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Kansas City Plans Massive School Closures as Budget Fix

March 11, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Facing a $50 million deficit, the Kansas City, Mo., school board voted this week to close 29 of the city's 61 public schools. Ray Suarez talks to Superintendent John Covington about the board's decision.
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JIM LEHRER: Now: drastic measures for the public schools in Kansas City.

Ray Suarez has the story.

MAN: We must make sacrifices.

RAY SUAREZ: In a five-to-four vote last night, the Kansas City, Mo. School Board decided to close 29 of the district’s 61 schools to stave off bankruptcy. The system will also lay off 700 employees, including about 285 teachers.

Emotions flared in the crowd of more than 200. Some pleaded to keep schools open. Others said the closings were overdue.

WOMAN: Buildings don’t count. Children do.

MAN: Choosing not to choose is no longer an option, and this district for too long has chosen not to choose.

SHARON SANDERS BROOKS, Kansas City councilwoman: Now it’s getting personal.

RAY SUAREZ: Councilwoman Sharon Sanders Brooks felt her inner-city district was unfairly targeted.

SHARON SANDERS BROOKS: This intentional continuation of the blighting of the urban core is scandalous and shameful.

RAY SUAREZ: Early today, at a news conference, school superintendent John Covington acknowledged the closings were painful, but he said it had to be done.

JOHN COVINGTON, superintendent, Kansas City School District: Closing schools and making the remaining schools much stronger academically is unquestionably the right thing to do. We were operating far too many schools.

RAY SUAREZ: Enrollment in the city’s public schools has fallen by half, to just 17,400 students, in the past 10 years. Overall, the schools are now less than half full. Still, many parents complained their children will now have to travel much farther to get to a school.

NICOLE MCNALLAN, parent: I’m really sad. It’s a great school. My son has had a lot of success here. It’s a great learning environment.

RAY SUAREZ: The closings take effect at the start of the new academic year, this fall.

And for more about this decision, we’re joined by John Covington, the superintendent of the Kansas City School District.

Superintendent, how did your city and its school district come to this pass? How did it get to a point where the cuts had to be so drastic?

JOHN COVINGTON: Ray, over the past several years, the Kansas City, Mo., School District has been a declining-enrollment school system.

Approximately 20 years ago, we had 75,000 students. Approximately 10 years ago, we had 35,000 students. Enrollment continued to decline, and we’re now down to less than 18,000.

And, as a result of that, we’re still operating a total of 61 schools, which is far too many schools for the number of students that we have enrolled in the district.

RAY SUAREZ: Kansas City has roughly the same number of people that it had in 1960, when your school district was at its enrollment height. Where are all those kids? Where have they gone?

JOHN COVINGTON: Well, in 1995, the United States Supreme Court overturned the deseg. case, and, as a result of that, we lost close to 8,000 students, I think.

And then, in the latter part of the ’90s, the Missouri State legislature authorized charter schools, which also caused several students and their families to leave the school district. And, just recently, in 2007, there was an annexation by the independent school district that took close to 3,000 students.

RAY SUAREZ: At the same time, is there less support for urban school systems from your state government? We know that a lot of state governments are under pressure, getting declining revenues. Have you seen the support that you get from other places drying up?

JOHN COVINGTON: Well, I had the privileges — privilege of meeting with our state commissioner, Dr. Chris Nicastro, two days ago. And, unfortunately, that — during that meeting, she told me that school districts in the state of Missouri should also expect proration, which means that we are going to be experiencing a reduction in additional revenue that we would normally get from the state.

RAY SUAREZ: And you heard a mother in our tape report complain that her son was going to have to travel farther to go to school. Is that going to be a more common problem in Kansas City now? Are there going to be some neighborhoods where the local — local elementary school or high school is some distance away from where a family lives?

JOHN COVINGTON: In most cases, that won’t be the case. We took that into consideration when we identified the schools that we targeted for closure.

The average riding time for students is somewhere between 35 minutes or so. In most cases, in the schools that we closed, those students will be going to schools that are close to their homes.

RAY SUAREZ: Let’s talk a little bit about the neighborhoods that have been affected in this way.

JOHN COVINGTON: Sure.

RAY SUAREZ: A local public school is one of the central institutions of a neighborhood. Is it tough to bring a neighborhood back if it doesn’t have a local public school?

JOHN COVINGTON: In many cases, that’s very difficult. You indicated earlier that it was a painful decision that the board had to make. It certainly was. It was a painful recommendation that I had to make, as the superintendent of schools.

However, when you consider the fact that not only are we draining our — or spreading ourselves much too thin and unnecessarily draining the financial resources of the school district, when you consider the fact that 75 percent of our schools have 25 percent of the students or less who are performing at proficiency, meaning that they are meeting the state mandate on the state accountability test, that is shameful within itself.

And, as a result of that, we need to divert revenue and human resources wherever we can to make sure that we are improving the quality of education in all of our schools in Kansas City for children.

RAY SUAREZ: You have told the parents how hard this decision was to make. Is there any upside? Will the Kansas City schools that are now bigger also have the potential to be better schools?

JOHN COVINGTON: Well, in most cases, our schools will be bigger, but they won’t be much bigger.

I think, prior to the recommendation, 60 percent of our elementary schools were at capacity, 40 percent of the middle schools were at capacity, and 40 — or less than 40 percent of our high schools were at capacity.

Now, as a result of the closing of schools and consolidation, that will change. We will be using a lot more capacity now than what we were prior to the closing of schools. But the overall goal is to make sure that the quality of education that’s afforded to each and every child, by being better stewards of the district’s financial resources, using those resources financially, and the human resources as well, in ways that make sense to provide the best possible education for kids.

RAY SUAREZ: So, in short, you will be a smaller district, smaller number of schools, smaller number of teachers, but, you hope, also one less vulnerable to bankruptcy, sir?

JOHN COVINGTON: Oh, absolutely.

We were — before this plan, we were facing a $50 million shortfall. And, as a result of the recommendation that I made, and as a result of the board approving the recommendation of closing these schools and reducing the amount of employees that we have, we will now break even.

RAY SUAREZ: Superintendent, thanks for joining us.

JOHN COVINGTON: Thank you so much for — thank you so much for having me.