Students and families in the Hickman Mills School District will need to cope with major changes next year after the Board of Education decided to close two elementary schools and reconfigure grade levels in most of its buildings.
By a count of 6 to 1, board members on Thursday night voted to close Symington and Johnson elementary schools. Superintendent Yolanda Cargile had recommended shuttering three of the district’s eight operating elementary buildings. A consultant had presented options that included closing five schools.
An audience of about 100 teachers, parents and community members was mostly silent after the vote, although some people hugged and cried. A handful of citizens, including Kansas City Council member Kevin McManus, who represents the district, had urged the board at the start of the meeting not to close multiple schools.
Even with the less drastic option, boundary changes and grade reconfigurations will affect many of the district’s families.
Starting with the 2019-20 school year, Hickman Mills will no longer set aside two of its elementary buildings for popular project-based curriculums emphasizing math and science for selected students. Kindergarten students will move from two early childhood centers into elementary schools.
Sixth graders, who now attend elementary schools, will move to Smith-Hale Middle School. The district also will shut down a special freshman center for 9th graders. They will attend Ruskin High School.
Cargile said the board has been looking at ways to cut expenses for about two years, as enrollment and reserve funds both continued to dip. The problem was accelerated last fall because of a mix-up involving Cerner Corp., the district’s largest property owner. Because of a tax-increment financing plan, the school district will receive only minimal payments from the massive Cerner complex within its boundaries for the next two decades. But an appeal by Cerner to the Missouri State Tax Commission reduced the amount by $2.4 million less than the district had anticipated.
“This plan is about meeting a board goal to be fiscally responsible,” Cargile said.
A consulting group told the district that all but two of its elementary buildings were underused, and most were in poor condition. Based on a demographic study, planners expect enrollment to dip from 5,770 students today to fewer than 4,500 students in 2027.
But district patrons, as well as business owners and elected officials, have lobbied school board members to reject predictions of continued decline.
“We oppose closing multiple schools for the terrible message it sends about our community, that we don’t believe in ourselves,” former school board member and Kansas City Council member John Sharp told the board.
Said McManus: “People want to live in south Kansas City. They want to raise their families here.”
But Luther Chandler, the board’s vice president, noted that teacher salaries in the district are lower than 10 neighboring school districts. Hickman Mills was forced to borrow money at the end of last year to pay its bills, he pointed out, while arguing for the cost-saving cuts.
The only board member to vote against the school closings was Carol Graves, a former teacher in the district. Graves mentioned an encouraging rise in test scores for the provisionally accredited district, and said she thought the area was ripe for development.
“We have some opportunities coming to south Kansas City that we haven’t had in some time,” she said.
Cargile said the district will attempt to make the changes as painless as possible for the staff and community. That includes trying to find positions for teachers and staffers who are displaced by the changes, either elsewhere in Hickman Mills or in other districts.
Barbara Shelly is a freelance contributor for KCUR 89.3. You can reach her at email@example.com.