The reasons Steve Green is set to leave the Kansas City Public Schools can be counted on one hand.
Two of his children and three of his grandchildren live in the Atlanta area, he told The Star Wednesday.
That’s why he plans to leave after four years of leading Kansas City through a turbulent ride from unaccreditation and the brink of state takeover to provisional status and a shot at full accreditation.
Green is the sole finalist for the superintendent post at the Atlanta-area DeKalb County School District.
“It has everything to do with family and nothing to do with the school board,” Green said before his public announcement at the school district’s offices Wednesday night.
He was contacted by a search firm earlier this year to gauge his interest, he said.
If the DeKalb board in two weeks votes to hire Green, he will be going to a district with 100,000 students that has experienced some of the same struggles as Kansas City as it works to improve student performance.
It’s hard to imagine a more perilous road than the one he has traveled in Kansas City, with many concerned community forces and lawmakers at different times pushing for the state to take control of the district.
Former Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro more than once made moves intended to open the door for state intervention.
“The district was in the death chamber, for all intents and purposes,” Green said.
The district survived and has improved, he said, on the collaborative work of district teachers, leaders and community partners – and he does have some regrets at moving on at this time.
“I have every confidence this team will be able to sustain the progress we have made,” he said. It is hard, he said, knowing “I may not be able to see when they cross that threshold (to full accreditation) and be here to celebrate.”
Much work is still on the table because although the district has earned “growth” points for moving low-performing students to higher levels on state tests, the district has not yet budged the number of students scoring proficient or advanced beyond the 30-percent mark, toward the state average of just over 50 percent.
In his press conference, Green choked back tears when he considered his message to the teachers he said have brought the district this far and can carry it forward.
“You can do this,” he said.
Green took over a district in disarray after the sudden resignation of John Covington in August 2011. Green led Kansas City as it was declared unaccredited by the state in January 2012, and then regained provisional accreditation in August 2014.
The news of Green’s likely departure came as a big surprise for school personnel and a district that is enjoying stability not seen in decades.
“I don’t think anybody saw this coming,” said Andrea Flinders, the president of the Kansas City teachers’ union. She understand the pull of family ties, she said, but “it is mostly disappointing” for Kansas City.
“One thing he did was he brought the district some stability,” she said.
Green has projected that the Kansas City Public Schools will likely score high enough in its next report card in August to make the district a candidate for full accreditation, though the state usually requires more than one year of improved performance to change its accreditation designation.
Kansas City needs stability, said state school board member John Martin, and Green and the Kansas City school board have been in a much stronger position than in the past to sustain recent progress.
“The Kansas City school district for years was seen as a non-viable institution,” said Martin, who served as an interim superintendent for Kansas City in 2008. “He changed that. He brought credibility to the district.”
Earlier this year, Green’s peer superintendents with the Missouri Association of School Administrators voted Green the superintendent of the year — and no previous Kansas City superintendent had even been nominated, according to association records going back into the 1970s.
“Miracles of miracles,” Martin said, “that he got that.”
But much will be at stake as the Kansas City school board looks for its next leader, Martin said.
The district will need to sustain and even expand its progress to put it in position to gain full accreditation for the first time since the state ramped up its accountability system in the 1990s. It will likely need at least another year of performing at a fully accredited level to get that shot, Martin said.
Kansas City Mayor Sly James thanked Green for his work and said in a written statement that he believes the district will continue to improve.
“He gave his heart and soul to increase the quality of education for students in our city,” James said.
Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven, who succeeded Nicastro after her retirement in January, applauded Green’s efforts in Kansas City.
“We look forward to continuing to work with the district as it moves through this transition,” she said in a written statement.
The DeKalb board will wait 14 days before it votes on its only finalist and negotiates contract terms, Green said.
If, as expected, he gets the job, Green said he does not plan to take Kansas City cabinet members with him.
“I do not foresee drafting any members of this team,” he said. “Not that I wouldn’t like to have them. But they have family here.”
The board will choose an interim superintendent soon, likely from Green’s executive cabinet, and create a committee to determine its search process for the next leader, board President Jon Hile said — a task that should be made easier by the district’s improved fortunes.
“Steve brought the district well-earned trust in this community,” he said.
While Green’s likely departure is unexpected, parent leader Jamekia Kendrix said, the district will be in a much better position to absorb the loss and make a transition and reach those goals.
“I’m very disappointed,” she said. “I thought he was going to be a long-term superintendent, which was his intention when he took the job.”
Her optimism is greater, however, than when Covington left abruptly to become the first chancellor of a special school district in Detroit to serve Michigan’s lowest performing schools in 2011.
Covington had swept into Kansas City in 2009 with massive program changes that did not have time to secure their footing.
“It was devastating,” she said. “I didn’t know how we could recover from people coming in and experimenting with our children,” she said.
“This time, we’re in a much better place.”
Green and the current Kansas City school board also struck new ground in collaborating with its neighboring districts, community organizations and even its competitors operating public charter schools.
This was “the new Kansas City Public Schools,” Green frequently said, and civic leaders took notice.
One of the mended rifts allowed the district and the Kauffman Foundation to work together. The Kauffman Foundation had been one of the prime forces advancing a proposal for the state developed by CEE-Trust that called for undoing the district and converting it to an umbrella organization overseeing independently run public schools.
“Hope and opportunity are alive in the Kansas City Public Schools,” Kauffman Foundation acting president and CEO Wendy Guillies said Wednesday in a written statement.
“And this is why we are ready to invest and strengthen the work already underway to improve students’ ability to read, do math and think critically, regardless of income level or life circumstances,” she said.
Kansas City school board members have not always been in agreement with each other or Green, working through divisions over some the district’s plans and partnerships, such as the administration’s proposal, currently on hold, to join with the charter Academie Lafayette in an international high school at Southwest that would be run by the charter.
“The board has had some changes, but the totality of the support of the board to move this district forward…has not changed,” Green said. “In the work we needed to do, with this board we’ve had a clear path to do that work.”
Green would be leaving Kansas City for a much larger school district. DeKalb, the third-largest district in Georgia, serves its 100,000 with 14,000 employees in more than 140 schools.
Kansas City’s enrollment, after many years of decline, is less than 15,000.
Green’s salary and benefits with Kansas City earned him at least $342,500. The current superintendent in DeKalb, Michael Thurmond, had a salary of $275,000. He took over the post as an interim superintendent in 2013 and said he would stay on until his replacement is chosen.
The Kansas City school board renewed Green’s contract in 2013 for three years — the maximum allowed in Missouri.
Another superintendent who appears to be moving on — North Kansas City Superintendent Todd White — said Green played an essential role in helping all of the area districts through a time of turmoil over the state’s student transfer law.
White, 53, announced Wednesday that he is retiring from North Kansas City and will be taking an assistant superintendent post at the Blue Valley School District in Johnson County.
If Kansas City had come undone like the struggling Normandy and Riverview Gardens school districts in St. Louis, the Kansas City area districts would have had to manage the transfer of potentially hundreds or even thousands of students if Kansas City sunk deeper into its former loss of accreditation.
“Dr. Green was the right person at the right time,” said White.
Green’s tenure: key events
Aug. 31: One week after the resignation of John Covington, the KC school board introduces Steve Green as interim superintendent.
Sept. 20: State school board votes to strip Kansas City of provisional accreditation, effective Jan.1, 2012.
Dec. 2: KC Mayor Sly James proposes mayoral control of district. Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro says more time needed to decide on plan for KC.
Jan. 1: District becomes unaccredited.
April 2: KC board agrees to two-year contract to make Green its permanent superintendent.
Aug. 22: District’s state report card scores in the provisional range, but state says at least one year of growth needed to change its accreditation status.
Oct. 24: KC board agrees to three-year contract for Green with two one-year extensions.
Dec. 8: Emails and records reported in The Star show plan under way between Nicastro, Kauffman Foundation and CEE-Trust to propose dismantling the KC school district for a network of independently run public schools.
June 20: District and Academie Lafayette announce their proposal that the charter school operate an international high school at Southwest for both district and charter students.
Aug. 6: State school board, at Nicastro’s recommendation, awards Kansas City provisional accreditation based on anticipated improved state report card score.
March 10: District and Academie Lafayette announce the controversial plans for Southwest have been put on hold.
May 13: Green is the sole finalist for the superintendent post at DeKalb County Schools in Georgia.