Kansas City Public Schools is proposing a far-reaching reorganization that would close 10 schools, build or expand others and — leaders say — free up funds for academic goals.
But the district knows that the plan could tank without community support.
Disgruntled families could leave. Voters could reject bonds needed to fund building maintenance, upgrades and new construction.
So KCPS is highlighting that it’s willing to listen to concerns and potentially adjust the recommendations — the result of a long-term planning initiative known as Blueprint 2030 — before a board vote, likely in December.
Leaders also are taking pains to distance their proposed consolidation from an unpopular district “rightsizing” initiative 12 years ago, saying the new plan is proactive and focused on improving student experiences.
“The only way it’s going to happen: if we decide to do it together,” interim Superintendent Jennifer Collier said during a passionate appeal for support at the Oct. 12 board meeting.
“If we don’t, guess what? It’s going to flop. I can tell you that already. Because that’s what’s happened in the past. We’ve got to decide that we’re going to be a different KCPS, we’re going to be a different city. We’re going to put kids first, not just say we put them first.”
Academics and school closures
The recommendations were announced Oct. 12 to a room with only a scattering of vacant chairs.
As they sat down, some audience members immediately began reviewing copies of presentation slides and reacting to the timeline for proposed school closures and changes.
People responded with groans, murmurs and applause as administrators and consultants unrolled the plan and commented on the future of the district.
Before discussing plans for school buildings, district leaders summarized their extensive process of background research and community input and touted improvements the plan would allow by freeing up funds currently used to maintain aging buildings.
New academic offerings would include project-based learning; field trips for all students; science, technology, engineering, art and math labs; college and career pathways; marching bands in all high schools; and world languages and instrumental music starting in elementary school.
Not all KCPS students have had access to those advantages, which are available at many neighboring districts, board member Marvia Jones said.
“I understand the concern that the community is definitely going to be impacted by these changes,” Jones said. “And this is emotional, it’s not just a physical change. I would also posit, though, that we are already being shortchanged … we are already lacking many opportunities and experiences for our children.”
The additions would phase in over the next three school years, with plans for evaluation and adjustment.
But improved financial efficiency through school closures is integral to the plan.
“I’m not going to say it’s impossible (to implement the academic vision without closing schools) if we had a lot of donors and funders,” Collier said. But “when you look at the number of buildings we currently have open and you look at the funding that we have, you have to think about how we can best utilize what it is that we currently have.”
As enrollment declined over the past decades, KCPS was left with many buildings that have too few students to support a wide variety of courses and activities. For example, last year Southeast High School’s football team had to end a season early for lack of players.
The district’s proposal strikes a middle ground among the scenarios KCPS initially shared with the public. It calls for eight elementary schools to close, as well as Central and Northeast high schools. The district would continue to use four of those buildings.
An additional middle school would open in a new or remodeled building in the south, allowing room for the district to move most sixth graders out of elementary school.
KCPS would also build two elementary schools to replace some existing ones, while the current King Elementary School would become Paseo Middle School. The building plan also includes some expansions and renovations.
To fund the building changes and improvements, the district is hoping voters will approve two bonds, one in April 2024 and another in 2027.
A bond allows a district to borrow money, often to fund building projects. Voters haven’t approved a bond for KCPS since 1967.
The incorporation of multiple bonds into the plan raised questions from some board members about backup plans and the need for a strong plan to build support.
“This district deserves to have this community re-up and increase their investment in our schools and in our kids,” board chair Nate Hogan said.
“I just want us to be really thoughtful about how we go about that, so when we go for it we’re not just maybe getting across the finish line but we’re crushing it, because this community has a very clear idea of what that means for our kids, our district and our city.”
Opportunities for input on the plan started Monday with a series of in-person and virtual meetings that extends through Nov. 9.
The district is providing meals, child care and interpretation services in Spanish, Somali, Swahili and Burmese at all in-person meetings, except for a Nov. 5 meeting specifically for Spanish speakers.
Michael Ali, a former KCPS student with grandchildren and great-grandchildren in the district, said he plans to voice his concerns about the proposed closure of Central High School.
“I’m going to every one of (the meetings) if I have to until they hear me,” he said.
Ali said he attended the initial board meeting because he worried —correctly — that Central would be slated for closure.
“I played football there. I went to that school. I just didn’t graduate,” he said. “I still love the school. I love the teachers.”
Ali said it doesn’t make sense for the district to close a large building that is only a few decades old.
“If they’re gonna bring some schools together they should bring East up to Central and then they can bring another school up to Central … it’s that big,” Ali said.
He said he doesn’t think improving buildings will help students and would prefer the district to focus on teacher quality, especially by raising salaries.
During the board meeting, it appeared other community members were also concerned about Central.
When a presenter said Central students would most likely move to Southeast High School under the plan, some groaned audibly.
During later discussion, Hogan acknowledged the reaction and suggested — to nods and murmurs of agreement — it was partly because of the distance between the two buildings.
Collier said the transition plan would account for cultural differences between the two schools.
“What we don’t want to do is just place the Central students at Southeast without considering the things that are important to them, the pride that they have in their school,” Collier said during a press conference the day after the meeting at which the plan was announced. “We want to make sure that they’re able to bring some of that along with them and then to incorporate that into that school so that it almost becomes a new culture.”
She noted that Central was a newer building but said it hadn’t aged well and that it had low enrollment, largely due to a small number of students living in the area.
The district plans to still make use of the building, including its athletic facilities.
According to a presentation at the board meeting, factors for closing schools were performance on state academic evaluations, enrollment numbers and trends, building condition and costs of deferred maintenance. All of the schools KCPS is proposing to close have lost enrollment over the past five years, and nearly all are predicted to continue that trend.
During the press conference, Collier said the district will take objections seriously, especially if they’re accompanied by a viable alternative. Leaders are open to modifying recommendations before a final vote, she said.
‘A very sensitive word’
The Blueprint 2030 process may be especially fraught because of lingering bad feelings over the district’s last major round of school closures, marketed as “rightsizing,” which closed nearly half of the district’s schools, displaced numerous students and left holes in some neighborhoods.
During the meeting, board member Kandace Buckner corrected a presenter’s word choice.
Rightsizing “is a very sensitive word as we went through this about 10 years ago,” she said. “…This is not rightsizing.”
Buckner said she’s already received emails, phone calls and texts asking how the district’s new plan will be different from the past.
Board member Jennifer Wolfsie said she views the “rightsizing” as a move made not from a sense of academic vision, but to stave off a fiscal crisis and a state takeover after years of board inaction.
The current initiative is more proactive, she said.
“If we don’t make a decision … and push things down the road, we could be putting our students and future boards back into the situation that we were having to face in 2010,” Wolfsie said.
Collier said during the board meeting that the district and community need to look to the future to support students.
“I cannot answer for the past,” she said. “All I can do now is look forward and ask everybody else to join us as we look forward, to join us and give us your thoughts. Share your thinking, share your concerns. But at the end of that we also have to know and understand that a decision will need to be made … If we really care and we want to see something different, let’s do it together.”
This story was originally published by The Kansas City Beacon, an online news outlet focused on local, in-depth journalism in the public interest.