In a split vote, the Kansas City School Board on Wednesday agreed to close two elementary schools at the end of this school year, scaling back a previous proposal that would have closed four buildings simultaneously.
The board voted 4-2 to close Troost and Longfellow Elementary Schools. Officials say both buildings are under-enrolled and outdated, and their closure will free up funds to help avoid a budget shortfall and improve academic offerings. The district expects to save $2.4 million.
“This is a very difficult place to be as a district and as a community. So many parts of me are deeply saddened by where we sit, and I wish we didn’t have to make the decision we’re making right now,” said Board Member Tanesha Ford, who voted for the plan. “… I think our district and system in general has too many schools for us students and we have to make some very difficult decisions.”
After community outcry, officials rolled out an earlier proposal that would also close Central High School and James Elementary School by next fall. And the district has put on hold a long-term renovation proposal, which involved closing 10 schools over the next few years, a plan that has led to petitions and months of contentious meetings with parents and alumni fighting to save their schools. .
Board members Nate Hogan and Kandace Buckner voted against the plan.
“I cannot in good conscience vote to shut down a school by doing exactly what we want them to do, boosting achievement and increasing enrollment,” Buckner said. “… I know that school closures are a reality we have to face, but I think we have put the cart before the horse.”
While Longfellow Elementary School, at 2830 Holmes St., has seen student achievement improve, officials said the building is in the worst shape of any school in the district. The school, for example, was temporarily closed last fall after a carbon monoxide leak sent several students to hospital. It has $6.5 million in deferred maintenance costs.
Longfellow has just 235 students, while the school’s capacity is 325. Enrollment at the school is down from 260 in 2018, but has seen a slight increase this year after dropping to 198 last year.
Troost Elementary, 1215 E. 59th St., is also undercapacity, with 250 students, down from 370 in 2018. Additionally, officials said, the school has $4.3 million in deferred maintenance costs. Officials recommend retaining the building for future district use.
Board member Rita Cortés called the plan a “significant first step,” but said several factors will need to change to help improve the district’s finances and avoid future closures.
Hogan, who voted “no,” said he was “deeply concerned about delaying the inevitable.”
“We know there are forces fighting against the shutdown, not because they care about the district, but because they want to create a future KCPS-free state. I fear that without courageous action, the beginning of the end is near,” said Hogan. “…I am sad that we are likely to make a decision that prevents another generation of students from getting what they so desperately need and they deserve.”
‘worth fighting for’
While the district could likely re-submit school closure proposals in the future, many concerned Central and James parents said they feel their voices are being heard.
“I cried. I honestly did,” said Dalia Rodriguez, whose daughter attends James Elementary. She spoke in Spanish through an interpreter in an interview with The Star earlier this month. “We’re seeing some of those results from our efforts that we’ve put into this. … As long as we continue to work side by side as a community, we know we have the power to stand up for ourselves.”
Several residents on Wednesday applauded acting superintendent Jennifer Collier, saying she has inherited a difficult situation but has managed to rebuild some confidence within the community and reignite enthusiasm for their public schools. Many neighborhood leaders say they will continue to work with the district and engage their communities to try to improve their schools and keep them open.
“Our work as a neighborhood is not done yet,” said Gregg Lombardi, executive director of the Lykins Neighborhood Association. The neighborhood’s Whittier Elementary was previously recommended for closure. “We have found that we have a school worth fighting for.”
Parents and pupils feared that families would flee the district if they missed neighborhood schools rather than busing their students to schools miles away. Neighborhood associations were concerned that the original plan would deal a major blow to their revitalization efforts if families didn’t have a nearby school inviting them to move or stay put. And parents had safety concerns if their children were sent to rival schools in unfamiliar neighborhoods.
The district has proposed closing 10 schools to avoid a projected $25 million drop in revenue by 2025.
KCPS has an oversupply of deteriorating buildings operating below capacity, officials say, and is spending more than neighboring districts on operating costs, such as transportation, security and utilities. After decades of declining enrollment, with Kansas City students crowding charter schools and suburban districts, KCPS leaders say it is no longer feasible to manage all of its 37 school buildings, many of which have millions of dollars in maintenance costs defer.
Financial strain has often left students in low-enrolled buildings without full-time music or art teachers, science labs, and extracurriculars.
The long-term plan was to use the money saved to expand academic offerings, upgrade classrooms, implement career-ready programs, add world language classes, and ensure all high schools once again have bands and teams of football.
Bond rating 2024
Parts of the plan would have required the KCPS to pass a bond initiative to fund facility improvements — something many were skeptical would succeed since voters haven’t approved such a proposal since 1967. Many nearby suburban boroughs, meanwhile, have elections successful bond issues every several years to finance projects.
Some feared Kansas City residents would not support a bond if the school board approved the closure of 10 schools.
Now, the district plans to submit a bond proposal in the spring of next year before moving forward with further closures.
Even with just two schools closing before next fall, officials said earlier this month that the district will implement some academic improvements immediately, such as expanding instrumental music and foreign language opportunities, as well as adding more math and reading support.
Collier told a school board meeting earlier this month that he hopes the district will increase enrollment and avoid further closures. Officials aim to continue to improve the academic achievements, graduation rates and other metrics that helped the district regain full state recognition last year for the first time in two decades.
“We want to give some space and time to schools to be able to make the kind of improvements we’re looking for around enrollment, academics, increased attendance, before we could even potentially come back with any other recommendations,” Collier said earlier this month. “And the hope is that we’ll see such an improvement that we won’t need as many recommendations (school closures) as we initially put forward.”
Collier said the district is evaluating schools based on academic performance, enrollment, population trends, impact on at-risk students, condition of facilities and operating costs, such as transportation and utilities.
Meanwhile, the district continues to search for its next superintendent. Collier was named interim superintendent after Mark Bedell stepped down last summer. District officials expect the search to be completed by the end of next month.