Mark T. Bedell, the Kansas City Public School Board’s choice for superintendent, said he’s more than up to the challenge of helping transform the district .
“I am extremely humbled given the route I had to travel to get here, but I am excited,” Bedell said in a telephone interview Wednesday after Kansas City named him its candidate to lead the district.
“I have a good feeling about the work that needs to be done,” said Bedell, 41, assistant superintendent for high schools at Baltimore County Public Schools in Maryland.
Despite his optimism, Bedell would take the reins of a district with shrinking enrollment, low test scores and a less than 70 percent graduation rate — and one seeking to gain state accreditation. Three years ago, a tight budget and low enrollment forced the closure of half the district’s schools.
School board members voted unanimously to begin contract negotiations with Bedell. He would be paid an annual salary in the range of $210,000 to $250,000.
“The board, like our community, has set high expectations for quality leadership...This process has yielded a leader with the skills and passion to ensure the district’s progress toward full accreditation and academic growth across all of our schools,” board chairman Jon Hile said in a written statement.
Bedell said he spoke Wednesday with all but two members of the school board and asked each why they serve. “They told me they are the last line of defense for the children of this city and they want to make sure they can inspire and give hope. That resonated with me,” Bedell said.
“We have an opportunity to conduct some legacy-level work here if we engage people and give them a sense of hope, he said.
Spreading hope, Bedell said, extends to students.
He expects to bring to Kansas City a one-to-one mentoring program he started in Baltimore County, a growing district which has a long history of achievement. The mentoring with academically struggling and troubled students led to improved test scores and increased graduation rates at some of that district’s most troubled schools, Bedell said.
Bedell said he’ll keep contact with the young men he mentors in Baltimore County even as he goes about building relationships with students here.
“If everybody in the district takes ownership of one or two kids ... it can be done,” he said. “People just need to see that the people in the central office are doing more than giving out orders.”
Bedell is expected to start in July, assuming contract negotiations go smoothly. He said his first order of business will be connecting with members of the community, business and civic leaders, “opening a line of communication and making sure we are having authentic dialogue.”
Baltimore County Schools’ Superintendent Dallas Dance said when the 175 school principals in his district learned Bedell had been offered the Kansas City job they gave him a standing ovation. “That’s the kind of respect he has here,” Dance said.
“This is a great loss for us, but a big gain for Kansas City,” said Dance. “This is the second district I have worked in with Mark and I will tell you, you will not find anyone more focused, more passionate, more centered on student achievement.”
Dance credits Bedell with raising the Baltimore district’s graduation rate from 82 percent to 89 percent in four years. “Achievement gap? We don’t have an achievement gap for graduation by race in our district and that is because of Mark,” Dance said. “The community will be engaged with him, the students will know who Mark is.”
Dance, who hired Bedell away from their former district in Houston, called Bedell one of his best assistant superintendents. “Mark makes decisions based on kids,” Dance said. “I would stake my career on that guy.”
During his Kansas City visit last week, Bedell addressed a packed high school auditorium in a community question-and-answer session. Bedell clearly gained support from the audience which erupted in applause several times during his talk.
“I thought he was impressive, I’m glad he got the offer and I hope he accepts,” former Kansas City Council member Melba Curls said Wednesday.
But Bill Eddy, a founder of Do The Right Thing For Children, a Kansas City watchdog group, was skeptical that a new superintendent can make the necessary improvements.
Eddy did not hear Bedell speak, and said he ignored the search process “because I don’t think it makes a difference. Nothing changes. Kids still get a bad education. And he doesn’t look much different from the other superintendents.”
During Bedell’s public appearance, he talked about growing up in a drug-addicted, single-parent household and said he was the only one of eight children in his family to graduate from high school.
This would be his first superintendent’s position. The native of Rochester, N.Y., worked for 12 years in the Houston Independent School District as a teacher, assistant principal, principal and school improvement officer.
Bedell has said he’s most proud of his work raising test scores, improving graduation rates and closing the racial achievement gap at some the lowest-performing high schools in Baltimore County, the 26th-largest district in the nation.
He said he identifies with many Kansas City students and is committed to staying here and enrolling his eighth-grader, ninth-grader and a kindergartner in the district. He said his wife, Robyn, an attorney, has already started looking in Kansas City for a place to live.
Bedell was initially one of five candidates recommended by Ray and Associates, the search firm hired by Kansas City school leaders to find a replacement for Steve Green. That list was cut to two — Bedell and Ron Taylor, superintendent at a suburban New Jersey district outside of Philadelphia.
Green left in May for a job outside Atlanta, after three years leading the Kansas City district.
Members of the community have said they expect the new superintendent to continue the district’s push to improve student achievement and standardized test scores on its accreditation journey and to boost an early childhood program.
Ajia Morris, vice president for MOKAN Goodwill celebrated when she heard the board chose Bedell.
“I am cautiously optimistic because I have been in Kansas City about a decade and I’ve seen a lot of superintendents come and go,” Morris said. “Dr. Bedell spoke from the heart and his answers registered as genuine for me. His passion for children was palpable, you could see it and feel it.”
Morris said Goodwill is looking forward to working with Bedell on workforce readiness, particularly for youth in Kansas City’s marginalized communities.
Gwendolyn Grant, president and chief executive of the Kansas City Urban League, said she’s hoping Bedell “possesses the requisite skills, experience and vision to lead this district to full accreditation and high academic outcomes for our children.”
Bedell, who played basketball for Fisk University and was a leading scorer, said he’s confident about the Kansas City opportunity, but also anxious because “it’s a new position, it’s a new city,” he said.
“But once the ball is tipped, generally the butterflies go away and I’m ready to perform.”