KCUR News
12:35 pm
Sun February 14, 2010

KCMO Superintendent Proposes Closing About 30 Schools

Kansas City, Mo. – Kansas City Missouri School Superintendent John Covington has proposed shuttering about half of the district's schools, reducing staff by 700 positions, and moving headquarters out of 1211 McGee. A steep decline in enrollment has left school buildings half full, and the superintendent says that down-sizing will allow him to redeploy resources towards better instruction. He laid out the details in a plan presented to the school board Saturday.

See proposed plans for school closures here and the data that led to the plan here.

So many people came to this special school board meeting, at the top floor of the offices of law firm Husch, Blackwell and Sanders, that officials had to open an extra room for the overflow to listen in.

Superintendent John Covington, who began his tenure last summer, told the board that the district needs to cut $40 to $50 million from next year's budget.

"If you we keep our school district on its current trajectory," Covington said, "The only thing that we can probably hope for is that the Mayan Calendar is correct. Because it's coming."

Covington was referring to the idea that the world will end in 2012. In which case, all this is irrelevant. But barring that, he says this radical plan should do the trick.

Each closed building will save the district an average of a half million dollars, since the district won't be paying to heat, clean and maintain all those unused classrooms.

A New Take on School Configuration
Before presenting the closure list, the superintendent's staff explained their new take on school configuration. All early childhood classes will move into elementary schools, which in turn will be split up between grades one and three, and then four and six. The instructional program will change too, explained Assistant Superintendent MiUndrae Prince.

"So therefore students would not just go say from kindergarten to first grade based on some subjective information, but we would have specific standards that we've aligned with national, international standards as well as Missouri standards," Prince said. "So that students will progress based on what they're actually learning at their own pace."

Middle schools would also be shifting too, yet again. Instead of the most recent kindergarten to eighth grade configuration, the superintendent wants to move towards buildings that house seventh through twelfth grades, though he says middle and high schools will be kept relatively separate.

School Closures: The Details
The staff presented how the decisions on school closures were made, starting with a series of public forums which helped determine priorities: school performance, facilities and demographics. District official Mary Esselman said each school was then rated according to these criteria.

"As we looked through schools," Esselman said, "We could get a sense of how they were performing relative to other schools in the district."

Besides test scores and facilities, the staff considered whether a school is the only one its area. On the chopping block: Westport High School, possibly Northeast High School, all of the remaining middle schools, all early childhood centers, and more than a dozen elementary schools.

The African Centered schools will be consolidated into one building, and Faxon Montessori students will attend the other two Montessori schools. Plus, two administrative offices, including headquarters at 1211 McGee, where several floors are already empty. Superindendent Covington warned developers interested in the property right next to the Power and Light District.

"We are not in the least bit interested in, and nor, as superintendent of schools will I ever recommend that we give 1211 McGee away," Covington said.

Other properties will be even harder to sell, and some board members were concerned about the effects of empty buildings on neighborhoods, particularly on the east side of the city. Other board members asked about research on the educational effects of some of these changes, the costs associated with moving and changing transportation patterns, and whether the district had concrete plans for trying to attract new students.

Beyond Closures: Cutting Teachers
After the meeting, Teacher's Union president Andrea Flinders said she knew schools would have to close, but she's concern that cutting teachers will raise class sizes.

"And of course my concern is not so much buildings as people," Flinders said. "How's it going to effect the staff, the students in those buildings, and that's my number one concern right now."

Superintendent Covington's plan calls for cutting 285 teaching positions, and he wants to find a way to keep the most effective teachers, instead of just following seniority.

"The last teachers hired are normally the first ones to go," Covington said. "We'll be looking at kind of innovative ways to kind of get around that."

Superindent Covington knows his job is also on the line.

"With previous administrations, as soon as you get to the point where you're talking about closing schools, the conversation becomes so contentious, and so volatile, that the superintendent wakes up and finds himself without a job," Covington said. "While that's not a major concern, my team and I, we're more concerned about doing the job well, than we are keeping the job."

After input from the public and other stakeholders, the superintendent says he expects some changes to this plan. And he'll bring a final proposal to the board for a vote on February 24.

This week's community forums about school closures all begin at 6:30 p.m. (except Saturday):

Tuesday, Feb. 16 - Northeast Elementary School, 4904 Independence Ave.
(Askew, East, Fairview, Garfield, Gladstone, James, McCoy, Northeast Elementary, Northeast HS, Pitcher, Rogers, Scarritt, Trailwoods, West Rock Creek, Whittier, Woodland)

Wednesday, Feb. 17 - M.L. King Elementary School, 4201 -A Indiana
(Carver, Central HS, Central Middle, Delano, Faxon Montessori, Franklin, King, Ladd, Melcher, Moore, Richardson, TAPC, Weeks)

Thursday, Feb. 18 - Paseo Academy, 4747 Flora
(ACE, Ace 6th Grade, ACE Lower, Banneker, Holliday, KCMSA, Knotts, Paige, Paseo, Pinkerton, Troost)

Friday, Feb. 19 - Foreign Language Academy, 3450 Warwick
(Attucks, Border Star, Douglas, Foreign Language Academy, Garcia, Hartman, Lincoln College Prep, Lincoln Middle, Longan, Longfellow, Manual, Phillips, Southwest, Swinney, Westport, Westport Middle, Wheatley)

Saturday, Feb. 20, 10:30 a.m. to noon at J.A. Rogers Elementary, 6400 E. 23rd St.

This story was produced for KC Currents. To listen on your own schedule, subscribe to the KC Currents Podcast.