Former KC superintendent Benjamin Demps Jr. dies at 79

Former Kansas City school superintendent Benjamin Demps Jr., whose 20-month tenure was marked by friction with the school board, died Saturday in Port Charlotte, Fla., where he lived, his grandson said Monday. He was 79.

The grandson, Ricky Brown, said Demps died of complications from surgery.

Demps was a non-educator when hired in 1999 as Kansas City’s 19th leader in 30 years. He was a former Federal Aviation Administration official and had worked as director of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.

But Demps was fired by five school board members, then reinstated by a federal judge before resigning along with six members of his staff.

“I just had tremendous respect for the man,” former board member Patricia Kurtz said Monday. “I thought, had he been allowed to stay, we would have seen a much better district ... He was making some really good changes, as far as academics go.”

Demps had fought for the authority to fire staff, teachers and principals without interference from the school board.

“...the governance of this district is fundamentally and fatally flawed,” he said upon leaving. “It is broken, and it cannot be fixed.”

Former school board member Al Mauro said Monday he was sorry to see him go.

“I just hoped at the time the community would let him complete what I thought was the right vision,” Mauro said.

David A. Smith, now chief of staff of the Kansas City, Kan., School District, was among those who quit with Demps.

Smith said that Demps worked as an air traffic controller when that was very difficult for an African American and worked his way up. He said Demps was in charge of counterterrorism during a period of airplane hijackings.

“I learned so many things from him,” Smith said. “He was the first person who taught me that bureaucracy was actually a really important thing. It can be organized in ways to make things function much more efficiently.”