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Kansas City, Missouri, Schools Superintendent Blasts Incentive Deal For Construction Company As 'Systemically Racist'

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Andrea Tudhope
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KCUR 89.3 file photo

BlueScope Construction has already pulled $7 million in tax revenue away from schools and libraries and is asking for another $8.4 million in incentives to stay in Kansas City.

In a scathing letter to Kansas City Councilmembers on Wednesday, Kansas City Public Schools Superintendent Mark Bedell called on the city council to reject a deal that would extend tax breaks for BlueScope construction in the West Bottoms.

“A Kansas City company believing they can bring forward any additional request that diverts resources away from our students speaks loudly to the systemically racist real estate practices we have allowed to exist here,” Bedell wrote.

BlueScope Construction has already pulled $7 million away from schools and libraries, but that hasn’t stopped the company from asking for another $8.4 million in incentives to stay in town.

BlueScope is an Australian company that acquired Butler Manufacturing. Their original agreement with the city, a 100% property tax exemption, was set to expire in 2021. The proposed extension is for a 13-year, 75% tax abatement and includes a parking deal worth $2.4 million.

The city council is set to vote on the first part of that package, the parking deal, on Thursday.

The company says if it doesn’t receive a new incentive deal, it would move across the state line to Kansas or elsewhere.

“Thirteen years spans a child’s first day of kindergarten to their last day of high school,” Bedell said in his letter.

He pointed out that a majority of students in the district are children of color and more than half are Black.

“Financial decisions can be moral ones and this request is a violent economic practice that would never be inflicted on the majority-white districts in the Northland. I am confident my Superintendent colleagues in those districts would agree,” he said.

Northland school districts have generally been protected from having their revenues diverted.

Councilman Eric Bunch told KCUR in an e-mail that he planned on voting against the BlueScope project, saying incentive deals are predicated on the idea that they will eventually create additional revenue for the city.

"Furthermore, we routinely abate or redirect KCPS and [Hickman Mills School District] taxes while at the same time we hold harmless Northland school districts in every incentive deal north of the river," Bunch said. "This stark policy difference perpetuates systemic racism in our city."

But Northland councilman Dan Fowler said he was disappointed in the superintendent.

"He has portrayed the Northland as a bunch of racists and he has tried to create a North versus South fight that I have been trying for five years to avoid,” Fowler said.

Still, Fowler said he had not yet decided how he would vote on the project.

Mayor Quinton Lucas' office said in an e-mail that the mayor is "not inclined" to vote in support of the project unless BlueScope and the district reach a "mutually beneficial agreement."

A separate statement sent this week by the Kansas City Coalition for Economic Development Reform, called the BlueScope deal “unconscionable corporate welfare and, quite frankly, racist.”

Kansas and Missouri agreed earlier this year to a truce in what’s been called an economic border war in which companies get generous incentives to hop the state line.

BlueScope says its deal was in the works before the truce was approved.

Another deal that was “grandfathered” in after the truce was a $35 million incentive package for Waddell & Reed, which was approved by the city council in December.

But if councilmembers reject this part of the deal for BlueScope, a larger ask for a property tax break from one of the city’s many tax boards is also likely to fail.

Several city council members did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Northland school districts can opt-out of having their revenues diverted.

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