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Consultant To Hickman Mills: Close Four Schools To Fix Budget Crisis

Barbara Shelly
Hickman Mills school board members Wakisha Briggs, Clifford Ragan and Alvin Brooks listen as a consultant lays out tough cost-saving measures.

A consultant to the Hickman Mills School District said Tuesday night that four of nine elementary schools might need to close as part of efforts to cope with a $5.5 million budget shortfall.

Those school closings were among the long-term cost-saving measures outlined by the consulting firm.

Portia Bates, with MGT Consulting Group of Tallahassee, told a packed auditorium that all but two elementary schools are underused, and many are in poor condition. Her firm has proposed closing Truman, Symington, Dobbs and Johnson elementary buildings.

Consolidating students into fewer buildings would save busing, maintenance and staffing costs and put the district in better shape to deal with continued enrollment decline, she said. Based on a demographic study, planners expect enrollment to dip from 5,770 students today to fewer than 4,500 students in 2027.

Bates and district leaders stressed that no final decisions have been made. Superintendent Yolanda Cargile is expected to present her recommendations for finding $5.5 million in savings at the school board’s Feb. 21 meeting.

But staffers and community members greeted the scenario with angst.

“To close four elementary schools, roughly half of our schools, sends, in my opinion, a bad reference for this district,” said John Sharp, a former school board member and Kansas City Council member.

He said he thought enrollment projections were overly pessimistic, noting the growth of the Cerner Corporation campus and other developments within the district’s boundaries.

But officials said the district’s enrollment has been in decline for more than 30 years.

School board member Alvin Brooks summarized the plight of an area characterized by poverty and lack of investment.

“Those who live here don’t work here and those who work here don’t live here,” he said. “Have you driven the district and seen the vacant houses and the stuff out on the sidewalks?”

Many patrons expressed support for the district, which saw an encouraging rise in student achievement on the latest state assessment report. But they noted that the district has already changed school boundaries and grade configurations in recent years, and said more change would be hard on families and students.

“Just give us some notice so we can pull our kids out of the district,” said Amy Cervantes, a parent with children at one of the two elementary schools that enroll students from throughout the district for a curriculum centered on science, technology, engineering and math.

Under cost-saving proposals outlined by the administration, the two theme schools would be converted to neighborhood schools. The district would also consolidate its early childhood education program from two buildings to one and move 6th graders out of elementary schools and into Smith Hale Middle School. Ninth graders, who currently attend a 9th grade center, would move to Ruskin High School.

“I’m terrified about seeing my 8th grader go to Ruskin,” said Marilyn Isaac, a grandmother.

“I stand by the district,” said Natasha Hull, an elementary teacher and parent in Hickman Mills. “But I’m very concerned about our students and our communities and how we’re upheaving them again.”

The district’s fiscal health has been declining for years. Both student enrollment and dollars in the reserve fund have steadily decreased.

But more recently, a tax assessment mix-up involving the school district’s biggest property owner brought the budget crisis into sharp focus.

Cerner Corp., the health information technology giant, received a 23-year break from paying full property taxes on its new campus near Bannister Mall and Interstate 435. Jackson County set the assessed value of the property for those years at $40 million. But Cerner appealed to the Missouri State Tax Commission, which in October 2017 lowered the assessment to $7 million.

Jackson County, however, continued to use the $40 million figure to determine the school district’s tax levy and property tax revenues. As a result, the district saw a loss of nearly $2.5 million in revenues in its 2017-18 budget and now must take drastic measures to dig out of the hole and rebuild its reserve funds.

“The board has not made a final decision to close one or more of its schools,” school board President Wakisha Briggs told the audience. But she said the board is committed to stabilizing the financial picture.

“We understand it’s going to be difficult,” she said.

Barbara Shelly is a freelance contributor for KCUR 89.3. You can reach her at bshellykc@gmail.com

Barbara Shelly is a freelance reporter and editor based in Kansas City, Missouri.
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