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East High Class Gathers KC Mayoral Hopefuls For Debate

The crowded field of Kansas City, Missouri, mayoral candidates gathered at East High School on Wednesday for a student-led debate. (Craig Smith | Flatland)

The idea seemed far-fetched when it was first suggested in October to East High School teacher Katharine Perna.

What if her multiculturalism and social justice class could persuade the nine leading mayoral candidates to answer questions, in person, crafted by the students themselves?

On Wednesday night, before an audience of about 150 people in the school auditorium, that idea became a reality with a nearly two-hour question-and-answer session.

Each candidate had a set amount of time to respond to questions covering economic development, teen homelessness, recreational opportunities, police training and accountability, and education funding.

“It was wonderful,” said class member Zamirah Felton, a 17-year-old senior. “The vibe I got from them was good. It was not like, ‘Oh, I have no choice but to be here.’ It was like, ‘I want to be here. I want to hear what the students have to say.’”

To get started with the project, the class identified issues by watching a local documentary about the city, “We Are Superman: The Transformation of 31st and Troost.”

The students narrowed 15 initial topics to seven questions. They added an eighth about city cleanup efforts after the post-Thanksgiving snow storm resulted in three cancelled school days.

Perna was disappointed that time constraints allowed for just five of the questions to be asked, but overall she was pleased.

“The candidates did a really good job answering the questions,” she said, “and the kids did an excellent job asking them.”

Besides the snow-removal question, students had also hoped to ask about the treatment of undocumented immigrants and housing assistance for low-income families.

The candidates at the forum were city councilmembers Scott Wagner, Scott Taylor, Quinton Lucas, Jermaine Reed, Jolie Justus and Alissia Canady. They shared the stage with attorney Steve Miller, businessman Phil Glynn, and businesswoman Rita Barry.

The mayoral primary is April 2, and the general election is June 18.

Here are some of the topics the candidates did have a chance to address:

  • Economic development: Candidates discussed listening to what the community says it wants and boosting the fortunes of small businesses. Justus pointed to a need for “equity of mobility” and of ensuring that all area residents live within a safe,10-minute walk to a park.
  • Recreation opportunities: The discussion centered on better utilization of existing facilities, such as schools and community centers, to increase offerings.
  • Police training: An overriding sentiment was recruiting and retaining more minority police officers and ensuring that all officers are trained to understand and respect different cultures.
  • Education funding: With the question focused on how tax breaks for business development diverts money from the school district, the candidates agreed that all these proposals must be scrutinized carefully and evaluated with the best interests of students in mind.

Junior Benoit Bilombele, 16, was one of the students who was barred by time from asking a planned question. He was happy with the outcome nonetheless.

“Tonight was a really meaningful debate, not just to this school,” he said, “but to all the people who live east of Troost.”

Felton and some of the other students were especially moved by responses to the question about reducing teen homelessness.

Here’s what the candidates had to say on that topic:

  • Wagner pledged to restart regional discussions between key players, including government agencies and nonprofits, that were aimed at addressing the problem. The effort, initiated two years ago, ended earlier this year when funding dried up.
  • Taylor talked about replicating the success he had in the Waldo neighborhood with helping to establish an apartment complex for kids who had aged out of foster care.
  • Reed reflected on his own experience about being evicted with his family three days after Christmas while he was growing up around East High. He called for more federal investment in community development on the east side.
  • Miller said he would work with social service providers to ensure they maximized existing public and private resources.
  • Lucas said his emphasis would be on keeping people in their homes and addressing mental health problems that can lead to homelessness.
  • Justus promised to work on making free legal assistance available at schools to help families facing housing problems.
  • Glynn said the key was working with neighborhood leaders to provide more jobs and housing options.
  • Canady discussed the need to help kids deal with dysfunctional family situations that can lead to homelessness.
  • Barry advocated for more safe housing options throughout the city for homeless youth.

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