Board members listen to public comment
Kansas City Public Schools board members and administrators listen to public comment about school closures during a Nov. 16 meeting in the Board of Education Building in Kansas City. The administration recently revised its recommendations for school closures in response to community feedback. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

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While still contending that there are too many public and charter school buildings open in Kansas City, the Kansas City Public Schools administration has dramatically scaled back a recent proposal to shut down multiple buildings. 

As announced at a Jan. 11 school board meeting, the new proposal is to close only two buildings: Longfellow and Troost elementary schools.

The closures would happen this calendar year as initially planned, at the end of the current spring semester. 

But there would be no immediate plans to close the eight other schools the district had suggested shuttering in the first round of recommendations announced in October

Instead, KCPS would work on increasing enrollment, improving engagement with the public and securing voter approval for a bond issue before making further decisions about the direction of the district. 

The district would put on hold some plans for academic improvements that were supposed to be funded by the cost savings brought by additional school closures, such as elementary school science labs and foreign language classrooms. 

“Based on our current enrollment and what we are able to provide to our students academically, closures are necessary,” interim Superintendent Jennifer Collier said during the meeting. 

“We also recognize that it is possible to do the right thing at the wrong time and in the wrong way. So we are doing what we promised we would do at the very beginning of this engagement process. And that was to listen and to genuinely consider how we might incorporate some of what we heard into a workable recommendation.” 

A school board vote is planned for Jan. 25. 

Why the recommendations were revised

The revised proposal comes after weeks of objections to the first draft of the district’s long-term plan, called Blueprint 2030, which was introduced in the fall. It  recommended closing eight elementary schools, Central High School and Northeast High School between fall 2023 and fall 2026.

The original plan also called for several new schools to open — something that wouldn’t be possible under the current recommendations. 

District leaders said the first proposal was crafted upon advice from consultants, analysis of enrollment trends and other factors and general feedback collected from the community. But community members pushed back at school board meetings and during listening sessions, particularly objecting to the closing of Central High School, several schools in the city’s historic northeast neighborhoods and Longfellow and Faxon elementaries in midtown

Critics argued that school closures could harm neighborhoods that rely on having conveniently located schools already accustomed to serving their unique needs and could drive more students to charter schools. 

The district also heard concerns about transportation and safety if students move to new schools, contingency plans if a bond issue fails to pass, the timing and speed of school closures and the need for more collaboration and engagement, Collier said during the Jan. 11 meeting. 

Spark Bookhart, a convener for the Parent Power Lab, told The Beacon after the meeting that he felt the initial plan was out of touch with what the community wanted and that even the revised recommendations weren’t truly “collaborative.”

“I don’t think that their position should be reactionary to community,” he said. “I think their positions should be complementary to community, like these are our schools just like it’s their schools.”

School closures and academics

Bookhart said KCPS hasn’t drawn a compelling connection between its plan to close schools and academic achievement, a point that is especially salient for him because the district lost accreditation after a “rightsizing” initiative in 2010 closed dozens of schools. 

“They should be primarily in the teaching and learning business, not the real estate business,” he said. “So if I’m a parent, I want to know how these plans are going to improve the outcomes for my children in the classroom. And nobody could tell us that.”

That’s a connection the district has repeatedly tried to draw, including at the Jan. 11 meeting. 

The proposed reorganizations are meant to divert funds from operating more buildings than necessary to serve the district’s current population. 

During the meeting, district leaders reiterated findings from a 2018 system analysis that found the Kansas City system of public schools, including KCPS and charter schools, spent about twice as much money on administration and operating facilities as the comparably sized Springfield Public Schools. 

That’s money the system can’t spend on instruction, and it happens because Kansas City has more schools than it actually needs to house its students, Collier said. “We are saturated with seats.” 

For example, while Springfield has five public high schools, students within KCPS boundaries have 17 public or charter high school options with plans for an additional charter school to offer high school next year. 

KCPS enrollment ticked up slightly this year, but has overall declined dramatically over past decades, leaving schools enrolled below capacity. Meanwhile, it would cost tens of millions of dollars to address deferred maintenance on all of the district’s aging facilities. 

While backing off on the proposed number of school closings, district leaders still want to find some savings to be used to improve academic offerings and extracurriculars. They also plan to pursue voter approval for bond issues to help pay for deferred maintenance and building improvements. KCPS hasn’t gotten approval for a bond in more than 50 years, but the revised recommendations still call for it to attempt a bond election in spring 2024. 

The current plan calls for continued: 

  • Literacy and math improvements.
  • Culturally responsive teaching.
  • Instrumental music expansions for grades 4-6 and secondary schools. 
  • More foreign language offerings for high school students.
  • Stronger college and career pathways for high school students. 
  • Project-based learning. 

Elements that would be paused pending external funding, a bond issue or additional school closures include: 

  • Instrumental music for grades K-3.  
  • Beyond the 4 Walls (field trips) in all schools. 
  • Elementary science labs and foreign language classrooms. 
  • More streamlined grade configurations. 
  • STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) in elementary schools. 
  • Competency-based learning in high schools. 

Why Longfellow and Troost were selected for closure

Longfellow Elementary School is an academic success story, Collier acknowledged during the meeting. She said student achievement has been on an upward trajectory over the past five years.

But the administration is recommending that it be closed because of extreme building issues. On a scale of one to 10, the building scored 3.74, the worst in the district. It has deferred maintenance costs of more than $6.5 million, which officials said is very high for an elementary school with a capacity of only 325 students. 

Eight people were taken to the hospital following a carbon monoxide leak in the building earlier this school year.

Collier referred to the incident and said she didn’t want to “gamble with the safety of the students and staff.” 

The building is also enrolled at less than 75% of capacity, according to information presented at the meeting, and enrollment recently trended downward by 25 students over five years. 

Plans for what would happen to the building if it closes are still in progress, but they could include demolishing or selling it. 

Troost Elementary School is in better condition and would be retained for future district use, such as a temporary location for students to move to when other schools are under renovation or a professional development site. 

The building score is 5.82, still below the desired minimum of 7, and deferred maintenance would cost more than $4 million to complete. 

But the proposal to close the school is more related to sharply declining enrollment — a drop of 119 students over five years, leaving the 400-student-capacity school with only about 250 students — and persistent low academic performance. 

If either school closes, the district would work with families to figure out the best option for their students. That could include a “signature school” with a specific theme that is open to students regardless of where they live or a nearby neighborhood school. 

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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.