School & District Management

Embattled Kansas City Schools Chief Resigns

By Robert C. Johnston — May 02, 2001 4 min read
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It wasn’t clear last week if the dust had settled in Kansas City, Mo., or was getting ready to kick up again. In less than a week, the city’s superintendent of schools, Benjamin Demps Jr., was fired—and then reinstated by a federal judge—before resigning April 23 with six of his top aides.

The upheaval came just as 17,000 students in the district began taking the state exams that will determine whether the 30,000-student system regains the state accreditation it lost in 1999.

State legislators, meanwhile, are talking about reviving a bill killed earlier this year that sought an immediate state takeover of the school system. Under current Missouri law, Kansas City has until June of next year to gain accreditation or face an automatic takeover.

“Yes, there is reluctance to [impose] a takeover, but we’re being pushed and pushed to the point where something must occur,” said state Rep. Dick Franklin, the Democrat who chairs the House education committee. “It’s not fair to do what we’re doing to 30,000 students and call it an education.”

Threats of state action were tempered last week, however, when other state lawmakers warned that state intervention could lead to racial unrest.

It did not appear that anything definitive would happen before April 27—the date set by U.S. District Judge Dean Whipple, who is overseeing the district’s 24-year old desegregation case, to meet with the Kansas City school board to discuss the district and its decision to fire Mr. Demps.

The district has been trying to end court oversight of its desegregation efforts, which have cost more than $2 billion. (“Judge Overrules Board in K.C. On Firing Demps,” April 25, 2001.)

As part of his April 19 order to reinstate Mr. Demps, Judge Whipple also barred the school board from taking administrative action before last week’s meeting. He rescinded the order after Mr. Demps resigned.

“I know it’s [Judge Whipple’s] right to know cause for our action,” school board member Elma Warrick said. “But I’m sure the board operated within its authority, which is to hire and fire superintendents.”

Bad Timing

Mr. Demps, a former federal aviation official with no previous experience in school administration, joined the district 20 months ago. He was the district’s 19th chief in 30 years. He and the board had been renegotiating his contract, which was set to expire in June.

After Mr. Demps skipped an April 18 mediation session, the school board called an emergency meeting at which five of the members voted to fire him. Four other members left the meeting, arguing that not enough public notice had been given.

One of them, Patricia Kurtz, a high school teacher, filed a lawsuit to that effect on April 19. After a short-lived period of calm over the weekend of April 21-22, Mr. Demps resigned on Monday of last week.

Six of the district’s other senior officials, including the district’s main liaison to the state on accreditation issues, followed with their own resignation letters.

Mr. Demps could not be reached for comment last week. But associates said he could no longer work with the school board, which he has accused of micromanagement. Mr. Demps angered board members earlier this year by urging that a state takeover proceed sooner rather than later.

A district administrator, Bernard Taylor, has been named the acting superintendent.

State officials expressed doubt last week about future relations with the city’s schools.

If Kansas City does not raise test scores to meet accreditation standards by next year, the state school board could name a three-member panel to run the district, divide it up among neighboring districts, or split it into new districts.

“The timing of this explosion is less than ideal,” said James L. Morris, the spokesman for the Missouri education department. “Our working relationship with the district has become more positive in 20 months than ever. We hope we don’t lose what we’ve gained.”

But Ms. Warrick, the Kansas City school board member, said she was not concerned about the central-office departures, and added that Mr. Demps’ top-down management style had alienated many teachers and principals.

“Many of the persons who walked out, first of all, were not educators,” Ms. Warrick said. “And in many ways, they were seen as part of Mr. Demps’ efforts to bloat bureaucracy.”

Leaders in the city’s African-American community, who had found themselves at odds with Mr. Demps over his backing of a state takeover, were standing behind the district board last week.

Gwen Grant, the president of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City, said she was more worried about the court’s interference with the board’s authority than with board members’ actions.

“I find it curious that after being reinstated and saying he was for the children, he leaves,” she added of Mr. Demps’ resignation. “I’m confused by his behavior.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 02, 2001 edition of Education Week as Embattled Kansas City Schools Chief Resigns

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