By Tracy Allen
Unlike past years when concerns about who would make a strong candidate to help a struggling district seeking answers to declining enrollment, school board strife, parental apathy, charter school competition and the accreditation cycle, the Kansas City Public Schools are seeing some improvements.
But that doesn’t mean the marginal improvements are causing some to overlook the continual problems that plague the urban district.
Tuesday, April 6, voters will decide on two KCPS board of director spots that are being contested.
Voters will decide who will serve a four-year term that expires in 2025, for Sub-District 5 and an At-Large seat.
While voters will still have the chance to vote in for the Sub-District 1 and Sub-District 3 seats, both candidates, who are incumbents – Rita Marie Cortes (Sub-District 1) and Manuel (Manny) Abarca IV, will be running unopposed. Cortes is currently Executive Director of the Menorah Heritage Foundation.
Abarca currently serves as the Board’s Treasurer. Abarca has been a board member since 2019. Abarca, who has served as U.S. Congressman Emanuel Cleaver’s Deputy District Director, is a familiar face among those residing in Northeast Kansas City and Westside neighborhoods.
The key races most voters will decide involves Sub-District 5, which pits Kandace Buckner against Bruce Beatty. Competing for the lone At-Large seat is incumbent Patricia Mansur and Tanesha Ford.
Kandace Buckner is a former elementary school teacher and instructional designer with the Kansas City Teacher Residency. Her motivation for serving is simple: she’s a parent of a small child who will be attending a district school this fall. Buckner believes the district must work hard to stop whatever is causing families to seek nearby suburban schools at Center, Hickman Mills and Grandview. She’s also concerned about families who may be challenged financially but want to stay near district boundaries, thus attending a neighborhood charter school. “I absolutely know that it is pulling money away from the district in that way,” Buckner says. She thinks the district should work with the charter schools that are here and move forward in a strategic, not divisive, manner. She’s against expanding charters and is absolutely against vouchers. Regarding the district’s push to get back full accreditation, Buckner believes more emphasis should be placed on equity in student achievement than on full status.
Patricia Mansur, who serves as director of Health Policy and Communications for the REACH Foundation, is no stranger to KC Public Schools. She’s been a board member since 2014, has chaired the board since 2019, and her children graduated from KCPS. While many blame public schools for academic under-achievement, she strongly advocates for public school systems nationwide instead of the charter movement, which she says moves money away from public education. She believes the district has spent more money on “operations than education,” straining the budget and slowing educational needs. She feels “very good” that KCPS is meeting the target areas needed to regain full accreditation status, and sees major improvement in governance, which she believes shows stability. She also notes graduation rates have jumped from 68% to 75% and college readiness has improved. Mansur recognizes that eight of 34 KCPS buildings still are underachieving, adding, “It’s hard to get accreditation. But once you get it, it’s hard to lose it. And we’ve seen it among some of our peer schools.”
Bruce Beatty, a 1982 Southeast High School grad and a Rockhurst University grad, is running for the Subdistrict 5 director job. Now retired, he formerly worked at City Hall in the City Manager’s office and the Finance Department. He is optimistic that the district has implemented enough tools to reach its primary goal–gaining full accreditation. He says they are close, but the state keeps moving the mark. “So when the school district is about to hit it, they change the formula to how they get scored. Right now, they have changed it where attendance is starting to score higher than the other scores to get to that accreditation.” Beatty is concerned with mobility rates in the district. He knows there is always a possibility of families seeking solutions in charter programming and private schools, which have benefited from state vouchers. “Anything that takes money away from the public schools, it’s really hard to support that,” Beatty states. “KCPS has to make sure (students) get to school. Charters don’t have that. If they make it to school, great. But those charters have the option of not allowing you to come back. KCPS doesn’t get that. We have to educate everybody.” He believes there should be a moratorium placed on charters in Jefferson City.
Tanesha Ford, who works as executive director of Kauffman Scholars, is quite familiar with the needs of KCPS since the Kauffman group has been heavily involved in stressing student achievement among some of the district’s brightest stars. Without hesitancy, she says she believes the district has improved its potential, particularly with the hiring of Mark Bedell as superintendent five years ago. Ford says Kansas City already has a vast number of charter schools but doesn’t believe that should be a divisive factor when it comes to education and student achievement. The district is still partially accredited and Ford believes that should be the focus for board members, rather than charters or vouchers, which she opposes. She acknowledges that a plethora of charters leads to a plethora of low-performing schools. “It can also lead to competition,” she says. She worries there may be more focus on saving a model than on serving the student. Student achievement must be a priority over whether families are considering options outside the current district they reside in, she says.