By Heather Hollingsworth
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The Kansas City school board narrowly approved a plan last Wednesday night to close nearly half of the district’s schools in a desperate bid to avoid a potential bankruptcy.
The board voted 5-4 after parents and community leaders made final pleas to spare the schools even as the beleaguered district seeks to erase a projected $50 million budget shortfall. The approved plan calls for shuttering 29 of 61 schools — a striking amount even as public school closures rise nationwide while the recession eats away at academic budgets.
“The urban core has suffered white flight post-the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. the Board of Education, blockbusting by the real estate industry, redlining by banks and other financial institutions, retail and grocery store abandonment,” Kansas City Councilwoman Sharon Sanders Brooks said to applause from a standing-room-only crowd of more than 200 people.
“And now the public education system is aiding and abetting in the economic demise of our school district,” she said. “It is shameful and sinful.”
Many school board members said the vote was a difficult one. An emotional Duane Kelly told the crowd that “this is the most painful vote I have ever cast” in 10 years on the board.
Under the approved plan, buildings will be shuttered before the next school year. Teachers at six other low-performing schools will be required to reapply for their jobs, and the district will sell its downtown central office. It also is expected to cut about 700 of the district’s 3,000 jobs — including 285 teachers.
“Now he has to figure out how to do it,” said board member Joel Pelofsky, who voted for the closures. “My analogy is we took a meat ax to the district. Now we have to figure out how to sandpaper it into place.”
Some parents called for Superintendent John Covington’s departure after the vote, shouting, “He has to go.”
Covington, one in a long line of superintendents, has spent the past month making the case to sometimes angry groups of parents and students that the closures are necessary. He declined to discuss the closures after the meeting but planned to talk at a news conference Thursday morning.
Laura Loyacono, 45, the parent of a 13-year-old girl and 16-year-old boy, served on a committee that helped draft the closure proposal.
“It’s not an easy thing,” Loyacono said. “We knew going into it that we would have to close a significant number of schools because of the budget issues and because the resources have been so diluted and so spread out that I think some of the program quality has really suffered.”
Despite the need, she said nobody likes to see schools closed.
“It’s a tough day,” Loyacono said.
Covington has stressed that the district’s buildings are only half-full as its population has plummeted amid political squabbling and chronically abysmal test scores. The district’s enrollment of fewer than 18,000 students is about half of what the schools had a decade ago and just a quarter of its peak in the late 1960s.
Many students have left for publicly funded charter schools, private and parochial schools and the suburbs.
Fewer students means less money from the state. For the past few years, the district has been plowing through the large reserves it built up when money from a $2 billion court-ordered desegregation plan was flooding its coffers.
School administrators have said that without radical cuts, the district could be in the red by 2011.
Further stressing the budget, the district will lose $23.5 million in the upcoming academic year that it had received from the state for educating students who attended seven schools that have switched to a better-performing neighboring district.
“None of us liked voting for this,” board member and former desegregation attorney Arthur Benson said, “but it was necessary.”
Nationally, many big districts are closing just one or two schools. Detroit closed 29 schools before classes began this fall, but that still left the district with 172 schools.