The elected Kansas City school board was close to death, and seemingly its only friend was its lobbyist — and he was paid.
The Missouri legislature was taking one last run in the final hour of the 2012 session at passing a bill to give the state immediate power to take over the school district.
If lawmakers could negotiate through just one piece of many hotly debated education changes — an anti-tenure measure — they were all ready to agree on handing over the fate of Kansas City’s unaccredited district.
This is what the world had come to for Kyleen Carroll, Joseph Jackson and Crispin Rea — three board members who, just two years before, had swept into office in a rousing election.
They had a wild ride, from the highs of 2010 and what seemed to be a renaissance in district reform and community support, to the lows of 2011 and 2012 — and on to today. With the last of those members leaving the board this month, the district could actually be stronger and nearing accreditation.
That would have been almost unfathomable while Rea hung onto his phone in May 2012. He was listening to and texting lobbyist John Bardgett in Jefferson City as Bardgett watched angry legislators race against the last day’s 6 p.m. deadline.
“No leg to stand on,” was how Rea felt.
The board knew how Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro would proceed if the law changed and the state no longer had to wait two years to intervene. She had already stunned board members by asking that they resign — all of them.
The State Board of Education already had stripped Kansas City’s accreditation. And the Kansas City board was still recovering from public and private chaos after Superintendent John Covington’s startling resignation the previous August.
“Everything was stacked against us,” Rea said. “Every piece of the puzzle was in place for a state takeover. It is a miracle it didn’t happen.”
All three are off the board now. A job change took Carroll to St. Louis a year ago. Rea chose not to return for a second term so he could run for Kansas City Council. Jackson lost his bid April 8 to return for a second term.
And board member Airick Leonard West, whose campaign organization helped propel the three into office, and who leveraged their support to become board president, has handed off the president’s role to Jon Hile.
The departed board members leave a district that is predicting it will not only repeat last year’s provisional-level performance on its state report card but might even score in the fully accredited range.
Carroll, Jackson and Rea rolled to a landslide victory in 2010. Forces as diverse as the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, Freedom Inc. and West’s organization grouped them into a slate to run in support of Covington’s reforms.
“We were the ones the people rallied around,” Jackson said.
Reforms, however, were hard. Covington’s massive changes, including closing 40 percent of the district’s schools, strained the district.
But none of the board members expected anything unusual at the August 2011 board meeting.
West was late that day because of car problems, and arrived some 45 minutes into the closed meeting, Rea recalled. It turns out, Covington had a bombshell he had saved until then.
He was resigning, he said. He distributed a letter.
Board member Arthur Benson, who had been instrumental in finding Covington, immediately offered his resignation as well, saying that if Covington left, Benson was gone as well.
The board spent several hours behind closed doors the next day, hurling cross-accusations, trying to broker deals that might open a way for Covington to stay. West was on the defensive, and Benson was leading a push for West to step down as president.
“You’ve got to understand how intense things became out of nowhere,” Rea said. “The only people we had (for support) were the nine people in that room. The board had become the scapegoat.”
They never had a chance to keep Covington. That Friday afternoon he was in Detroit, about to be named chancellor of a statewide district for poor-performing schools.
“The worst part was seeing him on TV,” Jackson said, as the board members watched a live-stream broadcast of the Michigan hearing.
There was only so much the board could repair. The members zeroed in on Steve Green as their choice for interim superintendent. They kept Covington’s transformation plan in place.
But the district’s academic performance had dipped in Covington’s last year of upheaval. Distrust around the board’s role in Covington’s departure persisted.
Nicastro in September 2011 recommended that the district lose its accreditation effective Jan. 1, 2012, and the state board agreed.
In October 2011, Nicastro requested a chance to meet with the board. It turned out she had her own document she intended to distribute in closed session, and once again, board members did not see it coming.
Under the law at that time, Kansas City would have two full years to regain at least provisional accreditation — or until June — before the state could intervene.
Nicastro didn’t want to wait. She distributed copies of a resolution that, if signed and approved by the board, would cede control of the district to the state after the first of the year. She wanted them to pass the resolution that night.
“She believed we were going to (resign),” Jackson said.
The board resisted.
“We still had a transition plan in place,” Rea said. “We had a superintendent in place. We were trying to do our best to stabilize the situation and this (the request for a mass resignation) was only disruptive. It was reckless.”
The board had waves of detractors, including many of the forces that had supported Carroll, Jackson and Rea in the election. Now, those forces wanted state intervention. Many pushed hard with the legislature in the spring of 2012.
In that last hour, May 18, 2012, House Education Committee Chairman Scott Dieckhaus, a Republican, made one last play for a hotly disputed bill that would bar schools from considering seniority as a factor when making layoffs.
Unless the Senate passed that bill, Dieckhaus would block the overwhelmingly supported bill that would give state the power to intervene in Kansas City.
Bardgett was relaying the drama to Rea on his phone.
State Sen. Jane Cunningham, a St. Louis County Republican, had argued for the anti-tenure bill to the point of collapse and had to leave the chambers. Dieckhaus and others seemed to step into the breach with broiling energy.
State Sen. Kiki Curls, a Democrat from Kansas City, accusing the lawmakers of making “pawns” out of Kansas City’s 17,000 children, stood among those clamoring to let the takeover bill through.
But the legislature ran out of time. At two minutes after the hour, Rea recounted, Bardgett called and said, “See ya at the next session.”
The road the district followed often was painful, but the district in many ways is in a stronger position now than it was at the height of Covington’s reforms, new board president Hile said.
“I don’t think the board could do much better than it did in the way it handled a tough shot with Covington,” Hile said. “Green was the best hire they could have made.”
In the last meeting with the departing board members earlier this month, Green’s administration was reviewing the performance-predicting data that accurately forecast a provisional-level score a year ago.
Rea, with the Jefferson City battles in his memory, leaned in to Green seated by him at the head table and asked what the numbers predict for August.
What Green told him, Rea said, is that if the numbers hold true, “we’re going to surpass the threshold for full accreditation.”