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K.C. Chief Suspended Over Expenses and Leave

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The Kansas City, Mo., school board has suspended Superintendent Walter L. Marks after questioning his travel expenses and medical leave.

Several board members expressed strong reservations last week about allowing Mr. Marks to return to his job.

But Mr. Marks, who took medical leave in December and has spent much of his time since then in Florida, said last week in a telephone interview: "I have every plan to go back to work in Kansas City."

In voting overwhelmingly this month to suspend Mr. Marks with pay, the school board cited an internal audit that challenged more than $11,000 in travel expenses claimed by the superintendent over the past four years.

The board also has questioned the superintendent's medical leave. Mr. Marks had said he needed to take the leave because of a chronic back problem and should not even take phone calls. But a Kansas City television station, KCTV, followed him to Port Charlotte, Fla., and filmed him lifting heavy objects at his home and his wife's office there.

Mr. Marks said last week that he had taken medical leave mainly because of work-related stress and that his back problem was arthritis-related and not the sort of condition that precluded heavy lifting. His contract allows him to take the time off, he said.

The school board, however, has told Mr. Marks that he must undergo a new evaluation of his medical and emotional condition and submit the results before he can return to work. Under the terms of his suspension, Mr. Marks is forbidden to talk to district employees.

Earlier Troubles

This episode is the latest chapter in the troubled career of Mr. Marks, who, despite having established a reputation as a strong and innovative leader, has been forced out of other superintendent posts by accusations of fiscal mismanagement. (See Education Week, May 22, 1991.)

The Richmond, Calif., school district needed a $19 million state bailout in 1991 because of the massive debt it had racked up with Mr. Marks at the helm.

The district's financial troubles drew so much negative attention that it changed its name to West Contra Costa~. It remains one of the state's most financially troubled districts. (See Education Week, Jan. 11, 1995.)

The Kansas City school board hired Mr. Marks four years ago at an annual salary of $140,000 after he was ousted from the California district.

The Kansas City district had undertaken the nation's most expensive district-desegregation plan, and Mr. Marks had expertise in magnet schools--a central element of the plan.

One current school board member, Terry Hamilton-Poore, praised Mr. Marks last week as "a visionary" and said "he was very creative in terms of coming up with new ways of implementing things." But he was not "a hands-on manager at all--that part was delegated to staff," she said.

Only one of the nine board members who hired Mr. Marks is still in office. Mr. Marks contended last week that most of the new members do not share his philosophy about running the district, and that at least one is "quite belligerent" to him.

Last August, Edward J. Newsome, one of Mr. Marks's harshest critics on the board, began to question the superintendent's travel expenses. Mr. Marks called some of the questions inappropriate and asked whether the time had come for him to move on. About that time, construction began on his house in Florida.

In December, the superintendent, whose contract was due to expire in June 1996, announced that he planned to retire early and leave his post by the late fall of 1995. He also told the board that he had been advised to take a medical leave of six to eight weeks for a chronic back problem and that his condition was so severe that he needed rest and was not supposed to take phone calls.

'Disillusioned, Disappointed'

Mr. Marks went to Florida and did not attend oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court last month in the district's desegregation case, in which Missouri officials are disputing their obligation to continue paying for the elaborate desegregation plan. (See Education Week, Jan. 18, 1995.)

On Jan. 24, a KCTV news broadcast said the station had sent a crew to Florida and filmed Mr. Marks lifting heavy boxes, furniture, and lumber as he helped his wife move into her consulting firm's new office and working around the site of his new home. He was shown using a cane only during a return trip to Kansas City.

At its Feb. 1 meeting, the school board received an internal audit that concluded that Mr. Marks had questionable travel expenses and had taken out a $5,400 long-term travel advance for no specific purpose, in apparent violation of district policy.

Mr. Marks last week called the audit findings fairly typical for that kind of records check and said he would be able to explain any discrepancies. "There are areas where they owe me and areas where I owe them," he said.

The board suspended him nonetheless and has started a search for his successor.

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