12 candidates vie for 7 seats on KC school board, but many won’t be on the ballot

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed which candidates are running as write-ins.

As voters head to the polls on April 2, the Kansas City school board faces sweeping changes.

Six incumbents are not seeking re-election. In addition, a state law requiring all school boards to have seven members means two of the current nine positions — one that is at-large and one sub-district — are being eliminated. And sub-district boundaries are being reconfigured.

As a result, incumbent Matthew Steven Oates, who has represented Sub-district 2 since 2015, is now in Sub-district 1 and faces a challenger: newcomer Rita Marie Cortes.

Patricia “Pattie” Mansur and Jennifer Wolfsie are the only other incumbents seeking re-election. But because they are running unopposed for at-large seats, they are automatically in and therefore not on the ballot. Wolfsie’s term will be four years, and Mansur’s will be two years.

The only other school board candidates to appear on the Kansas City Board of Election Commissioners ballot are Mark Wasserstrom and D. Jensen Adams, who are challenging each other in Sub-district 5.

Nathaniel (Nate) Hogan is uncontested in Sub-district 2, and Manuel (Manny) R. Abarca is uncontested in Sub-district 3, so neither of their names will appear on the ballot.

Kansas City school districts.jpg
Voting districts for the Kansas City school board have been reconfigured into five sub-districts. Kansas City Election Board

But in Sub-district 4, all four candidates failed to meet registration requirements, so they are running as write-in candidates. They are DeMonte Rochester, Marvia Jones, Ibrahim Ramsey and Clinton Adams.

With all seven board seats up for grabs, as many as five of the seven members could be newcomers at a time when district schools are seemingly about to turn a corner toward improving academic performance.

At a recent forum, “transition,” “accreditation” and the fight for “equity in education” were words the candidates used to describe what they expect the new school board will tackle. Unchallenged candidates did not get to speak at the event, sponsored by More2, the Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity.

Candidates talked about wanting to help the provisionally accredited district stay on course to regain full state accreditation. They fielded questions about the growing number of charter schools that have drained KCPS enrollment.

“Charter school boards are not held accountable to voters and not held accountable to how their money is spent,” said D. Jensen Adams.

Each of the candidates agreed that charters and the district need to collaborate to provide quality and equitable education.

“Partnerships with charters are critical to this community,” Cortes said. Some candidates also said the district will have to outperform charters academically to grow enrollment.

“If you have good schools and good programs, people will want their children in your schools,” said Wasserstrom. “But I think we need more than slick PR to do the job.”

Others said the district needs to improve on telling its own story. “We need to do a better job highlighting our kids,” said Rochester, one of the write-in candidates. “There is a communication gap between our community and our schools.”

All the candidates who spoke at the forum said they want to extend the contract of Superintendent Mark Bedell, who’s been with the district nearly three years.

“I interviewed, screened and hired Dr. Bedell. Of course I support him,” said Oates, adding that extending the contract should be determined by the current board. Only write-in candidate Clinton Adams thinks the new board should handle the contract extension, though he said he likes the job Bedell has done.

Candidates also said they want to see pre-K expanded in Kansas City, but most said they do not support paying for it with the 3/8-cent sales tax proposed by Mayor Sly James.

“It can be a burden on our community,” said Ramsey, who is a write-in candidate. Others expressed concern that a municipal government rather than a school district would have authority over the program.

Only Wasserstrom enthusiastically supported the pre-K tax: “Yes! Absolutely yes. Hell yes,” he said. Cortes said she supports it reluctantly because there is no alternative plan. Oates said he would like to see a plan for universal pre-K that is more equitable than what’s proposed.

Jones, a write-in candidate, agreed. “I love the idea of universal pre-K, but I believe there is a better way,” to bring it to Kansas City.

Here are all the sub-district races:

Sub-district 1

Rita Marie Cortes, 53, is executive director of the Jewish Heritage Foundation of Greater Kansas City. A member of the American Bar Association, Cortes is a board member with the Midwest Innocence Project and Truman Medical Centers and serves as a mentor with the Helzberg Entrepreneurial Mentoring Program.

Matthew Oates, 33, has served on the school board since 2015. The Kansas City native and graduate of Paseo Academy of the Fine and Performing Arts is an electrical engineer at Burns & McDonnell Engineering Inc. Awarded the 2018 Mizzou Graduate of the Last Decade (GOLD) Award from the Mizzou Alumni Association, Oates was fundraising chair for the Mizzou Black Alumni Association last year. He coaches baseball through Reviving Baseball in the Inner City and volunteers with Lead to Read.

Sub-district 2

Nathaniel (Nate) Hogan, 44, is the general manager of HealtheAthlete, a Cerner software business unit. He is the father of two grown sons. A third son, Hogan’s oldest, was shot and killed in the Kansas City area in 2014. (Running unopposed.)

Sub-district 3

Manuel (Manny) R. Abarca IV (age not available), is a Kansas City native. Abarca is a former committeeman of Kansas City’s 12th Ward and was a 2016 candidate for District 19 of the Missouri House of Representatives. Abarca has worked on several political campaigns, including U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill’s re-election campaign and Charlie Burton for state Senate in Missouri’s 31st District. (Running unopposed.)

Sub-district 4

(All write-in candidates.)

Clinton Adams, 68, is an attorney and member of the local political group Freedom Inc. He is a leader with the Urban Summit, a community relations and economic improvement group in the urban core, and he is the co-founder of the Coalition for Kansas City Economic Development Reform.

Marvia Jones, 34, is an adjunct psychology professor at Metropolitan Community College-Kansas City and a consultant for the Kansas City Health Department. She’s lived in Kansas City since 2010, with two children attending KCPS. A University of Kansas graduate, Jones is an active member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority working as a mentor for teenage girls.

Ibrahim Ramsey, 26, is vice chair of the Parent and Policy Council for Mid-America Regional Council’s Head Start (early learning program) and founded UBuildKC to recruit men of color to volunteer as mentors at Head Start centers. He’s a Kansas City native, Lincoln College Preparatory Academy graduate and former KCPS employee. Ibrahim, who has two children in the district, is a Park University alum and is a college success navigator for KC Degrees.

DeMonte Rochester, 45, is a Kansas City native who graduated from Metropolitan Technical High School, now called Manual Career & Technical Center. He is a case manager with Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) and graduated from University of Missouri in 1997 with a degree in political science. Rochester ran as a write-in candidate for school board in 2012 but was defeated.

Sub-district 5

D. Jensen Adams, 42, has children attending KCPS schools and is an advocate for special education and environmental health. He’s a former KCPS employee, managing the district’s office for energy and sustainability. Adams is a graduate of Metropolitan Community College-Kansas City and the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He is also an alum of the KC Chamber Centurions, Health Forward Foundation’s Leadership Academy and Urban League of Greater Kansas City’s Servant Leadership Program.

Mark Wasserstrom, 69, a retired Kansas City lawyer, grew up in the city and attended district schools. He was a Democratic candidate for District 43 of the Missouri House of Representatives.

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Mará has written on all things education for The Star for 20 years, including issues of school safety, teen suicide, universal pre-K programs, college costs, campus protests and university branding.