People hold signs reading "Save Our Schools" and "No Closures!!!! No a Los Cierries!!!" in a public meeting
People hold signs opposing school closures at a Kansas City Public Schools school board meeting Nov. 16. The board discussed public feedback at the meeting but did not vote on school closure recommendations. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

Gregg Lombardi estimates the Lykins neighborhood in northeast Kansas City is on track to win the battle against blight by next year.

The Lykins Neighborhood Association and Neighborhood Legal Support of Kansas City, both of which Lombardi directs, have been working to support residents and make abandoned homes liveable again. Home values have increased and crime is down, he said. 

The project has also been incorporating affordable and workforce housing into the neighborhood mix. 

But now, Lykins residents and several groups supporting them worry their community could be dealt a major blow: the closing of Whittier Elementary School. 

The school at 1012 Bales Ave. serves as an important neighborhood resource and point of unity and has provided quality education for a diverse immigrant population, several said during public comment at a Kansas City Public Schools board meeting Nov. 16. 

Northeast residents have also rallied around James Elementary School at 5810 Scarritt Ave., another school that receives high marks on key performance measures, and Northeast High School, both recommended for closure. 

They’re pushing the district to rethink its proposal or delay a school board vote currently planned for December. 

If Whittier closes, “You can end up with empty houses and situations in which it’s likely that crime would rise,” Lombardi told The Kansas City Beacon. 

“The flip side of that is that there is a real risk right now, with all the gentrification that’s going on in the northeast, that when low-income families leave the neighborhood to go to a charter school or to be closer to their (new) school, then it’s going to be wealthy families coming in pushing up property prices, pushing people out of the neighborhood.”

‘Doubling down on disinvestment’ 

There’s no question that the Whittier Elementary School building needs work, said Chris Steinauer, a teacher who focuses on STEM and career tech education. He has also lived in the northeast since 2017. 

“We have holes in the walls,” he said. “My room has a part of the wall that is literally crumbling. If you rub up against it then part of the wall comes with you. There’s issues with heating and cooling. There have been historically issues with mold.”

According to the school district’s Blueprint 2030 website and the district’s past comments, maintenance hasn’t been completed at many buildings because of funding shortfalls. 

Those shortfalls have in large part happened because KCPS has struggled since 1967 to pass a bond issue — a common way school districts borrow money to fund building projects. 

But Steinauer doesn’t see the building’s condition as a reason to close the school. He sees it as evidence that the school and neighborhood haven’t gotten the attention they deserve, a trend he thinks would be exacerbated by closing the school. 

Mark Logan, a member of the Lykins Neighborhood Association, sees KCPS’ emphasis on deferred maintenance as inequitable. 

“The schools that they’ve chosen to defer the most maintenance in historically are the ones that are located in poor, immigrant, Black communities, right?” he said. 

“So now they’re saying, ‘Oh, well, there’s too much deferred maintenance needed on these buildings, so those are also the ones we’re going to close.’ Now, that may not be intentional, but it’s not accidental. It’s the same factors at work. It’s the same systemic inequities.”

Logan said a major component of anti-racist thought is that it’s necessary to intentionally combat racism. 

“No one’s sitting there rubbing their hands together gleefully planning how to do harm, but the result of the plan is still harmful,” he said. 

Population trends in northeast Kansas City

In addition to building conditions and deferred maintenance costs, KCPS named academic performance and enrollment — including current enrollment, past trends and future projections — as factors for the recommendations. 

A district fact sheet shows that Whittier Elementary has 346 students this year, about 87% of its 400-student capacity. James has significantly fewer, hitting nearly 63% of its smaller capacity. Enrollment for both schools is lower today than in 2018.

Lombardi said the Lykins association would like KCPS to reexamine its data for Whittier in light of recent changes. The school had nearly 450 students as recently as 2020, only dropping below capacity during the pandemic.

Gregg Lombardi, who directs the Lykins Neighborhood Association and Neighborhood Legal Support of Kansas City, addresses the Kansas City Public Schools board during a meeting Nov. 16. Lombardi argued that Whittier Elementary School should remain open. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

Both Lombardi and Steinauer said the 2022 numbers don’t even capture the current enrollment, which they say has continued to grow since the school year began. 

Lombardi also said the 2019 data the district included in its profiles doesn’t reflect the dramatic changes in Lykins over several years of work to combat blight. 

“Lykins has some of the highest increases in both the cost of property and rental rates in the whole city,” Lombardi added. “And we also have our violent crime rates that have gone down 42% in the last year. None of that is consistent and in fact, that’s completely inconsistent with the idea that this is a struggling neighborhood that’s shrinking. It’s a growing neighborhood.”

The push to keep Whittier and James open

Opposition to KCPS’ plan initially focused on Central High School — which as of Nov. 18 was the only school to have its own dedicated section in an online Blueprint 2030 Q&A

But a movement to protect several schools in the northeast part of the district has also taken shape. 

An event at James Elementary, which included Spanish interpreting services by a district employee at the front of the room, had the third-highest attendance of any community chat, behind the Central High School and Southeast Community Center meetings, according to district data presented Nov. 16. 

A busload of northeast residents attended the Nov. 16 school board meeting, many with signs supporting James and Whittier. 

Most of the people who gave public comments were affiliated with the Lykins neighborhood, historic northeast area, Whittier or Northeast High School. 

They argued that the schools are high-performing, loved by students and families and practiced at serving specific demographics. 

Whittier in particular has honed its resources for its many small immigrant communities, which could be devastated by being split into four different schools, said Kelly Allen, a special projects manager for the Lykins neighborhood.

“This cultural competency idea (a district priority) is not supported by fragmenting communities,” she said. 

Transportation has also become a point of anxiety. 

For some families, “their daily routine relies on kids being able to just walk to the school,” said Ricardo Flores, a programming manager for the Lykins Neighborhood Resource Center.  “Changing that for a school that has been around for a long time, it’s highly disruptive.”

Students converge on Whittier Elementary School in northeast Kansas City the morning of Nov. 17. The Lykins Neighborhood Association said walkability is important to many families. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

Several parents at the James meeting said they don’t want to put their students on buses because of safety and reliability concerns.

Allen said she was surprised by the strength of the perception that buses are dangerous, but thinks it may be exacerbated by language barriers. 

“I put my kid on a bus,” she said. “But I speak the same language as the bus driver.”

The path forward 

During public board meetings and conversations with the media, school district leaders have emphasized that proactive measures are needed to prevent the district from heading toward an eventual crisis that could require even more drastic changes.

The district has seen drastically declining enrollment over the decades and runs a high number of buildings for its size, making it hard to devote enough funding to academics and other programs that might make KCPS more appealing to families. 

As early as 2019, Kansas City Public Schools has been preparing for its next long-term plan by analyzing district resources and inefficiencies, then seeking community input

On Oct. 12, the district named 10 specific schools recommended to close. 

Since then, much of the feedback at four “community chats” The Kansas City Beacon attended and subsequent board meetings has been critical, though only a small percentage of district parents, students and residents participated. 

The district has said the board is likely to vote on the proposals in December. The next regular board meeting — and the only one remaining this year — is Dec. 14. The board would have the power to schedule special meetings before then for further discussion, or to postpone the vote to a later date. 

People hold signs in support of keeping James Elementary School open during a Kansas City Public Schools school board meeting Nov. 16. Most of the public comments at the meeting were in support of keeping schools in the historic northeast area open. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

Approximately two months isn’t enough time to gather feedback and adjust the plan, some have told district leaders and The Beacon.

“It’s been a really long time since we’ve been able to say that we have that (full accreditation) to promote as an asset in our public school system,” Allen said. “Why not at least give us a chance to fill seats, which is a continued revenue source, unlike closing a school?”

Steinauer, who spoke at the school board meeting Nov. 16, said he thought some members seemed receptive to concerns based on their comments and questions. 

The board heard a summary of community feedback at the meeting, but the administration did not recommend any specific adjustments to the plan. 

People who made public comments “really spoke from the heart and there was also a lot of logic, a lot of commentary about how this doesn’t have to be what it is, that there are other options within the Blueprint 2030 framework,” Steinauer said. 

“I’m hopeful that the board heard the public and that it will adjust what it does. And I think that if it doesn’t then it shows everybody in Kansas City who the district leadership is serving.”

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Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member. Follow her on Twitter @MariaFBenevento.