Candidates are scarce for seats on KC school board

With the future of its elected school board under fire, Kansas City mustered a scant slate of candidates at the filing deadline Tuesday.

Four seats up for election produced one contest. Two seats attracted one candidate each, and one seat drew none at all.

The low participation intensifies the uncertainties ahead for an unaccredited school district facing several campaigns to change the way schools are run in Kansas City.

Arthur Benson, the only incumbent running for re-election, said he talked to “dozens” of people, trying to recruit candidates, only to learn that the threat of a state takeover had dissuaded too many of them.

“None were interested,” he said.

Benson drew the only contest. Jon Hile, a district parent and chief operating officer of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Kansas City, also filed for the 1st Subdistrict seat.

Lyne’t C. Smith, a district parent and hairdresser, filed for the at-large seat held by board President Airick Leonard West.

Sanford Willis, who unsuccessfully sought to join the board when it was filling two vacancies in 2009, was the lone filer for the 5th Subdistrict seat, now held by Ray Wilson.

No one filed for Duane Kelly’s 3rd Subdistrict seat, even though leaders in the Hispanic community had participated in the redistricting process last year to encourage boundaries more favorable to a Hispanic candidate.

Among the incumbents who did not file, West had said all along he intended to serve just one term. Kelly determined last fall he would not run again.

Wilson, however, had gathered signatures to run again before changing his mind.

“I kept looking at my motivation and what I’d be looking forward to doing with this board,” he said. “I decided not to run.”

What a difference one election cycle makes.

Two years ago, 11 candidates filed for five open seats. Five of the candidates were waiting inside the board office’s front doors before dawn on the morning the filing period opened.

Ultimately three of the five seats were contested, with six candidates vying for two at-large seats and two for the seat representing the 4th Subdistrict.

The election played out between two slates, split over the support each pledged to Superintendent John Covington’s dramatic plan to close 40 percent of the district’s schools.

The slate that supported Covington’s plan won resoundingly, propelling the school board into what promised to be a time of common purpose with the superintendent and the community.

Covington’s sudden resignation in August scrambled everything.

Now the elected Kansas City school board begs for candidates to help save itself while various factions are lobbying lawmakers and state officials to push control of the schools into other hands.

Those are hard sells as well. Any proposal that would have anyone other than the elected school board in charge of Kansas City Public Schools any time soon will require legislative action.

Though the state board declared the district unaccredited beginning Jan. 1, current law gives the district two full school years to regain accreditation before the state has to intervene and possibly install an appointed panel.

Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro has told lawmakers the state should remove the two-year limitation and give the state school board the discretion to step in sooner or later.

Kansas City Mayor Sly James is pushing for legislation to enable mayoral control of the district.

It’s hard to say what effect the present turmoil has had on generating candidates.

Wilson said the pressure of potential state takeover did not influence his decision, but it likely turned others away.

“It didn’t faze me,” he said. “I’ve seen attempted state takeovers.” But others, he said, “may have said the heck with it.”

Nicastro created a stir last fall when she met in closed session with the board and advised them they might want to consider stepping aside voluntarily and ceding control to the state.

Board members declined to do so, saying they wouldn’t step aside without seeing an alternative proposal to turn the district around.

The board has backed the transformation plan installed during Covington’s administration that is carrying on under Interim Superintendent Steve Green. That plan was approved and supported by Nicastro and the state’s division of school improvement.

As the filing opened for Kansas City’s election, Nicastro said the best thing the board could do to help preserve its role leading the district was to have a successful election in April — comments that frustrated Benson.

“It’s nice of her to say that after she had effectively put the district out to auction,” he said.

The commissioner was at a state school board meeting Tuesday. Regarding Kansas City’s board filings, she said, through a spokeswoman, that she hopes that “the community has worked hard to identify strong candidates to lead the school district.”

School board positions are unpaid. And unlike with other area school districts, law requires candidates to gather valid signatures of registered voters — 250 for subdistrict seats and 500 for an at-large seat. The signatures still have to be verified by the Kansas City Election Board.

Hile has entered the race, he said, because there are parents like him with young children who want to see public education thrive as it navigates the precarious days ahead.

“Whoever is sitting in those seats in May is going to be part of very important discussions,” Hile said. “A person on that board is going to have to be open-minded.”

Smith got involved in district concerns when her children were attending Blenheim Elementary School. That school closed in 2009, and she moved her children to University Academy charter school.

She wants to help strengthen the school system she left for charters.

“I’m running,” she said, “because I want to be able to bring them back.”

There’s still a chance for a race in the 3rd Subdistrict, though it will require write-in candidates.