Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Derek Richey: Meet the school board candidates

Posted By on Wed, Feb 24, 2010 at 9:30 AM

In 2006, there was so little interest -- or confidence -- in the Kansas City, Missouri, School Board that not one person challenged the incumbents and the election was canceled. This year, the race is packed with candidates vying for at-large and sub-district seats. From now until the April 6 election, we're profiling the candidates, starting from the top of the ballot.

click to enlarge Derek Richey
  • Derek Richey

Over the past two weeks, parents and teachers have packed public forums to express their displeasure at John Covington's plan to shutter nearly half of the schools in the Kansas City Missouri School District.

Derek Richey
thinks pinning the blame on the district's superintendent is off-target. Instead, the Waldo resident lays the impending pain at the feet of the school board. Over the past 10 years, as schools lost thousands of students, the board didn't streamline the district.

"We've been spending more than we've been taking in for far too long," he says. "We've created a huge financial pitfall that we need to atone for. Unfortunately, we have to do that through the guise of closing buildings and downsizing staff. And that unfortunate reality is directly the result of the inaction of previous boards who did not have the alignment of courage to do this work."

In 2008, Richey took a seat at that table. When he was appointed to an open at-large seat, he was shocked at the way the school board operates. He doesn't have any skin in the fight come April 6 -- he's the only one who filed for the Sub-District Two seat. But, he says, the result of the election could be a game changer for the district.

Richey grew up in a suburb of Indianapolis, attending public schools that were more akin to Blue Valley, he says, than the urban core of Kansas City. After college at Wabash University, he relocated to Washington, D.C., to take a job with IBM. Four years later, he went back to the books, studying at London Business School in England. There he was recruited by Cerner.

By the time he and his wife, Kelly, were house-hunting in Kansas City, they had a baby on the way. As they settled in Waldo two years ago, they started hearing the complaints of disgruntled parents. "Most of the people I met or knew didn't have very positive things to say about the school district," Richey says. "The anecdotal evidence was that they moved to Kansas when their kids turned 3 years old and I didn't really like that option."

When the departure of two board members in 2008 opened two seats on the school board, Richey applied. His pitch was both personal and professional. He was not simply a concerned parent, worrying about the education of his son, Lincoln, now 18 months old. He also emphasized the tools of his trade. "I do corporate strategy and strategic planning work," he says. "Those core MBA business skills weren't really present on the board. There are a lot of smart people, who know things I don't know, but that core skill set was missing."

When he was appointed, he discovered that wasn't the only skill set missing on the board. "The actual way the board functioned was like jumping into cold water," he says. "I was really, really shocked at how dysfunctional it was."

What surprised Richey was the way the board governed. Instead of focusing long-term success and creating a vision for the district, the nine members spent the majority of their time approving contracts. Being a watchdog over the district's spending isn't necessarily a bad thing, Richey says. In fact, he sympathizes -- and agrees -- with residents who think their tax dollars are being wasted by mismanagement within the district. But, Richey says the board's work should have a wider focus. Instead of being the construction workers, they should be the architects. Instead of haggling about the finer financial points of, say, a reading program contract, board members should be informed enough about best practices to set the vision for what a successful reading program would entail.

"Really, the approving of contracts should be a mechanical, legal thing we do, not the fundamental driver of the work," he says. "We need to be thinking about the big picture. If you do work based on contracts, there's no way not to micromanage. We have to get out of the micromanagement game. We talk about it a lot. We argue about it a lot. But we have shown a lack of lack of willingness to go and change how we do that work."

Changing the nuts and bolts of governance may sound dry, but Richey thinks its pivotal to turning the district around. "We're retroactive thinkers, not proactive," he says. "We can make effective decisions being reactive, but we can't move the ship. Only by being proactive and owning the work that we do can we align ourselves with the transformation we know is necessary. Without it, we'll just keep tripping along. And we're way too far behind to be tripping along."

Over the past 14 months, the board has taken some positive steps, Richey says. "We got a very strong superintendent, one we need to keep for five or ten years," he says of recently hired John Covington. "The other thing that we've theoretically started as a board is this process of codifying how to do our work. Last August, we passed a resolution to abolish the committee structure and that was supposed to usher in additional conversations about what other structures we could put in place. But we haven't done a thing since August."

It hasn't been for lack of trying. "There's been consistently a minority group of people who have been demanding we do this work and until that become the majority of people, we can't get it done," he says.

That's why this election is so important, Richey says. The new faces around the table, come April, will make a big difference. "Of the candidates that I've met, given the right outcome, there's the capacity to create a board that I think will be more in line with kinds of things I think need to be done," he says. "The outcome of this election is not a trivial matter. Who gets elected will determine the direction of the school district."

Richey has some ideas about what that direction would look like. The efforts of the board wouldn't be confined to the twice-monthly meetings. "I'd like to see real work of board occur at other times," he says. "We need to be doing two-hour retreats on Tuesday night about reading programs or spending four hours on Saturday pouring over key performance indicators."

Ultimately, Richey says, the board's processes would be so seamless and effective that the news angle would shift. "I want the board to become boring," he says. "I don't want to hear about the board as the top story. The work we do is really important, and we should be thinking five or 10 years down the road, but there should be nothing sexy about what the board does. I want the focus to be on the superintendent and teachers and the schools and what's happening in the classroom, not what's happening in the board room."

Now that he's served more than a year, Richey says he's past his days as a rookie and ready to dive into a full term. "I've been there long enough to know how it works and hit the ground running," he says. "It took six months to know what was going on, not only how to make a motion but just thinking about what are the real challenges of urban education. But I haven't been on board long enough to believe in the status quo, to believe that we're working the right way."

This week's candidate forums:

Missouri Charter Public Schools Association

All-candidate forum

Thursday, February 25

Academie Lafayette, 6903 Oak Street


Black Agenda Group

Sub-district debates

Monday, March 1

Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church, 2310 East Linwood Boulevard


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