by Maria Benevento, The Kansas City Beacon

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,” she said. “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.

Declining Enrollment

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.

Proposed Bond Issues

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.”

This story was originally published by The Kansas City Beacon, an online news outlet focused on local, in-depth journalism in the public interest.