Editorials

If KC school board has nothing to hide, why approve superintendent’s contract in secret?

Test scores are up in Kansas City Public Schools

During a news conference at the Wendell Phillips Elementary school, Kansas City Public School Superintendent Mark Bedell announced the district had earned 98 points on the 2016 Annual Performance Report. But the following year the score dropped.
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During a news conference at the Wendell Phillips Elementary school, Kansas City Public School Superintendent Mark Bedell announced the district had earned 98 points on the 2016 Annual Performance Report. But the following year the score dropped.

On Wednesday, the Kansas City school board agreed on a new contract for Superintendent Mark Bedell.

But it took some prodding to find that out Thursday. Outgoing members of the school board voted 5-3 behind closed doors to approve the new deal, then refused to disclose that fact — or the terms of the agreement — until the following afternoon.

According to the district, it’s a guaranteed agreement. If Bedell is removed without cause, he gets the full value of the remaining contract, which expires in 2022, plus benefits. His salary starts at $265,000 in the first year.

The new contract was discussed in secret, voted on in secret and approved by a lame duck board that was on its way out the door.

Nearly everything about this process was profoundly disappointing. We’ve said before that a contract extension for the superintendent should have been a matter for the new school board to decide, not the members who are leaving.

Bedell’s current contract — the one that originally paid him $225,000 a year — wasn’t set to expire until the middle of next year. There was absolutely no need to rush through negotiations or to tie the hands of the incoming board.

Why the need for speed? The superintendent said he wanted a deal with the outgoing board. “I’m not interested in leaving my livelihood in the hands of people I haven’t worked with,” Bedell said in March.

That statement showed a lack of faith in Kansas City voters and the democratic process. Kansas Citians are willing to pay Bedell what he deserves if he does a good job. If he is less successful, taxpayers should not be responsible for hundreds of thousands of dollars in severance as part of a contract the incoming board did not consider.

Bedell should have as much faith in the community as he asks from the community.

And why the secrecy? There were limited opportunities for the public to discuss Bedell’s tenure, but many citizens will be rightly frustrated by the fact that board members retreated behind closed doors to make this consequential decision.

The negotiation debacle reached a pinnacle of sorts Wednesday when outgoing members refused to say if they had approved a new deal with Bedell. State law apparently allows the board to dodge disclosure for up to 72 hours.

That law should be changed. Votes must be taken in public. Kansas Citians should know why three members of the outgoing board opposed an extension for the superintendent.

And it’s particularly disturbing to hear that incoming board members acquiesced to this secrecy. This isn’t a good way to embark upon a stint in public service.

Some board members said Wednesday they had concerns about what one called the “optics” of the vote, but wanted the stability that a long-term contract with the superintendent would bring.

Our concern is not with Mark Bedell’s work. We’ve applauded recent KCPS test scores. We backed the superintendent and his colleagues when they opposed Mayor Sly James’ early childhood education initiative. If the district seeks additional funds from taxpayers in the future, we’ll give any proposal the attention it deserves.

But a district that acts as if it has something to hide might be hiding something. The new school board must make transparency and openness bywords of its supervision of the district. Now would be a good time to start.

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