Former KC school board president Marilyn Simmons dies

Marilyn Simmons, a longtime parent leader and former president of the Kansas City school board, died in her sleep Saturday morning of complications from pneumonia. Simmons, who was battling lung cancer, was 57.

One of the hardest-working board members, Simmons gained a reputation as a persistent advocate, whether or not her positions were popular.

“Marilyn was a tireless warrior for children,” said Ajamu Webster, her friend, employer and fellow supporter of many district programs, including the African-centered education program. “She would go to battle with anybody.”

Simmons was also dogged in supporting agricultural science education and fine and performing arts education, and in improving services to children with special education needs.

“If you were given a bad hand and you were just one parent, she’d make sure you got answers,” said Ray Wilson, who worked with Simmons as a parent leader and board member.

She did not tolerate circumstances when she believed the school system was failing, going back to her years in the ’90s as chairman of the parent-led District Advisory Committee.

“She was a good-hearted person who believed in kids,” said Arthur Benson, a former board member and the plaintiffs’ attorney in the school desegregation litigation.

Simmons first joined the school board when she was appointed to a vacant seat in 1996. She won a seat in 2002 and served until June 2011, when she resigned because of health reasons. She was serving her third straight four-year term when she stepped down.

She became board president in 2008, holding that post for two years, during which the board began reforms to end a history of micromanaging and install a system of policy governance.

She was also vocal in her concerns about the massive school closings plan under then superintendent John Covington, including the blending of high schools at Southwest.

“She was often misunderstood because of her passion,” said Gwen Grant, president of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City. “But her heart was always in the right place. She was a passionate and committed public servant for parents and children.”

Services are pending.