probably at some point over the next 15 years, it will become the new majority. We must do a better job of ensuring Latino community groups have the opportunity to participate in planning and advocacy. As for English language learners, over 50 languages are spoken in the district. Our New Americans program helps support these families as they’re integrating into the community and society.

Do you support the proposed pre-K sales tax?

I have some concerns around equity and application of this program. ... When you look at some of the other opportunities (the city) has had to remediate issues, when you look at a map of where TIF is being used to address blight, my fear is this plan could end up mirroring that. Ten years later, the same pre-K deserts could still be there. And that’s really important with pre-K because you can’t just say oh well, we’ll send a bus to pick them up. There isn’t transportation.

Sub-district 2, four-year term

Credit Courtesy Nate Hogan

NATE HOGAN

Hogan is an entrepreneur who works for Cerner. Like a lot of KCPS students, Hogan switched schools often while growing up in the district. He lost his 22-year-old son, Monty, to gun violence in 2014. He will not be on the ballot because no one filed to run against him.

Why are you running for school board?

In seventh grade, I went to three different schools that year alone. So this whole conversation around student mobility is very personal for me. It’s very difficult to form lasting friendships. It’s very difficult to maintain any interest in academic performance when you’re constantly bouncing around. Mobility is a real issue that we’ve got to try to figure out how to solve.

How do you think the current administration has done?

I would echo the enthusiasm I’ve heard from every corner, whether I’m talking to constituents, teachers, folks who work for Dr. Bedell, stakeholders in the business community and educators more broadly. There’s still a lot of work to do, but Dr. Bedell understands that. He’s not naive about what the future holds and the work that we must continue to do. ... I’m super enthusiastic. I’m excited to see his contract get extended and to have the opportunity to work with him.

What should KCPS do to support the growing Latino population and other English language learners?

That is a great question, one I’d defer to someone who has more experience working directly with the Latino community. Someone like Manny Abarca, who will be representing the third sub-district. He and I have talked about this. I’ve got tons of black friends and white friends, but not Latino friends. And so I’d defer that question to him.

Do you support the proposed pre-K sales tax?

It really doesn't matter what Nate Hogan thinks about it (because) on April 2, voters are going to make that decision. The school board is going to be responsible regardless of what the decision is. So if the pre-K initiative passes, we're going to be responsible for implementing it in the best interest of the kids and doing it effectively and efficiently. If it fails, we need to take the lead and come up with an alternate solution.

Sub-district 3, two-year term

Credit Elle Moxley / KCUR 89.3

MANNY ABARCA IV

Abarca works for Congressman Emanuel Cleaver. He’s involved in many organizations in the Historic Northeast, including the Indian Mounds Neighborhood Association, the Northeast Chamber of Commerce and the Historic Kansas City Foundation. He currently serves on the board for Goodwill Industries and ReDiscover. He will not be on the ballot because no one filed to run against him.

Why are you running for school board?

I currently serve on the Guadalupe Center Charters school board, and I have loved that experience. I initially thought I had no business on a charter school board because I’m not an educator, and I thought those individuals should be governing the school board. Then I had a conversation with a mentor who said, ‘You have been to a lot of school, and you have had a lot of experience, so you know how schools should work.’

How do you think the current administration has done?

Dr. Bedell is absolutely essential to the continued success of our district. And so you’ll see me as a continued advocate for him. I think he has put together a good team within his administration to address some of the issues that have otherwise been ignored for many years. The focus had not always been on the students. I think now you’re seeing this renewed energy because attention is being put back on student success.

What should KCPS do to support the growing Latino population and other English language learners?

I think it begins with representation. It’s kind of a tough burden to carry as the lone Latino elected official (on the school board). That’s all we’ve got. That’s all we’ve had for a long time. ... One of the challenges for our Latino parents is the balance between safety and security. If you walk into a school building, you have to show ID, and if you’re an undocumented person, you don’t have an ID. So that automatically bars you from entering a school and providing whatever you were going to provide.

Do you support the proposed pre-K sales tax?

No, I absolutely, positively do not. Universal pre-K is a wonderful thing that we should aspire to, but there are so many challenges with the current proposal. ... If we just looked at the way we use TIF and drew back some of those funds, we could start pre-K within the next year. We could have seats available, ready to go if we just stopped giving wealthy developers incentives.

Sub-district 4, four-year term

No one collected enough signatures to appear on the ballot in sub-district 4, which extends from midtown to the Sports Complex. There are four write-in candidates. Voters need to spell the candidate’s name correctly for their vote to count. You can take notes into your polling place.

Credit Elle Moxley / KCUR 89.3

CLINTON ADAMS JR.

Adams is a family law attorney who for years criticized how the Kansas City Public Schools were run. Adams has represented students, teachers and principals who’ve brought suit against the district. Now, though, he says he supports Bedell and thinks the district is making progress. He has the endorsement of Freedom Inc., Kansas City’s black political club.

Why are you running for school board?

My daughter is a proud graduate of the Kansas City, Missouri, School District. She got an excellent education in the district, but (it’s always disappointed me) that other kids did not have the same opportunity she had. ... I currently chair the education committee for the Urban Summit, and they asked me if I would consider doing it. I’ve been actively involved in playing a role from the outside. They thought it would be good to see what kind of impact I could have on the inside.

How do you think the current administration has done?

They’ve done an outstanding job. This district has made great strides under the leadership of Dr.  Bedell, and I think it’s very important that we stay the course. I see no reason to deviate from it. I think it would be a major misstep to withdraw any of the support Dr. Bedell has from the board.

What should KCPS do to support the growing Latino population and other English language learners?

We have to provide the superintendent with the resources he needs to address the needs of those immigrants and other people who do not speak English as their primary language. On matters like that, I will look to the superintendent and his staff for guidance. ... I wouldn’t call it unfair, but it is an extra burden to place on the school district to address all those needs. (The board needs to provide) adequate funding for the resources that the educational experts determine they need to teach English as a second language.

Do you support the proposed pre-K sales tax?

What’s commonly referred to as the mayor’s pre-K sales tax is an abomination. It certainly should not be supported by any voters who are committed to the delivery of education in an equitable and efficient matter. I would never give any consideration to turning over the education delivery system to city bureaucrats and other people who do not have a good job of fixing potholes, shoveling snow, plowing the streets and providing public safety.

Credit Courtesy Marvia Jones

MARVIA JONES

Jones teaches psychology at Metropolitan Community College-Penn Valley and is working with the Kansas City Health Department on violence prevention programs. She has the backing of the Women's Political Caucus, a progressive political organization that supports women candidates. Jones is the parent of two KCPS students.

Why are you running for school board?

This is a critical time for the district. I saw that no one had filed, and I really believed I could contribute, so I decided to go ahead. My Ph.D. is in behavioral community psychology. It’s not a clinical degree. It’s about understanding all the things that impact people who live in a community, not just looking at one area like schools or social services. It’s about looking at everything. Economics, community development. Do people feel safe? Do they feel supported?

How do you think the current administration has done?

I have seen a board that has been really engaged in thoughtful, strategic planning. They have really engaged the community. They’ve tried to be smart about their means and ends. It’s important to me that they hold themselves accountable. ... A word I really like is resilience. It’s so easy to get caught up in the deficits. But our children and our families are resilient. By the time they make it to your classroom, they have survived so much. I want us to be seen as a community of resilient students and families.

What should KCPS do to support the growing Latino population and other English language learners?

If you are coming to school every day wondering if this is the day a relative’s immigration paperwork is going to be called into question, it’s really hard to focus on learning English or your other academic subjects. Our priority should be making them feel safe, then making sure their families feel supported as well.

Do you support the proposed pre-K sales tax?

No, not in its current form. The governance structure doesn’t seem very accountable to the electorate. There’s a disproportionate burden on people who can least afford another sales tax. I would also say, as a community psychologist, if 14 school districts are opposing it, that means it is not a good time to move forward with it. It’s time to go back to the drawing board and do more community engagement.

Credit Elle Moxley / KCUR 89.3

IBRAHIM RAMSEY

Ramsey is the founder of UBuild KC Mentoring, an organization that recruits men of color to volunteer with Head Start. He currently serves as vice chair of the Parent and Policy Council for the Mid-America Regional Council. Ramsey graduated from Lincoln College Preparatory Academy graduate. He is the parent of two KCPS students.

Why are you running for school board?

I’m running for school board because of my passion for the kids. I have two young kids myself who are in Richardson Early Learning Center. When you look at those kids that are just starting in our district, it gives you hope for the future. ... I decided to make a difference I would bridge the gap between our youth and our leadership.

How do you think the current administration has done?

I would say I support their efforts. It’s constant growth, which is good. Being a younger African American in the district, knowing what education can do for our kids and our community, I feel it could continue to grow. We need to engage the community with our decision making. Education is the way out for most people. I feel (the current administration) is doing a great job.

What should KCPS do to support the growing Latino population and other English language learners?

Providing resources to learn the language is the main thing, but having opportunities for parents to learn the language would be really great. KCPS needs to learn their culture and find ways to engage the community more. That’s really the main thing, learning how to come together as a whole.

Do you support the proposed pre-K sales tax?

I support universal pre-K. Being the parent of pre-K students, I understand the importance the foundation of pre-K has. I applaud the mayor for coming up with a solution for pre-K, but I also understand that for people in the community, the tax could be a burden. They have a voice, and on April 2, they’ll be able to vote yay or nay.

Credit Elle Moxley / KCUR 89.3

DEMONTE ROCHESTER

Rochester currently serves on the District Advisory Committee, the KCPS parent organization that provides feedback to the school board. He works for the Salvation Army. He is a Southeast High School graduate and a KCPS parent. His daughter is excited to attend Lincoln Middle School when it opens in the fall.

Why are you running for school board?

I’m a product of this district, and I have a passion for families and kids and being a voice for the community. I’m the vice chair of the District Advisory Committee. I’ve been involved in the strategic planning process. Already knowing policies and procedures sets me apart from the other candidates.

How do you think the current administration has done?

I believe Dr. Bedell and his cabinet are on the right path. We hit 82.9 percent APR for the first time in a long time. That alone is a lot of momentum. The new testing program (i-Ready) they’re rolling out for math and reading is going to be instrumental in helping our inner city kids obtain their reading levels. We need to be a world-class district. I think we’re on the right track, but there are some things missing we need to plug in.

What should KCPS do to support the growing Latino population and other English language learners?

We need to do a better job of communicating in different languages so that our Hispanic population can understand what’s going on in the district, you know, beyond Google translating.

Do you support the proposed pre-K sales tax?

I am not supporting the mayor’s pre-K initiative. We are already losing $35 million a year from TIF. That money could be allocated for the district to have pre-K.

Sub-district 5, two-year term

Credit Elle Moxley / KCUR 89.3

JENSEN ADAMS

Adams, who will appear on the ballot as “D. Jensen (Adams),” is the district’s former senior facility manager for energy and sustainability. He is a former Centurion and a current KCPS parent. His son has special needs, and Adams works as an aide in his son’s classroom.

Why are you running for school board?

I’m a district dad, one who is focused on special needs education. What I’ve learned is I’m not alone in the district. Nearly 20 percent of the student body has some kind of special education plan. ... Special education is about finding the accommodations that help a student participate fully in education, and in life.  The greatest risk for every student is seclusion – both the feeling or act of excluding a student from learning.

How do you think the current administration has done?

I think the district is on a good trajectory. I joined KCPS when Steve Green was superintendent, and he had a strong history and a lot of credibility with the community. Engagement with the community was important with him, and community input guided how they (district officials) handled the new superintendent search. When they found Dr. Bedell, it was because the community was ready for a person like Dr. Bedell, who could take on accreditation but also take a few risks.

What should KCPS do to support the growing Latino population and other English language learners?

Recognizing how much diversity KCPS has is important. ... My wife and I are each fluent in a second language, having lived abroad as children.  Our son is in the KCPS Chinese immersion program, and we’ve hosted international students from six countries. At KCPS, I worked with after-school environmental programs at East High and helped EHS reboot the agriculture curriculum.   Our diverse group at East enjoyed practicing English in a hands-on, project-based program that allowed them to get outdoors.

Do you support the proposed pre-K sales tax?

I support the Mayor’s pre-k plan, because of what it does for equity, and how it resonates with my experience. Research shows that pre-k has already helped my son and our family to be more resilient with his severe epilepsy diagnosis. We detected his symptoms early and had a cognitive baseline before entering kindergarten. I want the same for every child.  

Credit Courtesy Mark Wasserstrom

MARK WASSERSTROM

Wasserstrom is a retired attorney. He is a 1967 Southwest High School graduate who supports Uniting at Southwest, a community coalition that wants to reopen the school. He has the endorsement of Freedom Inc., Kansas City’s black political club.

Why are you running for school board?

Eighty percent of the schools in Kansas City, Missouri, are black and brown. The total enrollment in the public school system has shrunk from 70,000 students to between 14,000 and 15,000. It is very difficult to say Kansas City has desegregated the schools in any meaningful sense, and it strikes me that a fairly obvious way of working on the problems that Kansas City has today is to get middle-class families to embrace the public school system.

How do you think the current administration has done?

Over the last year, going to school board meetings, I’ve been extremely impressed by the dedication, the systematic approach and the results that Dr. Bedell has achieved. I think he’s a very fine superintendent. That said, when it comes to renewing his contract ... that should be done voted on, approved by the new school board rather than the lame duck school board. It will be a generous contract, but procedurally, it should be done by the incoming board.

What should KCPS do to support the growing Latino population and other English language learners?

The best thing that we can do for the black segment of the school district, the best thing we can do for the Latino segment of the school community, the best thing that we can do for the white segment is to get full participation of the community. And to me, that means looking at the south corridor. How are we going to get some of these students who go to private schools, parochial schools and charter schools back into the public school system?

Do you support the proposed pre-K sales tax?

Absolutely, yes. I think that early childhood education is important. I would support any funding mechanism available to get more early childhood education. If we vote this down, how long do we wait before we expand early childhood? This is what we have now. Let's take it and start expanding the opportunities for the children.

At-large, two-year term

Credit Elle Moxley / KCUR 89.3

PATTIE MANSUR

Mansur currently serves as vice chair of the KCPS Board of Education. She is the communications and health policy director for REACH, a Merriam-based health care nonprofit. Her three kids graduated from KCPS. She will not be on the ballot because no one filed to run against her.

Why run for school board again?

When my children went through the school system, it was not always easy but it, but it was a very powerful and gratifying experience. Kansas City Public Schools’ performance is one of the biggest remaining issues in this city that hasn't been grappled with, and we didn’t want to be those people who sat on the sidelines who had a million opinions about the school district but didn’t want to get into the game themselves to make it better.

How do you think the current administration has done?

Everywhere I go, I hear positive comments about Superintendent Mark Bedell and the team that he has put together. I think people recognize that although it has taken some time, the work is yielding results. We’re following a strategic plan that the community developed. We’re tieing our budget priorities to that strategic plan and making it evident how we spend our money.

What should KCPS do to support the growing Latino population and other English language learners?

We serve more English language learners within our district than any other school district in the state of Missouri. This is a point of pride for me because you know, it’s difficult and it’s expensive, but we are truly an open door for families, wherever they come from.

Do you support the proposed pre-K sales tax?

I don’t support the mayor’s pre-K sales tax. I do support early childhood education. But we serve some of the lowest income, most under-resourced families in this city. It’s not a burden for me to pay a little extra sales tax on the goods and services I need to maintain my household but to ask our families to pay that on milk and bread? I think the mayor would like to suggest we should ignore the means and look at the ends, but I think, in this case, the means is really the big problem.

At-large, four-year term

Credit Elle Moxley / KCUR 89.3

JENNIFER WOLFSIE

Wolfsie has served on the board since 2016. She is a KCPS parent who previously served as co-leader of the District Advisory Committee and president of the Border Star PTA. She will not be on the ballot because no one filed to run against her.

Why run for school board again?

I want to support Dr. Bedell and the current vision and strategic plan that we have. And a big part is making sure we do have that stability and continuity as we move to new board leadership. Also, as a parent leader, I feel like part of board service is making sure we are holding the district accountable to the families that we serve and the taxpayers who entrust us with their tax revenues.

How do you think the current administration has done?

This particular administration is extremely collaborative with the community. A great example of that is a few months ago the district proposed doing an early release on Wednesdays. And they got a lot of feedback that it was going to be very difficult for families. So they went back to retool, how can we provide professional development for our teachers on a continuous basis but also not make it a burden on our families?

What should KCPS do to support the growing Latino population and other English language learners?

We have families coming from all over the globe. Our language services group is working to ensure that we have those resources at the school level. Our Hispanic families want to be more involved, but I know the language is such a barrier in that community engagement component. That’s an area I’d like to see the district focus on to see if we can’t break that barrier and bring in more of those families.

Do you support the proposed pre-K sales tax?

No, I am not in support of the mayor’s pre-K sales tax. One of my bigger concerns is around the governance portion. It's very similar to another agency set up as many people know with regards to tax incentives (for developers). And that just has not worked out well for us. I have real concerns when we have folks in city hall in charge of education versus educators being in charge of education.

Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.