We’ll know in the coming weeks if Carol Kelley, currently superintendent of Oak Park’s District 97 public elementary schools, will be named to the same role in Madison, Wisconsin. We reported last week that Kelley is one of two finalists for the post.

The community can then say bon voyage after Kelley’s five years here and look forward to a lost year with an interim superintendent or it can say an awkward, “Gee, too bad,” and pretend it’s business as usual.

Like a lot of parents and staff within D97, we have a hard time reading Carol Kelley. We don’t doubt her commitment to racial equity as the central tenet of this district’s mission. She has, over time, become more explicit and open in talking about the profound challenge of building equity in a system built on white privilege. That’s good.

But that conversation is loaded with such extreme jargon, educational babble that it is hard to connect the words to the classroom, to the kids in those classrooms. Perhaps it is her interesting background as an engineer, but disconnect persists, as the jargon does not penetrate beyond the district’s bureaucracy. 

In her years in Oak Park, Kelley has benefited from near constant support from the elected school board. The board has allowed Kelley to fully remake the administration of the district not simply in those slotted into posts, but in the fundamental structuring of the district. It might be brilliance, but it is distinctly Kelley’s. And the near total turnover of top staffers on Madison Street and the perpetually spinning door among the 10 building principals is dizzying. 

Our point is that Supt. Kelley has built an educational apparatus to her specifications, we are only at the start of the execution of the vision she has built the apparatus for, and now we know her preference is to depart. Tough to swallow, hard on already shaky morale. And it is about certain that the next superintendent, and, we’d assume it won’t be Kelley for more than another year, will not be content to pilot the top heavy, top down craft she built. 

Turning this district is a long-term project that demands vision but also inclusion, data but also connection, urgency but also patience. It demands a deeper commitment than Supt. Kelley has shown by looking elsewhere so early in the mission.

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