Joe Robertson | As for schools, she’s seen it all

The lists of former Kansas City Public Schools superintendents usually don’t mention Deborah Kelly.

It was one day, and not a full one, shared with interim co-superintendent Bernard Taylor. But what a day it was.

April 19, 2001.

She spent maybe eight “shell-shocked” hours in the heart of the maelstrom, from the night that the school board fired Superintendent Benjamin Demps to the next afternoon when a federal judge put Demps back in charge.

She had spent most of her career before that day learning how to lead innovative urban schools.

She has spent the last seven years as the Blue River Elementary School principal in Johnson County’s Blue Valley district.

She knows both privileged and underprivileged classrooms.

She knows how tricky it can be to try new things when a high-performing school boasts an army of watchful parents and a confident staff.

She knows how hard it is for teachers in struggling schools when so many students don’t have food on their table at home, when a household has no working car.

Families move in and out so much in low-income neighborhoods that it’s hard to predict class sizes, she said. It’s hard to have much choice over the teachers hired by principals.

She had been a champion at helping Kansas City schools fight through these barriers.

She still meets teachers who said they once toured her model school, Gladstone Elementary.

There’s a reason the board president called her that night in 2001. She and Taylor were the district’s young administrative stars amid the chaos.

After a sleepless night, she was staring back at television cameras at a “crazy” morning news conference.

Then Demps’ team charged back in and Kelly and Taylor were holed in separate rooms to be questioned one at a time, though neither had a role in the board’s move to oust Demps.

A board member warned her: “Get a lawyer.”

“I didn’t know why the board had picked me,” she said. “Then we were not sure we’d have jobs.”

By the following Monday, Demps had decided to resign. Taylor accepted the superintendent role.

Truthfully, neither Taylor nor Kelly was ready to be a superintendent in those conditions. But Taylor was willing to put in the monstrous hours to close the gap, while Kelly had a toddler she had to pick up from day care each evening.

She kept her administrative role and four years later left for Blue Valley.

She likes it in southern Johnson County. Her school meets the state’s Standard of Excellence in reading, math and science.

But that doesn’t mean she has lost her hunger for the kind of work she did in Kansas City.

“I could see myself doing that again,” she said. “I loved the work.”