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Education

Amid Pandemic Uncertainty, Two Growing Kansas City Area School Districts Are Relying On Voters For Campus Upgrades

052820_EM_LSHS_TroyHuffman.jpg
Elle Moxley
/
KCUR 89.3
Troy Huffman, a rising senior at Lee's Summit High School, poses with a paper-mache tiger mascot before the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools. He says he likes going to the oldest high school in the district, but the building could use some upgrades.

COVID-19 postponed April municipal elections to June 2, when North Kansas City and Lee's Summit school districts will ask voters to approve bond measures to renovate old schools and build new ones.

Before the pandemic, the North Kansas City and Lee’s Summit school districts were preparing to ask voters to approve bond issues in April.

School officials pressed pause when the municipal election was postponed until June 2. Now, with the election right around the corner, they’re reminding voters that even though kids haven’t been in schools for months, building for the future can’t wait.

In fact, North Kansas City has already started demolishing an old shopping center in Gladstone even though voters haven’t approved building a new early childhood education center yet.

“We’ve gone at risk in order to stay on our timeline,” Superintendent Dan Clemens said.

The district is paying for the demolition with money from other construction projects that came in under budget. That past stewardship of taxpayer dollars is one of the reasons Clemens isn’t worried about this bond issue passing. There isn’t any organized opposition, and the district projects that the bond will create at least 500 new construction jobs in the Northland at a time when everyone is worried about the economy.

“It’s our own little stimulus package for our community to help get things going again and hopefully get people back to work,” Clemens said.

North Kansas City’s $155 million bond issue

North Kansas City is already the largest school district in Kansas City, Missouri, and it welcomes about 400 new students every year.

But the majority of North Kansas City Schools are more than 60 years old, and some aren’t ADA-compliant. Here’s what’s included in the $155 million, no-tax-increase bond program the district is asking voters to approve:

  • New stadiums for Oak Park High School and Winnetonka High School
  • A new classroom wing at Staley High School
  • Total replacement of two elementary schools — Maplewood and Davidson
  • Major renovations at Briarcliff Elementary
  • A new early child education facility in Gladstone

Nick Pettit is the principal at Maplewood, one of the schools slated for total replacement. He said students deserve a school where sewage doesn’t back up into the hallway when it rains.

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Elle Moxley
Maplewood Elementary Principal Nick Pettit spends a lot of time dealing with the problems of a deteriorating building, like water damage to ceiling tiles.

“There have been many days when ... I’ll see that there are some (ceiling) tiles about to explode. I grab my ladder, and I get the broom, and I poke the hole in the tile. The water comes down, and we kind of move on,” Pettit said.

Lee’s Summit’s $224 million bond measure

The Lee’s Summit R-7 School District is also trying to maintain parity across its facilities. Here’s what’s included in the $224 million bond program the district is asking voters to approve:

  • A new middle school
  • Renovations to move sixth graders into the three existing middle schools
  • Extensive renovations at the district’s oldest high school
  • Athletic facility improvements at all three high schools
  • An addition at Mason Elementary
  • A new early childhood education center

Lee’s Summit High School was built in 1952, and it’s been added onto so many times that passing periods have to be longer than at the other two high schools. The intercom system still runs off a single computer from 2003 that’s older than most of the students.

“I’ve been in West and North [High Schools], and they’re newer and more open than our school,” said Troy Huffman, a rising senior at Lee’s Summit High. “Like, the bleachers in the A gym, you get splinters when you sit on them.”

Still, Huffman and his classmates are fond of their school, which they refer to as “the OG.” Huffman says LSHS needs a new baseball stadium, and he likes that there are plans to open up the commons and give students a place to study.

A ‘renewed sense of community’?

Lee’s Summit voters have historically supported school bond issues, especially if they don’t raise taxes, and this one doesn’t. But Elaine Bluml, a parent who’s worked on five school bond campaigns since her son graduated from the district in 2007, concedes that the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted this election cycle.

She’s encouraged, though, by how many requests for yard signs she’s gotten since the election was postponed earlier this year.

“People have been increasingly supportive, I would say,” Bluml said. “Almost in a sense that there is a renewed sense of community.”

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Elle Moxley
The 12-foot tiger head sculpture on the exterior of Lee's Summit High School is iconic, but the district isn't planning to put it back up outside after the building is renovated. Instead, art teachers and their students will restore it for display inside.

Still, there are older voters in Lee’s Summit who are afraid to go to the polls because of COVID-19. John Faulkenberry, the retired principal of Lee’s Summit High, said that the school district gets a lot of support from John Knox Village, a senior center with more than 1,500 residents.

“They’re going to have to consider their options,” Faulkenberry said. “An absentee ballot might be the best one available.”

But he agreed with Bluml that most Lee’s Summit residents are thinking about what happens after the pandemic, when kids eventually do go back to school.

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