Over the past few years, state legislator Valdenia Winn has been a central force behind a shift in direction for the Kansas City, Kansas, school board. From her perspective, the push for transparency and firmer board oversight of the district was overdue. But critics contend the transition has created divisiveness in a system already facing down significant challenges. This fall, KCK voters will get to weigh in on the district’s route going forward.

On June 26, 2018, the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools Board of Education did something it had not done in more than two decades: hired a superintendent from outside the school district.

The decision, announced at a packed meeting at the district’s administrative building, was greeted with a smattering of boos. Some people groaned.

Many in the audience that day favored Deputy Superintendent Jayson Strickland, a graduate of Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools who served under Superintendent Cynthia Lane. Strickland, they believed, understood the community and its needs. He was a man who would build on a foundation of reforms advanced by Lane and her predecessors, and likely follow her example as a statewide leader in the school finance battle. (Lane had been a visible figure in the coalition of school districts that successfully sued the state and prompted the Kansas Legislature to increase public school aid.)

But the board opted to change direction. On a 5-2 vote, it selected North Carolina native Charles Foust, the only other candidate whose name had been made public. Foust had recently served as the chief school performance officer for Union County Public Schools in North Carolina. Before that, he was credited with leading a successful turnaround effort while principal of a Houston middle school. He fit the bill to lead this district of 22,000 students, the state’s fifth largest – and its poorest.

In the 16 months since Foust’s hire, district watchdogs and community leaders have not forgotten the boos. Of the 11 candidates vying for four seats on the board in the Nov. 5 general election, several are saying the board’s decision underscored a trend of not listening to the community and revealed a divisiveness that threatens to thwart progress. They want to correct that.

“Sometimes people feel like their voices aren’t valued at the table,” says candidate Randy Lopez, who supported Strickland. “We need to do a better job overall of making sure we’re listening.”

Candidate Gary Bradley-Lopez, no relation, agrees. For him, the issues go beyond Foust’s hire. They have to do with fostering transparency, improving communication with patrons, building consensus and not micromanaging the administration or challenging it on every dime it spends.

“I just want a school board that supports this community, its students and teachers, and the superintendent,” Bradley-Lopez says. “That goes with working with all the other members to get on the same page, and that any disagreements we have aren’t used to divide us.”

These words may not qualify as harsh campaign rhetoric, especially in today’s political environment. But in Kansas City, Kansas, they mark a change for a school district that has, until recently, served as an example of political comity. Here, a board race is usually a tame affair, nothing like the blood sport that has defined politics in the city’s other jurisdictions.

Unpeeling the Onion

Enter Valdenia Winn. In 2015, the long-serving Democratic state representative and community college professor ran for and was elected to one of four seats on the school board. State statutes allow for dual office holders in certain elective positions. Winn believed her experience as a legislator would serve the district well.

She certainly had been willing to speak her mind, most notably during a 2015 legislative debate over repealing a law that allowed children of illegal immigrants to pay resident tuition to attend Kansas universities. She derided the proposal as racist and fear-mongering and contended the bill was being supported by “racist bigots.” The comments landed her in hot water with House Republicans who said they were out of line, but an attempt to censure her was ultimately dismissed at a hearing in which her supporters overflowed the room.

Once on the board, little time passed before Winn introduced a new tone and approach to board governance.

She started by asking questions – questions about student performance measurements, hiring practices, and a lack of ethnic and racial diversity among teachers and administrators. Questions about expenses large and small, even those that district policy gave administrators discretion to make, such as food for meetings.

“Once I get to the district, I’m unpeeling that onion,” said Winn, who is seeking reelection to the board. The center of that onion revealed something that troubled her. “Past boards rubber-stamped practically every decision. Members were not questioning expenditures.”

Winn says her questions are designed to promote transparency and accountability. “As an academic, as a legislator and as a board member, clarity is a key. Now if you present a report that is not clear, I’m going to ask for clarity.”

The union representing the district, NEA-KCK, says it welcomed Winn’s questions and has given her its endorsement. It has also endorsed Lopez, Bradley-Lopez and Janey Humphries, the only other incumbent actively running for reelection.

NEA-KCK President Jen Holt says of Winn: “She has brought together a high level of transparency to the board.”

But Winn’s critics argue that her questions cross the line from holding administrators accountable to creating an environment where they are constantly under investigation and micromanaged. They argue that Winn’s presence has created a toxic environment that undermines work the district has done to improve graduation rates and earn national recognition.

Sally Murguia is among them. A retired lawyer who served on a committee that made recommendations for a $235 million bond issue that voters approved in 2016, Murguia has donated to Humphries’ campaign and is volunteering for Lopez’s. She’s also a school volunteer whose two children graduated from the district. She does not fault Winn for asking questions. “But the atmosphere around her questions is critical and negative,” she says.

An example Murguia cites: In spring 2018, Winn pushed to retain a consultant for an audit on the district’s hiring practices. She secured the agreement with a firm, Corporate Integrity Systems, without first consulting the board, which nevertheless approved a deal to pay up to $85,000 for the audit. Soon after, an article in The Pitch revealed that the firm’s owner, Carla Barksdale, had come under fire for charging Kansas City (Missouri) Public Schools fees that were out of proportion to the work she performed.

At a later board meeting, Humphries moved to rescind the contract with Barksdale’s firm. She argued that the deal was vague, failed to receive a full review from the board and would give the firm access to confidential personnel information. Her effort failed.

This past August, the district finally released the 15-page audit. Among other things, it concluded that the superintendent’s office had complied with the board’s hiring and recruitment policies, but recommended changing those policies, including specifying where to recruit for diverse candidates. The audit also echoed Winn’s concern that too much governing power resides with the superintendent and that the board is not supposed to be a “rubber stamp.”

“The Board’s authority to govern KCKPS,” it says, “must be taken from the superintendent and given back to the Board.”

As August came to a close, the board had not yet discussed or acted on the recommendations.

Still, the audit troubles Murguia. “The board,” she says, “is supposed to delegate authority to the administration and maintain a relationship where they can trust the person they hired to carry out the job, rather than constantly trying to do the job for the superintendent.”

A Big Change

Between 1997 and 2017, the district employed just three superintendents: Ray Daniels, Jill Shackelford and Lane. Each one had come up from the district’s ranks. In 2018 alone, it had four, including Lane.

The quick succession of leaders that year reflects the shift the board made from governing as policymakers to governing more as managers.

In the years before 2018, Daniels, Shackelford and Lane largely received strong support from board members, including the late Gloria Willis, who served as president for much of that time. Willis took a firm but steady approach, working to build consensus among the board and with the administration. Those boards, as well as the current board, face the unique challenge of setting policy for the state’s poorest district, where more than 50% of students speak English as a second language and 86% receive free or reduced-price meals.

The reforms pursued in those two decades attempted to address these issues. In the late 1990s, the district launched First Things First, which placed a special emphasis on building positive relationships with students in the classroom and received the National Association of School Boards Magna award.

Under Lane’s leadership, the association gave the district an “Honorary Magna” for its Diploma Plus program. Launched in 2012, Diploma Plus encourages students to graduate with not only a high school diploma but a clear path toward college or a career in the trades. When the class of 2018 graduated, 46% had either completed a year’s worth of college education, scored 21 or higher on the ACT, or received an industry-recognized credential in a trade.

Murguia says that strong board and administrative leadership and a board that largely eschewed politics made progress possible. Graduation rates appear to bear that out. From the class of 2010 to the class of 2018, the district’s graduation rate has climbed steadily from 59.7% to 73.8%.

“I felt like the district was on a long trajectory of improvement dating to the First Things First,” Murguia says. “It was a kind of we’re-all-on-the-same-team collaboration between the community, the business community, the district administration and the school board.”

In 2018, the board experienced a big change. Winn led the charge. Critical of what she saw as a board that embraced the status quo, and believing the district had failed to significantly boost student performance, she recruited three candidates to run. All three won: Maxine Drew, Harold Brown and Wanda Paige. A fourth, Stacy Yeager, ran on her own. With a solid voting bloc in place, Winn persuaded the board to adopt the contract with Barksdale’s firm and to hire Foust. Later that year, it selected Winn as president.

Winn said that her candidates’ success reflected the voters’ desire for transparency and accountability. “The community is now aware,” she says. “There’s a greater awareness of how much tax dollars go to the schools and the fact that parents and community can engage. In the past, they weren’t welcome to engage.”

And Winn saw herself as engaging on their behalf. But that engagement ran into trouble soon after Lane retired in June. That’s when Julia Ford, serving as interim superintendent, abruptly resigned less than a month into the job.

Her reason, she told The Kansas City Star, was the board’s “unreasonable” expectation that she quickly supply information about the demographics for all the district’s certified and classified employees. That was on top of Winn’s request to hold a behind-the-scenes discussion about the budget, something Ford thought would violate the Kansas Open Meetings Act.

Ford also questioned the imprecise terms of the Corporate Integrity Systems contract and objected to Winn copying an email exchange they had with the district’s attorney. Winn defended the requests as “normal procedure.”

In her resignation letter, Ford, a retired Topeka superintendent, wished the board well and expressed her confidence that Foust would make a strong leader.

The board quickly named Strickland, the deputy superintendent, to act as the district’s new leader until Foust came on board. Foust, the district’s fourth superintendent of 2018, arrived in August.

Supporting Success?

Most candidates running for the board, including those who supported Strickland, say they want Foust to succeed. There’s much at stake for the community, especially for students.

“I want him to be a superintendent and be able to do his job,” Bradley-Lopez says. “My role would be to guide him and support him. Not manage him as a puppet.”

But Bradley-Lopez is concerned that Foust may be placing a disproportionate emphasis on test scores to measure success. “It’s one thing to be data-driven, but when you start treating everyone who works for the district and every student just on data, then you start to dehumanize every student and every person who works in USD 500.”

Foust makes no apologies for stressing state standards to measure the district’s progress. He touts himself as a turnaround superintendent and says he was hired to make candid assessments about how well the district is performing based on those standards. His role is not to create a system where everyone is teaching to a test, but teaching to standards.

“That was not the case where we were following the state standards,” he says of the situation he inherited. “We were watering down the curriculum.”

The result, Foust says, was lower test scores. “Instead of teaching them the fifth-grade curriculum, we go back to second-grade curriculum,” he says. “But the state is measuring at fifth grade. Hence you get poor data.”

Foust’s turnaround plan calls for closely looking at data to determine where the district is underperforming and to create curricula aligned with state standards. Regular professional development sessions give teachers the opportunity to share best instructional practices with one another. “We don’t want to take the authenticity away from the way the teachers are teaching,” he says. “It just has to be measured at grade level.”

But, he added, turnaround work sometimes requires a heavy-handed approach. “And I’ve shared with principals, once you get to 90% (of students meeting state standards), you can do what you need to do, as long as it’s legal and ethical. But until you can produce 90%, you’re going to have to do it our way.”

Just a year into Foust’s tenure, observers say it’s too early to critique the effectiveness of this approach. But some candidates are critiquing Foust’s hiring practices, including Winn.

Since taking the helm, all six members of the administration’s leadership team under Lane have either retired or resigned. Foust has replaced every one of those positions with people from outside the district, four from out of state.

“By overlooking qualified folks from the district, or from the county, you are saying to our community, perhaps, you’re not as worthy,” Winn says. “What I’m saying is qualified, credentialed people who live in KCK or Wyandotte County appear to have been overlooked.”

Foust defended his hires. “The positions were posted,” he says. “We hired the best candidate for the position.”

Evolving Dynamics

No matter what happens in the Nov. 5 election, the USD 500 Board will have at least two new members, and possibly four. If Winn captures a second term, she will likely face more pushback from other board members – whether they are newly elected or those she recruited to run two years ago.

In fact, she already has. At a brief special meeting in August, the board voted 4-2 to select Drew, a one-time Winn ally, as its next president. Winn and Paige cast the dissenting votes.

At the next board meeting, Drew made it clear that she was in charge. Just two minutes into the meeting, as the board was about to hold a budget hearing, she asked if there were any questions. Winn raised her hand and said:

“Madam president, I had, so no one will get squirmy in their seats, I asked Mr. (Dennis) Covington (chief financial officer), ‘Are you going to show the budget document for the public?’ “ Winn paused, then added: “Or are you not?”

As Covington approached the dais, Winn continued: “You know, we ask our citizens to support us all the time, and when this is published, many times, citizens don’t know how to read it. So I asked Mr. Covington, with patience from the board, because the last time we went through the public hearing there was the criticism that we were going through too much.”

With that, Drew asked Covington to wait, then read from a policy that encourages board members to coordinate requests for information with the board president “to ensure that the information requests submitted to the superintendent do not overwhelm staff and distract from their primary duties and responsibilities.”

Drew then turned to Winn and said, “I did not get this information.”

Winn explained that she had given the request to Covington, Foust and the district’s attorney.

“But you should send it to the president, as well,” Drew said.

“Please accept my apology,” Winn responded, before turning to Covington to ask more questions.

Update 11/6/19: Unofficial elections results from Tuesday showed Winn holding on to her seat on the board. She’d be joined by newcomers Randy Lopez and Yolanda S. Clark and incumbent Janey Humphries, who were all supported by Sally Murguia, a critic of Winn’s tenure as board president.

Journal Fall edition cover

A version of this article appears in the Fall 2019 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit  https://kansasleadershipcenter.org/store/one-year-subscription-to-the-journal-4-upcoming-issues/.

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