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Kansas City scales back district closures after pushback: 'We have that power to defend our schools'

Angel Rodriguez walks home with his daughter Natalie, 9, from James Elementary. The distance from their home is one block from the school that is among several identified for potential closure by Kansas City Public Schools.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Angel Rodriguez walks home from James Elementary with his daughter Natalie, 9. Her family is relieved the school is no longer being considered for closure.

After a series of contentious meetings and heated pushback, Kansas City Public Schools is considering dialing down the number of school closures.

Kansas City Public Schools is considering a scaled back plan to close schools as it copes with low enrollment and aging buildings.

The district’s Board of Education announced at its October meeting that it was considering closing 10 schools as part of a multi-year strategic plan to give its students the same programs and activities offered to students in suburban districts.

At the board’s Wednesday night meeting, district officials presented a revised plan that drops the number of proposed school closures to just two — for now.

The move follows multiple contentious meetings, and heated pushback from families that pleaded to keep their schools open.

“Based on our current enrollment and what we are able to provide to our students academically, closures are necessary,” said Dr. Jennifer Collier, the district’s interim superintendent. “We also recognize that it is possible to do the right thing at the wrong time and in the wrong way.”

The district is now proposing closures for Longfellow and Troost Elementary in fall 2023. The decision was based on low enrollment numbers and high costs of deferred maintenance in both buildings.

Longfellow has made strides academically in recent years, according to the district, but officials said the building is in poor condition and there are concerns about student safety. A carbon monoxide leak in the building in October led to the hospitalization of several students and staff members.

If the elementary schools do close, the district said it will work with families to find the best alternative. District officials said they will also establish “transition teams” at all closing schools to assist and support students in their move.

For families that fought to keep their schools open, it’s a relief that eight others are no longer on the chopping block.

“I cried — honestly, I did,” said Dalia Rodriguez. Her daughter attends James Elementary, which was originally considered for closure.

“We're seeing some of those results of our efforts that we've placed into this issue," she said.

Why does Kansas City need to close schools?

There is still the possibility that more schools — including James Elementary — could close in the future. The district said it will reconsider closure plans after further engagement with the community, and the potential passage of a bond in spring 2024.

KCPS hasn't had a successful school bond since 1967.

“Fifty-five years is long enough and bonds are standard in school systems, without question,” Collier said. “Our children deserve more. They deserve better buildings, our staff deserve better buildings, and so the time is now.”

KCPS reports that it is spending significantly more than other local districts on operational costs like transportation, food services and security.

Nearly 28% of the district's expenditures go toward operational costs. Grandview School District, the district closest to that amount, spends only about 18%. Many of its schools are also under capacity for enrollment.

“Those are resources that should be going into classrooms that are not,” Collier said.

She hopes closing schools will allow it to spend more money on things like foreign language classes, instrumental music, science labs, elective courses, project-based learning and field trips.

The district will be able to implement some of its academic goals even if just two schools close in the fall. Others depend on the passage of a school bond, external funding, or additional school closures or consolidations.

"We have that power to defend our schools"

The announcement of potential school closures was met with heated pushback from families worried it would increase blight in their neighborhoods, or it would take away much need support from the district’s most vulnerable populations.

“Parents often say the decisions are already made before they're asked for any input,” said Spark Bookhart, with the Parent Power Lab in Kansas City. “We have to change that way of looking at the importance of parents and families when we make major decisions like this.”

That’s why the district said its next step is to engage and build more trust with the community. Officials said a task force will be created to focus on issues that impact KCPS, including academic performance, school safety and economic development.

Collier said she hopes the updated plan will give space and time for schools to improve their enrollment and academic achievement.

“I'm willing to believe and trust that this community is going to get on board and help us, as a school system, make the improvements that we need to make, so that we reduce the number of schools that would need to close,” Collier said.

Each school in the district will be given goals for academic achievement, attendance and enrollment, she said. These benchmarks will be the basis for future decisions on school closures and consolidations.

Dalia Rodriguez said she’s confident her daughter’s school at James Elementary is going to stay open for good.

“As long as we continue working hand-in-hand as a community, we know that ... we have that power to defend our schools,” Rodriguez said.

The Board of Education will meet again on Jan. 25 to vote on the new recommendations.

More than ever, education lies at the intersection of equity, housing, funding, and other diverse issues facing Kansas City’s students, families and teachers. As KCUR’s education reporter, I’ll break down the policies driving these issues in schools and report what’s happening in our region's classrooms. You can reach me at jodifortino@kcur.org.
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