The Inner Struggle

July 1, 1998
Like numerous school districts across the country, the Kansas City, Missouri School District struggles with issues such as old buildings, lack of funding

Like numerous school districts across the country, the Kansas City, Missouri School District struggles with issues such as old buildings, lack of funding and the pressures of being an inner-city district. Added to that is a public perception that is not always positive. But, with forward-thinking attitudes and long-range goals, administrators are trying to stay focused on the important task of making the best decisions possible for the students.

"The issues here in Kansas City are numerous. We are struggling with budget reductions; we are struggling with the notion of keeping our buildings in good repair," says Henry Williams, superintendent. "We are struggling with meeting the obligations set forth in our desegregation plan. We are dealing with issues associated with special curriculum and program needs that are brought to us by the community.

"The need to keep our buildings up-to-date and in a good state of repair is a new issue with us. We spent in excess of $600 million modernizing our buildings across this district, but did not build into our budget the resources to keep the buildings maintained structurally as we should have. We've always been underfunded in that area. And, as these buildings age, we find that we have to put more money into repairing to keep them state-of-the-art."

The age-old question About one-half of the buildings in the district are World War I vintage or older, built in the real growth of Kansas City from 1915 to 1922. Some students attend school in buildings that were built at the turn of the century.

"We've always been underfunded related to infrastructure and replacement of infrastructure," says William M. Threatt Jr., associate superintendent. "We still have over a $100 million problem that we are aware of as far as infrastructure is concerned."

In addition, new construction is way down in the district. Unlike its suburban counterparts, the district student population has stabilized over the last three to four years. "We have seven major projects underway at the moment; they range from $1.5 to $5.5 million, and that's way down," says Threatt. "But if you go back three years at this time, we had over $200 million under construction, and that was in the mainstream of construction."

Finding support The suburbs surrounding Kansas City have been flooded with people moving into the area. Funding is not such a critical issue in those areas, as the majority of parents and the community are giving education a high priority. But this district has not felt that attitude. In addition, the district is dealing with massive budget cuts related to a phased desegregation plan.

"The school district hasn't passed a funding issue for the Kansas City, Missouri School District since 1968, so that's one of the problems," says Threatt. "It's a very unique situation here in Kansas City. You have 13 school districts withinthe city limits of Kansas City, and we serve the largest of those in terms of student population, but it's also the inner-city portion, and the poorest in terms of any barometer."

Without community support, it is hard to find the resources to get back on top. "The voters just have not been kind," says Threatt. "In just the last elections, there was a statewide referendum that permitted the school district to keep the tax levy where it is, but that was put on the statewide ballot. There was a lot of fear, frankly, whether it would pass locally or not."

Effecting change The district does, though, have facilities to be proud of, including some award-winning buildings that passersby often overlook.

"When you've had the kind of publicity we've had as a school district, changing the com-munity's view and reaction to public education is not always easy," says Williams. "So I think what we have to do to change or persuade the public that they need to be more supportive of our schools is to change the image of the schools and how we operate publicly. We need to convince the public that we are serious about educating children. We are here for the children, and if this community is to provide what it is to produce quality graduates, we all have to be involved."

Giving back to the neighborhood is one way the district believes it can change public opinion.

"It means more community involvement at the site-based level," says Threatt. "It means going back as much as we can to the neighborhood-school concept and getting those that live in the immediate surroundings of the building involved with those buildings in community use."

"We're very proud that despite the fact that our image may not be what we want it to be publicly, we know that our teachers and administrators across the district have done one hell of a job at imparting the kinds of knowledge and skills to our students that they need to be successful in the 21st century," says Williams.

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