Kansas City District Once Flush With Cash Is So Broke Official Wants to Close Half Its Schools

Heather Hollingsworth, WDAF-TV (Kansas City), March 7, 2010

Kansas City was held up as a national example of bold thinking when it tried to integrate its schools by making them better than the suburban districts where many kids were moving. The result was one school with an Olympic-sized swimming pool and another with recording studios.

Now it’s on the brink of bankruptcy and considering another bold move: closing nearly half its schools to stay afloat.

Schools officials say the cuts are necessary to keep the district from plowing through what little is left of the $2 billion it received as part of a groundbreaking desegregation case.

Buffeted for years by declining enrollment, political squabbling and a revolving door of leadership, the district’s fortunes are so bleak that Superintendent John Covington has said diplomas given to many graduates “aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.”

Kansas City is among the most striking examples of the challenges of saving urban school districts. The city used gobs of cash to improve facilities, but boosting lagging test scores and stemming the exodus of students were more elusive. Like other big-city districts, it finds itself struggling to become more than just the last resort for large pockets of poverty in the urban core.

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The latest possible solution for Kansas City is the plan Covington submitted to the school board last week that called for closing 29 out of 61 schools to eliminate a projected $50 million budget shortfall. Covington also has said he wants to cut about 700 of the district’s 3,000 jobs, including 285 teachers. The school board vote is Wednesday.

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This year alone officials expect to overspend the $316 million budget by $15 million and if nothing changes, the district will be in the red by 2011.

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Kansas City appeared headed for a recovery when a federal judge in 1985 declared the district was unconstitutionally segregated. To boost test scores, integrate the schools and repair decrepit classrooms, the state was ordered to spend about $2 billion to address the problems.

The district went on a buying spree that included a six-lane indoor track and a mock court complete with a judge’s chamber and jury deliberation room. But student achievement remained low, and the anticipated flood of students from the suburbs turned out to be more like a trickle. {snip}.

And to this day, the district continues to lose students. In the late 1960s enrollment peaked at 75,000, dropped to 35,000 a decade ago and now sits at just under 18,000.

Only about half of Kansas City’s elementary school students and about 40 percent of middle and high school students now attend the city’s public schools. Many of the other students have left for publicly funded charter schools, private and parochial schools and the suburbs.

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At the height of spending in 1991-92, Kansas City invested more than $11,700 per student–more than double that year’s national average of $5,001, according to U.S. Census figures. Today, the district spends an average of $15,158 on each student, compared to a national average of $9,666 in 2006-07, the latest figures available.

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Although Kansas City is still running the buildings, many schools have an empty feel. Several classrooms sit vacant, many hallways are sparse with students and some teachers have a dozen or fewer students.

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Covington has faulted previous school leaders for failing to act as enrollment shrunk. Past administrators proposed closures, but the plans were either scaled back or scrapped entirely after community protests.

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superintendant

Superintendent John Covington.

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