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Pros And Cons Of A Mayoral Takeover Of Schools

School board president Airick Leonard West and Mayor Sly James discuss the district's future.
Sylvia Maria Gross
School board president Airick Leonard West and Mayor Sly James discuss the district's future.

Kansas Citians have been wringing their hands about the future of the Kansas City Missouri School District for decades. But at a press conference with Mayor Sly James at City Hall, school board president Airick Leonard West said that's changing.

"When's the last time you saw the chairman of the school board and the mayor of the city, sitting down talking jointly about how we create a world-class educational system?" West said. "This is a fundamentally new conversation and with it comes new opportunities."

On December 1, 2011, Mayor James proposed a mayoral takeover of the district, which would mean eliminating the elected board. The next day, James said that was just one of many options on the table, but he was committed to finding a governance structure for the district that would result in better student achievement.

"Education affects every aspect of this city," James said. "How do I sit back knowing full well that this issue is raging, there's absolutely no agreement on anything . . . and not engage in trying to make that situation better."

Talking against the clock
The district is still scheduled to lose accreditation January 1, 2012, at which point it has two years before the state is allowed to step in. But Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro has asked legislators to change that law early this session, so the state has the option to takeover sooner. A mayoral takeover would also require legislative action.

Mayor James called on legislators and state education officials to give this process the time it needs.

"Don't be precipitous and take the conversation to a level that we don't need to go to while we're still working on trying to figure out the best approach," James said.

The mayor is inviting key people to talk about the options facing the school district and is hoping to reach some kind of consensus in the next few months. He said he'll move forward with that consensus, even if it costs him politically.

"If I were smart and wanted to get re-elected, I would run from this issue. But running from this issue is exactly why we are sitting here today," James said.

Accountability in school governance
Brent Ghan, of the Missouri School Board Association, applauds James and West for engaging the community in this conversation. But he says the community has more ownership when they directly elect school board members.

"We're very skeptical of these ideas to change the governance structure of school districts and to circumvent the will of the people," Ghan said. "Simply changing the governance structure of a school district does not necessarily get at some of the fundamental issues that are facing a school district such as Kansas City."

Ghan says it's ironic that the school board is facing elimination now.

"The Kansas City school board, while it does have a history of some turmoil, in recent years has made a lot of progress in terms of improving its governance. And it has really been headed in right direction," Ghan said. "It has a plan in place for the improvement of the district that was developed in cooperation with former Superintendent Covington . . . we need to give that direction a chance to work."

Mayor James' proposal
The idea behind mayoral control of schools is that the mayor becomes solely accountable to voters for the success of schools. Of course, there are 14 school districts within the boundaries of Kansas City, Missouri, so many residents outside of the district would have a vote, too.

Mayor James proposed that he would appoint a CEO for the school district, who would in turn hire a Central Academic Officer, like a traditional superintendent, and a Central Business Officer. A parent advisory committee would include a representative from each school, and meet with the CEO monthly.

The leadership team would have quarterly meetings that would be open to the public (the current school board meets publicly twice a month).

Mayoral control in other parts of the country
About a dozen cities around the country have moved to some kind of mayor-led governance model in the past 20 years, including Chicago, Boston, New York City and Washington, DC. Detroit tried it for six years and then returned to a system led by an elected school board.

Brooklyn College education professor David Bloomfield says there's no undisputed data on the success of mayoral control.

"Mayoral control isn't a panacea," Bloomfield said. "Local people should depend on local circumstances for their decision."

Mayor James cited the research of Brown University professor Kenneth Wong in his letter to Nicastro, who has analyzed the progress of mayorally-controlled districts around the country.

"Most of these systems under mayoral control have improved in terms of management - financial management as well as administrative management," Wong said.

But more importantly, he said, these districts have had higher gains in student achievement than similar urban districts around the country. And mayoral leadership proves particularly effective in the lowest-performing schools.

"Mayoral leadership is able to leverage a lot of resources both inside and outside of the public school system to work together to address more holistically some of the neighborhood challenges: social isolation, jobs, crime, gang violence," Wong said.

Wong has also compared mayoral takeovers to state takeovers of school districts. He said state-appointed officials can encounter resistance and mistrust, and it can take them longer to get local entities to work together. He has not specifically compared the test scores of state-run districts to those led by mayors or elected school boards.

Sylvia Maria Gross is storytelling editor at KCUR 89.3. Reach her on Twitter @pubradiosly.
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