What really happened when John Covington resigned, leaving KC school district on the brink

Kansas City school board members were stunned on Aug. 26, 2011, to learn that the district’s departing superintendent, John Covington, was taking a job in Michigan. That included board member Arthur Benson (left), who initially blamed board president Airick Leonard West (right) for frustrating Covington and speeding his departure. Benson and West appeared at a news conference along with board member Derek Richey (center).
Kansas City school board members were stunned on Aug. 26, 2011, to learn that the district’s departing superintendent, John Covington, was taking a job in Michigan. That included board member Arthur Benson (left), who initially blamed board president Airick Leonard West (right) for frustrating Covington and speeding his departure. Benson and West appeared at a news conference along with board member Derek Richey (center). along@kcstar.com

Everyone was stunned. Everyone.

Nobody saw John Covington’s resignation coming as Kansas City superintendent — not the civic leaders who had backed him, nor his school board members, not even his chief of staff and other cabinet members.

Least of all Covington’s school board president, Airick Leonard West.

West has survived, and so has the district, although he and the district were nearly doomed after that day in August 2011.

So it probably serves more as affirmation than redemption to hear Covington’s words only now told to The Star, describing West as an unintended victim in the former superintendent’s earth-scorching exit.

“My departure had nothing to do with Airick Leonard West,” Covington said, calling from Mississippi where he is consulting.

“I could have had a conversation about that situation,” he says now. “I could have put it on the table: Here’s what’s going on.”

Maybe the word is reconciliation — or, as West retires from the board after eight years, an exercise in what-might-have-been.

Things could have been so different, Covington said, if he hadn’t gotten a phone call from Spain that he’d kept secret.

The truth is, he said, “I never wanted to leave Kansas City.”

West is dressed in black — always dressed in black — this time in the form of a sweatsuit. He’s seated in a booth of a Country Club Plaza restaurant with the dark hood pulled down just above his eyes, Obi-Wan-like.

He never heard again from Covington. They’d gone from the fire they shared — backing Covington’s dramatic blasting of the district’s bloated cache of buildings and contracts — into their separate fires.

Covington’s was the political struggle as the first chancellor of a new statewide district in Michigan that took control of the state’s worst-performing schools, starting in Detroit — a job he left within three years.

West’s fire was the one Covington left:

▪ Fellow board member Arthur Benson and some civic leaders, who were convinced West had broken Covington’s patience, pressured West to resign.

▪ When Covington re-emerged in Detroit two days later, West and the board scrambled to reunite, secured a new leader in Steve Green and prepared to fight for the district’s survival.

▪ Reform-minded forces as powerful as state Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro and the Kauffman Foundation saw a chance to completely reshape public education in Kansas City and came to roost while lawmakers fought unsuccessfully into the final minutes of the 2012 legislative session to give the state the immediate power to take over the district.

There is time now, as the city prepares to select new board members in Tuesday’s election, for West to reflect on many successes in those eight years, and contemplate disappointments, retracing things the board should have done — and a question:

Was it possible Covington set West up for a fall? Would he do such a thing?

West says he never took his thoughts there. Covington says no.

A series of events that stoked the angry reactions of Benson and others against West — and Covington’s marked silence during the tempest — were “a coincidence,” the former superintendent said.

But Benson had gleaned enough in the days leading up to that Aug. 24, 2011, board meeting that when Covington dropped his stunning resignation letter in closed session, Benson stood and demanded of West, shouting, “Airick! What have you done?”

There were pieces that, when fitted together, could be interpreted against West.

Three months earlier, Covington had publicly objected and issued private warnings against a proposed policy to give the West-led board independent authority in sponsoring charter schools — a policy the board soon amended in Covington’s favor.

Then, two days before the resignation that only Covington knew was coming, Covington raised concerns through an email to West that West may be inappropriately corresponding with a potential bidder in a major district project — an email someone unknown leaked to The Star.

West hadn’t been secretive. He’d forwarded his correspondence with the bidder to Covington. Still, a case against West was laid, and Covington did not effectively ward it off.

Benson says he asked Covington, straight up, whether he had interviewed at any of a number of cities or anywhere else for superintendent posts, and Covington said no to all.

Benson then submitted his resignation minutes after Covington’s — though Benson would seek to rescind his in the ensuing days.

“He lied to us,” Benson said, looking back. “He duped me.”

What Covington didn’t tell them was that he was going to interview for the Michigan chancellorship two days later.

More than once, a headhunter from the search firm seeking his application for the job had called him, Covington said last week, and each time he had flatly turned him down.

Then came a call from one of Covington’s contacts at The Broad Foundation. Covington was a graduate of the foundation’s Superintendents Academy. Be ready, his contact told him, to receive a call from the foundation’s founder — Eli Broad.

The call came from Spain, Covington said. “He (Broad) said, ‘John, I need you to go to Detroit.’ 

That, Covington says, is the reason he left.

He said nothing of that at the time, but today he has fond words for West, Benson and the rest of the Kansas City school board.

West was an essential supporter of Covington’s audacious plans to close schools and reorganize the district’s operations and academics.

While the community broadly was supporting his proposal, the board was splitting over it, Covington noted, primarily along racial lines.

The board’s four white members voted for it, and all five of the black members except West voted no.

“Airick was out there as the swing vote,” Covington said. “Airick understood what needed to be done. If he had not cast that vote, it probably would’ve destroyed the district. It was going bankrupt.”

West also showed keen political prowess. He was only 28 when he won election to the board, and 30 when he was selected its president.

He set up a “school board school” to help prepare more board candidates, then organized a slate of candidates in the pivotal 2010 election that won in a landslide and preserved Covington’s shakeup of the district.

And although there were conflicts, the board actually moved into a still-continuing era of relative harmony with its superintendents.

The board, led by West and Benson, reformed itself into a role of oversight and setting policies, leaving executive functions with the administration.

“They supported me as best they could,” Covington said. “I have nothing but praise for that young man (West).

“Sometimes his youthfulness and inexperience showed. Was I worried that he was getting too much in the weeds? Yes. But it was nothing I couldn’t deal with.

“Was he a good board member? Absolutely he was. So was Benson. They all were.”

The man in black is going to ruminate over times where he saw the board fall short. It’s what he does.

“We were too complacent,” West said. “Not aggressive enough.”

The board should have had the stomach to allow the closing of as many as three of the district’s half-empty high schools in 2010, not just one, he says.

It should have pressed to get the now-dormant deal done with Academie Lafayette to put charter and district students together in Southwest High School.

His vision of a district “portfolio” of specialty schools and charters is only beginning to show some potential. “We squashed charter partnerships,” he said.

And the new district master plan, which only recently launched, should have passed through the board’s hands and into action long ago, he said.

But he’s not going to forget the district’s successes, either.

It survived the heavy push for state takeover in large part because of the way it rebounded under Green and earned state report card numbers that compelled the state to restore the district to provisional accreditation in 2014.

Annual independent audits of the district’s finances, which came back with 19 significant findings of concern in 2008, steadily improved and were completely clean by 2012 and have remained so.

Its five-year graduation rate rose from 57 to 71 percent, and attendance grew from 70 to 80 percent.

Overall performance on state tests and on the ACT college entrance exam remains a struggle for the district.

But West particularly relishes the district’s Early College Academy, launched in 2010, that is now sending forth some 40 graduates a year with two years of college credits and associate degrees with their high school diplomas. They are heading on to four-year universities, including some of the nation’s most elite.

“We’re killing it on that front,” he said. “I’m proud of the progress we’ve made.”

Benson to this day wishes he’d known more that evening when he received Covington’s resignation and went after West.

“I’ve regretted that for a long time,” he said.

And Covington is uncomfortable with the memory of West as “a deer in headlights,” he said, looking from the face of Covington to the angry face of Benson, truly not knowing what was happening.

If he’d stayed in Kansas City, Covington believes the changes in the district would have carried it upward. He had the board’s and the community’s support.

“We were well on our way,” he said. “We were getting it done.”

The end was hard, Benson said, but he believes Covington’s work under the West-led board brought critical changes.

The end, he said, “was overweighed by the accomplishments, I hope.”

West has to break from the meeting on the Plaza with a reporter. He has another appointment. And there he is moments later, moving through the street having shed the sweats for a black pinstripe suit, on his way to speak in front of a luncheon audience.

He’s 36 and beginning again.