Just two names make ballot for KC school board election

Two candidates for the Kansas City school board were disqualified Monday, meaning three out of the four races in April will now need write-in candidates.

The news came as a relief to those trying to preserve the elected board because it gives them a second chance to encourage people to run for office.

It’s wide open now.

Lyne’t C. Smith, who had filed for an at-large seat, did not provide enough valid signatures, the Kansas City Election Board determined. And Sanford J. Willis, who had filed for the 5th Subdistrict, is not a qualified registered voter, the board said.

They had been the only candidates to file in those races and would have taken office without an election had their petitions been valid.

Instead, those races join the 3rd Subdistrict as having no candidates.

The election board confirmed the two candidates in the 1st Subdistrict, incumbent Arthur Benson and Jon Hile. Theirs will be the only names printed on the April 3 ballot, which the school board certified Monday night.

Board members see a chance for more candidates because efforts to dissolve the elected board are encountering stiff challenges, and write-in candidates won’t have to go through the onerous task of collecting petition signatures.

Board member Duane Kelly, who did not file for re-election, said Monday that he would now run as a write-in candidate. Kelly had said he was retiring. Fellow incumbents Airick Leonard West and Ray Wilson also did not file.

The Kansas City school board has been awash in uncertainty ever since the state school board decided last fall that Kansas City Public Schools would lose accreditation Jan. 1.

It was hard to sway people to go through the trial of running for office, said West, the board president, because so many people did not think the institution of the elected board would survive.

Candace Koba, who dropped plans to run for the board, feared the weight of mounting district turmoil on her family.

“I decided I’m not putting my family through the political drama,” she said.

Smith, who said she would now run as a write-in candidate for the open at-large seat, said she encountered constant misunderstanding and disappointment among people as she canvassed for petition signatures.

“People did not want to sign because they thought the board had been dissolved, or because they wanted it to be dissolved,” she said.

But don’t count the elected board out yet.

The reality of the legislative and legal processes needed to dismantle the elected board increasingly bode that the current school board may be overseeing the schools for the foreseeable future. West is hoping for more traction getting write-in candidates.

“Public education requires leadership,” West said. “Nothing’s changed. That’s a need that will always be there.”

Even those who want the school board to yield to state intervention agree on that much, said Mark Jorgenson, chairman of the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City. The election needs a strong field of candidates.

“If we’re going to have the status quo,” Jorgenson said, “let’s make it the best we can for the children of the district.”

The Civic Council has advocated for immediate change in how the district is run, supporting ideas for appointed boards such as through state intervention or mayoral control.

“But there is a lot of political noise around this and it’s difficult to project what things will look like,” Jorgenson said.

As the law stands, the school district has two full school years — or until June 30, 2014 — to regain accreditation before the state could intervene and possibly dissolve the board.

Changing the law promises to be difficult. History and the current mood in Jefferson City suggest that education bills in play in the legislature are in for a hard ride if any are to become law.

Some measures seek to give the state school board discretion to intervene at any time once a district has been declared unaccredited.

Kansas City Mayor Sly James is supporting legislation that would dissolve the board and turn the schools over to mayoral control.

Other bills propose a process for the state to contract with neighboring districts to operate Kansas City schools, or to help smooth already-existing law that allows petitioners to seek boundary change elections between districts.

But backers of broader reform ideas — such as open enrollment, charter school expansion and vouchers — have declared their intent to press those issues with any education bills. Past bills caught in these battles have stalled in a divided legislature.

“I am hopeful,” Benson said, “that when the dust settles from the legislative session, there will still be local leadership by a locally elected school board.”

Benson said he already has had discussions with people that give him confidence that at least one strong candidate will emerge in each of the three write-in races.

The Kansas City school board is the only area district where state law requires candidates to submit signatures. Candidates must gather at least 250 signatures of registered voters for subdistrict races and 500 for at-large races.

Benson, who originally came into office as a write-in candidate four years ago, successfully completed the signature process this time, and it is not easy, he said.

In 2008, when the board had to fill two vacant positions by appointment without any petition requirement, 26 people applied.

While candidates won’t need to gather signatures, they will need to meet all of the qualifications of the office, such as being a registered voter living in the appropriate district and being at least 25 years old.

Hile, who is running against Benson, shares his hope that plenty of candidates will step into the fray. The schools need the public debate that comes from vigorous elections, he said.

“It’s important,” Hile said, “that people participate in this political process.”