To be fair, Gary L. Ray read the same handwritten questions Thursday night from the packed auditorium at Paseo Academy of Fine and Performing Arts to both finalists for the superintendent job in Kansas City Public Schools.
How about 300 parents, educators and district patrons responded to the candidates’ answers was remarkably different for the more than an hour that each man was on stage. Ronald G. Taylor, superintendent of the Willingboro (N.J.) Township Public Schools since 2011, went first, fielding questions Ray, president of Ray and Associates Inc., the search firm that the school board hired last year after Superintendent Steve Green left for a job in the Atlanta area and Al Tunis was appointed interim superintendent.
The questions included the importance of parent involvement, expanding early childhood education, improving academic achievement, attaining full accreditation, closing schools and the commitment each has to Kansas City. Taylor promised to be “fully committed” to the job paying $210,000 to $250,000.
Mark T. Bedell, an assistant superintendent for high school with the Baltimore County Public Schools in Maryland since 2012, got people’s attention saying his commitment would include having his three children enrolled in Kansas City Public Schools. “If that’s not commitment, I don’t know what is,” Bedell said.
The audience applauded loudly as people did throughout Bedell’s presentation. Taylor, not so much.
Bedell and Taylor introduced their spouses, who sat in the audience.
Unlike Taylor, Bedell used his opening remarks to share his personal story of being the oldest of eight kids born to a 16-year-old mom with drug and alcohol abuse problems. He told of the family being split up and he ended up homeless. But he shared that he had some remarkable teachers who helped him turn his life around so that he was the only one of his siblings to finish high school, go on to college, play basketball and get advanced degrees.
Bedell said he could use his personal story to help Kansas City students overcome some of the same obstacles. “I’ve been through what you’re living through,” he said.
Each candidate touted how he would help the school district continue its upward climb from receiving provisional accreditation in 2014 to full accreditation in the coming years. Neither said he’d shy away from closing buildings to help the district run more efficiently and compete with charter schools to increase enrollment, which is 16,558 today.
Both said they would build on the work that Green and Tunis had done rather than bring in a new plan and have teachers and students start over. Each said he would get more Kansas City businesses and people in the community involved with the schools.
Bedell also warned district employees who go to work just for the paycheck. “You can’t survive under me,” he said, generating more applause.
He spoke of Saturday and Sunday school, which he instituted elsewhere, to help boost academic performance and close achievement gaps, hiring deans of discipline to relieve assistant principals of that role so they could spend more time in classrooms with teachers on professional development and children in preschool starting at age 2 and encouraging their parents to go to classes as well so they would be better advocates throughout their children’s education.
Bedell also spoke of creating Internet hot spots so children with laptop computers could get their schoolwork done even though 70 percent of the families in the district are without Internet access at home. “I’m here to make a difference,” Bedell said in his closing remarks.
From the audience response, which included a standing ovation, he already had.