Daisy Garcia Montoya
Education reporter

On Sunday evening, community members gathered at the Show Me KC Schools space at 2201 Lexington Avenue for a school board candidate forum. The event, co-hosted by Parent Power Lab and Parent Leadership Training Institute Kansas City, provided an opportunity for voters to hear from the candidates running for school board and ask them questions about their views and priorities for the Kansas City Public School District (KCPS).

With the election just a few weeks away, the forum was a crucial moment for both the candidates and the community. As parents and community members seek to make an informed decision about who to vote for, the forum gave them the chance to get a sense of each candidate’s vision for the school district and how they plan to address the challenges facing it.

While community members settled in before the forum started, candidates took the opportunity to talk to their future constituents and pass out campaign literature. Background information on the hosts of the forum, district maps, and school board information were also available for attendees to grab. Dinner and a child area were also provided for attendees.

The forum followed a curated Q&A panel style, with Pattie Mansur, former KCPS School Board member, serving as the moderator. Participating in the forum included Jamekia Kendreix representing Sub-District 2, Joshua Jackaway at-large, and Monica Curls and Jacquada (Jay) Gray II who are both running for Sub-District 4 via write-in. Also in the audience was Phyllis Hardwick, candidate for Sub-District 3, though she did not participate in the forum given that she continues to collect signatures and the election for the district she seeks to represent is on June 20, not April 4 like the others. Sub-District 3’s seat is open after Manny Abarca resigned to serve on the Jackson County Legislature.

The Q&A kicked off with two-minute introductions from each candidate before diving into the curated questions. Each candidate answered the same five questions with a maximum of two minutes to answer. Candidates were asked about their previous experience and how they would apply it to the school board, how they understood the governance of a school board, and declining enrollment.

One of the questions touched base on candidates’ plans to close the achievement gap between different racial and ethnic minority groups.

Curls, candidate for Sub-District 4 via write-in, said that it is important to analyze the data while taking into account the effects of the pandemic.

“Judging 2019 to 2020 is very challenging because we had this little thing called a pandemic and that was devastating for our students. I noticed it with my staff and how challenging it was for them to engage with students,” Curls said. “So it’s really hard to judge a school district based on those particular years but it’s important that we are looking holistically. Like math, we can teach students 1+1=2, but what is happening in the background that may be preventing them from learning.”

Gray II, also candidate for Sub-District 4 write-in, says that the achievement gap can spread beyond the K-12 years and can impact higher education outcomes.

“We can set goals and priorities. I agree, I believe we need some type of help, mental, emotional and social help,” Gray II. “I worked at Central High School and I lost three students while I worked there. So imagine the other students who are losing their friends and they’re not currently a lot of things in place on the district side to help support the additional emotional and mental assistance.”

Kendrix, candidate for Sub-District 2 recalls an experience she had with one of her students that began to act on in her classrooms.

“What I say we can do is to actually start listening to those who are closest to the students,” Kendrix said. “We can actually raise the parent’s voice, we can raise the teacher’s voice because what happens to these kids in the classroom isn’t just what happens in their test, it’s what’s happening at home and in the classroom.”

Jackaway, candidate at large, believes that in order to close the achievement gap between racial and minority groups, investing money into resources for teachers is important.

“Few of the things we’re doing in the district right now that are critical around this is putting dollars and cents around resourcing culturally responsive teaching,” Jackaway said. “Making sure that children are educated in environments that are conducive to their backgrounds and experiences.”

Both Kendrix (Sub-District 2) and Jackaway (at large) will be automatically seated due to being the only candidates to meet the requirements to appear on the ballot for each race.

After the first five questions, three questions from the audience were asked including: “What is your plan to deal with the high expulsion rate of Black males in schools?” “How engaged have you been with the Latinx and immigrant communities?” and “What are the biggest challenges you see facing the school board moving forward and where are the opportunities?”

All candidates received the opportunity to answer the questions before the forum concluded, after which candidates took the time to further engage with attendees and encourage voting.

Director of Programs and Events at Show Me KC Schools Nina Ward said public forums like these are important because oftentimes families are not given a space to meet board members.

“I think KCPS is doing a better job of making sure that board members are engaged in the community,” Ward said. “We want to make sure that we’re continuing to amplify that and provide other spaces for families in the community to get connected to those potential board candidates, before they even make it on the board.”

One of the attendees, Travanna Alexander, a KCPS employee and parent, said that for her, it was important to learn about the candidates beyond their campaign literature and see how they respond under stressful questions, as well as how they interact with one another.

“Having an opportunity to engage with them in-person, ask questions that we may not get otherwise a chance to, is very important and to see how they engage with each other,” Alexander said. “There’s nothing worse than having a board that can’t work together and there’s no collaboration and cohesion. You want to see if the thinking is aligned because that’s going to be important in moving initiatives forward.”

Elections for Sub District 2, 4, and At-Large will take place on April 4th while the Sub District 3 election will be on June 20th. For more information visit: kcpublicschools.org/about/board-of-directors