Finalists vying for the Kansas City school district superintendent job aced an auditorium full of parents, teachers and concerned citizens during their visit to the city Thursday.
In back-to-back hourlong sessions, Ron Taylor, a superintendent in Willingboro Township, N.J., and Mark T. Bedell, an assistant superintendent in Baltimore County, Md., gave the audience a little taste of the kind of leader they are, what they’ve done in the past and how they could help Kansas City Public Schools improve.
In turn, the two veteran educators were peppered with questions from the audience about their experiences closing schools, the achievement gap and how to reduce the dropout rate. They were asked also about engaging with local businesses and the community, about parent involvement, getting the district to full accreditation, the importance of early childhood education and balancing a district budget.
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But the question many wanted answered was they same one parent Julie Holland had.
“I want to know if they come to Kansas City, are they going to be committed here, are they going to stay?” Holland said outside the auditorium at Paseo Academy of Fine and Performing Arts, where the finalists spoke.
Taylor, who was raised in Detroit, said he wanted to be in Kansas City because, having been successful in very diverse schools with many at-risk students, “it’s a good fit for my skill set.”
He said, “I want to be here. I want to become tremendously immersed in the culture that is your school district.”
Bedell, who has three school-age children, said he intends for them to go to Kansas City’s public schools.
“If that is not commitment, I don’t know what is,” he said. “If we are constantly changing superintendents every three years, how do we make progress?”
The district’s board, with guidance from a national search firm, brought the two to Kansas City to visit schools and meet community leaders, district staff and the public in the last step in a seven-month search for a new district leader.
The finalists were selected from five candidates recommended by Ray and Associates, the search firm Kansas City school leaders hired to find a replacement for Steve Green.
Green, Kansas City Public Schools’ 27th superintendent, left in May to take a job in DeKalb County, outside Atlanta.
The new superintendent will be expected to continue the Kansas City district’s push to improve student achievement and standardized test scores on its journey to full accreditation and to boost an early childhood program, among other district improvements.
Both said they have a passion for early childhood education and would continue the work started in the district to move Kansas City to full accreditation.
While both are longtime educators who began their careers in the classroom, their experience levels differ.
Taylor has experience leading a suburban district outside Philadelphia that has 4,300 students and a $70 million operating budget.
His career in public K-12 education spans more than 20 years, during which he has been a teacher, assistant principal, principal, regional superintendent and superintendent. Taylor has worked in Washington, D.C., Public Schools, Boston Public Schools and Newark Public Schools.
At Thursday’s forum, he discussed his involvement in his home district in increasing the number of schools reaching Adequate Yearly Progress, as defined by federal education legislation. He said it was one of the things he’s most proud of in his career.
Bedell, a Rochester, N.Y., native, spoke candidly about growing up in a drug-addicted, single-parent household and being the only one of eight children to finish high school.
He said that while he has no experience as a superintendent, he was on the executive team for a large urban school district. Baltimore County schools have more than 110,650 students and a $1.5 billion operating budget. He also worked for 12 years in the Houston Independent School District as a teacher, assistant principal, principal and school improvement officer.
Bedell told the audience how he created an approach to reduce dropout rates and improve his district’s graduation rate.
Both said they favor neighborhood schools and talked about developing relationships with teachers, students, parents and the community. They agreed that while closing schools is unpleasant, sometimes it’s necessary to run a more efficient district.
Many people left saying they had a clear favorite. Others said they weren’t sure the forum allowed the public to truly determine whether either would be the best leader for the district.
“I just hope that the board picks a good candidate, for the sake of our kids,” said resident Centoria Roulette Jackson.
Kansas City’s school board is expected to review feedback from the forum and announce its final decision later this month. The new superintendent will begin July 1.