Missouri lawmakers are starting pay attention to turnaround efforts in the Kansas City Public Schools – and one member of the school board says that’s given the district a seat at the table.
John Fierro has been the chairman of the government relations committee since he was elected to the school board three years ago.
“Our reputation in Jefferson City has improved significantly,” Fierro says. “(Before) you would hear the stories about, ‘Oh, they can’t get along, the board is disruptive, they can’t keep a superintendent.’”
KCPS used to send long wishlists to lawmakers every year, but this session, Superintendent Mark Bedell encouraged the school board to focus on two or three big priorities that they might be able to get done versus “10 to 20 and we don’t accomplish anything,” according to Fierro.
Here are the big three the school board settled on.
1) Support adequate and equitable public school funding.
“People will say, ‘Oh, my legislator said they’re fully funding public education. Why are you guys wanting more money?’” Fierro says.
Missouri’s Foundation Formula is complicated (here’s a primer from the Missouri Association of School Administrators), and while lawmakers fully funded it last year, that was only after lowering the target in 2016. A lot of educators – and even some lawmakers – say school funding hasn’t kept pace with inflation.
Fierro points out that in years past (though not in 2018), the legislature borrowed from school transportation funds to be able to fully fund the formula. That shortchanged rural districts that bus kids long distances, and it hurt KCPS and other districts that serve lots of homeless students, too. Federal law requires districts pay to transport homeless students to the last school they attended, and those costs add up quickly.
2) Support legislation and the enforcement of current statutes to provide transparency regarding the financial stewardship and governance of public school districts and charter schools to ensure accountability for use of public funds.
In the past, KCPS called for charters to be held to the same accountability standards as traditional public schools. This year, as the district works to build more partnerships with charter schools, the push is for transparency – ensuring that school board meeting notices and minutes are available online, for instance.
KCPS is also advocating for a requirement that charter school board members reside in the district where the school is located.
3) Support laws and local ordinances pertaining to tax incentive and abatement programs to provide school districts greater determination over the use of duly authorized local revenue sources.
This is a big one. When the city council approved tax breaks for Three Light last summer, Bedell wasn’t very happy with the deal. That’s because the same incentive packages the city puts together to drive economic development cost the school district revenue – up to $35 million per year.
“That $35 million represents a little over 10 percent of our operating budget,” Fierro says. “For every dollar we need to spend, that’s a dime taken out.”
What KCPS wants is someone to represent their interests on the commissions that oversee these arrangements – and veto power over the district’s portion of property tax collections for any project.
KCPS still opposing the pre-K sales tax
As for Mayor Sly James’ plan to generate money for pre-K with a three-eighth cent sales tax, funding for early childhood education didn’t make the district’s big three. But it did get a mention in the packet the district put together outlining their goals for the 2019 session.
In the interest of public education, Kansas City Public Schools will:
- Support state funding to allow public school districts to offer or expand quality pre-kindergarten education programs.
- Oppose the use of vouchers, tax credits, deductions for tuition and related educational expenses, and other similar credit systems to divert public monies to non-public K–12 schools
That’s pretty much the position KCPS and other public school districts in the city have staked all along: they don’t think private and parochial providers should be getting public pre-K dollars.
Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.