June 29, 2023, update: Robert Sagastume joined the Kansas City Public Schools board during its June 28 meeting. Official election results show that he won a write-in campaign for the Subdistrict 3 seat with 433 votes compared to 263 for Spark Bookhart.
Voters in Subdistrict 3, the northernmost part of the Kansas City Public Schools district, will have to write in their preferred candidate to replace former school board member Manny Abarca. No candidate gathered enough signatures to appear on the ballot.
Voters can name whoever they want for the June 20 election, but two candidates are explicitly seeking the role — Spark Bookhart, who trains parents to influence public education through the Parent Power Lab, and Robert Sagastume, a senior student adviser with the Hispanic Development Fund.
The subdistrict’s eastern regions are mostly north of Independence Avenue, while west of Charlotte Street it dips as far south as 31st Street.
The district covers some parts of the historic northeast, where residents strongly opposed proposed school closures.
Spark Bookhart’s job is to get people involved in public education.
When he was asked to consider a write-in campaign for the school board, he thought it would be hypocritical to refuse.
“You can’t ask people to be engaged in education and when you’re asked to engage at a deeper level, you say no,” he said.
Bookhart is the convener of the Parent Power Lab, a nonprofit that uses community organizing techniques to train parents to speak up about public education. He is also the parent of an adult child who graduated from KCPS and three school-age children who attend a Kansas City charter school.
Community members say Bookhart’s experience engaging families and his deep knowledge of Kansas City education make him a strong candidate.
Bookhart understands the daily experiences of Black and brown parents, said Jillian RainingBird-Minme — a parent of three children, including a current KCPS student. There’s a narrative that those parents “really don’t care about their children’s education, and he knows that that’s incorrect,” she said.
Cokethea Hill founded Blaque KC, which focuses on improving outcomes for Black children in public schools. She said parents want to see honesty, transparency and a focus on students’ needs.
She called Bookhart a “great candidate” because of his family and work experience.
“We talk about safety and how we should build relationship and trust. Spark has experience doing that,” Hill said. “We do need more dads to be involved in education, particularly Black men.”
Bookhart understands the specific skills needed to advocate and create policy in a board setting, said Julie Holland, founder and director of the Parent Leadership Training Institute and a parent of a KCPS student.
Holland suggested Bookhart could be “that bridge between administration and parents and really understanding, how do we make sure that parents feel connected, supported and included in the policymaking?”
KCPS hasn’t always listened to parents, Bookhart said.
He criticized KCPS’ process for discussing school closures in 2022 and 2023, which ended in a decision to close two schools instead of the 10 originally proposed.
He thinks the district also goes astray when leaders ignore the history of “race, place and money” in Kansas City.
Several community members described Bookhart’s deep knowledge of KCPS’ past — the fallout of the district’s desegregation case, the decades-long failure to pass a bond, and the impact of school closures — as one of his strengths.
“You can’t fix anything or you can’t move forward without knowing the history,” RainingBird-Minme said.
Laura Sanchez, a parent of a Kansas City charter school student, appreciated the historical perspective when she participated in a parent organizing program through Parent Power Lab. She now works as a parent organizer for the nonprofit.
Sanchez said the district’s decisions affect everyone whether or not they have a KCPS student.
“There’s a reason why parents are choosing charter schools over Kansas City Public Schools, and I feel like we need leaders on the board that will bring that trust back and will build those relationships back with community members, parents, even teachers,” she said.
Bookhart said school board members should be involved in deep conversation within their subdistrict and create forums to listen to families beyond the brief public comments at board meetings.
“I think the main function of a board, outside of the confines of district governance and fiduciary responsibility for the district, is to engage the community that put them there,” Bookhart said. “They’re not there to be the seven smartest people in the room, but they are there to make sure that as many voices (as possible) are heard to inform their decisions.”
Robert Sagastume helps students navigate college applications and costs at East High School and Lincoln Preparatory Academy.
Sagastume moved to Independence from Honduras at age 12. He dreamed of becoming an immigration attorney, but that plan was interrupted when he found out that he was undocumented.
“It was a really dark moment in my life because I remember I wanted to make my mom proud,” Sagastume said. “Just thinking about all the sacrifices she made as a single mother, just the thought of not being able to go to college, it crushed me.”
Instead of college, Sagastume began organizing with the Kansas/Missouri DREAM Alliance to push for immigration policy change in Jefferson City. Eventually, he completed his degree after institution of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, commonly known as DACA.
Sagastume now wants to put those experiences into practice on the KCPS board.
“I wanted to step up and be able to center the voices of the students,” Sagastume said. “Can I bring some attention to some of the things that might be put aside when it comes to students who are holding all their identities?”
Sagastume said he hopes to ensure the school board is working equitably to serve students from a variety of backgrounds. He said one way to do that is by meeting students’ basic needs, like food insecurity, so they can succeed in the classroom.
He also said the school district could boost its dwindling enrollment by reducing barriers to students attending school. While working at local high schools, he has seen new students arrive from different countries and not be able to enroll because they don’t have a complete record of vaccinations.
The district could also bring in a health care provider to administer vaccines and educate parents about why they are needed, Sagastume said.
“We need to be addressing very small things that we’re not thinking of,” Sagastume said. “How we can… make sure the students are in the building, instead of sending them back home.”
Sagastume said the school district could step up engagement by going directly into communities and interacting face-to-face with families.
Sagastume says his background can help him do that.
“I look at the board, and I don’t see myself in the board,” Sagastume said. “I’m someone who speaks a different language, someone who could potentially talk to parents in their native language.”
Rick Behrens, the pastor at Grandview Park Presbyterian Church, said he has known Sagastume for more than a decade. He said Kansas City area schools struggle to help students who are English-language learners navigate the education system.
“That’s one place in particular that I think Robert will make a big difference for the Kansas City, Missouri, school district because he knows the struggle,” Behrens said. “I know that he will be responsive and representative for those families that absolutely need that extra help.”
Omar Lopez, a longtime Westside resident, said he began helping Sagastume campaign after they met a few weeks ago and bonded over their Honduran heritage.
Lopez said his neighborhood has many Spanish-speaking parents who care about their children but can’t communicate with the board in their native language.
“He has a lot of great context to help out kids, not just here on the Westside, but even the northeast, east side area, children that have been going through this situation,” Lopez said.
As a former activist, Sagastume said seeing parents pour into the meetings about school closures sparked a fuse in him. He said he understands the data driving the district’s proposed school closures, but doesn’t support closing any of them.
“Data without the voices of our community doesn’t do anything. We need to make sure that we are also listening up and uplifting the voices of our communities,” Sagastume said. “If we’re not talking to our parents and students, we’re not really thinking about the mental and well-being impact.”
This story was produced through a collaboration between The Beacon and KCUR, 89.3 FM, powered by the Kansas City Media Collective.
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