Chief of reeling Kansas City schools abruptly quits
Covington rode into the troubled Kansas City Missouri School District in 2009 with promises of change that he quickly fulfilled. He closed nearly half the district’s schools, cut staff and reorganized curricula while galvanizing the district’s fractious parents and representatives.
"This is a day of reckoning for this community," Convington told the Los Angeles Times in 2010. "They're going to have to face it one way or another."
The district, desperate to escape the clutches of its recent history, needed a solid leader. It had chewed up superintendents the way some rock bands go through drummers, claiming 26 leaders in 40 years. Those were numbers Covington was aware of and boasted of beating.
Then, suddenly, he was gone, triggering a dust-up that highlights the problem of superintendent retention that many schools face nationwide.
Covington’s resignation on Aug. 24 happened fast — one week after the start of the school year — and without warning. As late as Aug. 22, he was planning a far-off cocktail party with the school board.
“Doc [Covington] and team were wondering if we could do something closer to the winter holiday rather than the fall,” Covington's chief of staff, Chace Ramey, wrote a board member in an email obtained through an open records request by The Times.
Two days later, Covington presented his resignation to the school board without explanation.
Two board members, including the board president, thinking they had upset Covington by micromanaging, resigned in protest, hoping to sway Covington to return. But it was fruitless. News soon emerged that Covington was the sole candidate to lead Michigan’s new Education Achievement System, a statewide school district made up of Michigan’s lowest-performing schools.
“I take full responsibility for the difficulties for which my resignation created,” Covington said in a statement, according to the Kansas City Star.
As with many such statements, it’s not clear what “full responsibility” entails, a distinction that’s now relevant for many in Kansas City: Last week, the state of Missouri stripped the reeling district of its accreditation, which could trigger a state takeover and student transfers.
Missouri State Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro has said Covington's departure influenced the decision. "They continue to have a problem in stable leadership," she told the New York Times.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's office released a statement to The Times on Tuesday on Covington's behalf, defending his hiring and playing down Covington's stake in the Kansas City schools' loss of accreditation. "We understand the Missouri education officials were quite clear that their decisions were based on many years of educational performance and a wide range of factors," the statement said.
Covington's move highlights the fluid world of school leadership. Covington, like many in his profession, is accumulating a resume of increasingly short-lived stints. There were those six years leading Lowndes County Public Schools in Hayneville, Ala. Then the three years in Pueblo, Colo., followed by two years in Kansas City.
Many are already wondering how long he will stay in Michigan, a contingency his new contract seems designed to ward off: According to the Detroit Free-Press, Covington’s four-year contract starts at $225,000 and will rise to $425,000 in its final year, if he stays. That contract and Covington’s exit in Kansas City has already raised guards in Michigan, where Covington starts his first day Wednesday.
-- Matt Pearce in Kansas City, Mo.
Photo: John Covington in 2010. Credit: Associated Press