Published June 8th, 2022 at 1:25 PM
Kansas City Public Schools is continuing a push to reshape the district, planning improvements to academic offerings, student support and activities, and school buildings.
But KCPS doesn’t have unlimited money to make changes. That means there will be tradeoffs.
On one end of the spectrum, Scenario 1 would shutter as many as one-third of the district’s schools, freeing up enough funds to pay for a full list of priorities developed with community input.
As part of its long-term planning initiative, known as Blueprint 2030, the district is asking residents to weigh in on three scenarios, each of which strikes a different balance between closing schools and skipping potential improvements.
Those priorities include teacher raises; improved offerings in foreign languages, music, sports and project-based learning; and additional support for social-emotional learning and family engagement.
On the other end of the spectrum, Scenario 3, the district could keep close to 90% of schools open. But the costs of staffing and maintaining them would mean scaling back on nearly all the priorities.
Annual savings estimates for the scenarios range from $21.5 million to $37.5 million.
“We expect that it’s kind of going to be a give or take,” said Elle Moxley, public relations coordinator for KCPS. “We don’t expect it to be perfectly one scenario or another; we’re going to have to find kind of a midpoint between different options that we have community support for.”
As KCPS called for input on Blueprint 2030, Superintendent Mark Bedell made it clear that the district is operating inefficiently compared to similarly sized districts in Missouri and some of its suburban neighbors.
As it operates aging buildings that often aren’t filled to capacity, the district is spending a higher percentage of its budget on maintenance and administration than it would if it consolidated into fewer schools. It’s also harder to add programs that work better when there’s a bigger pool of students to draw from — things like additional sports teams, clubs and elective classes.
In a videotaped presentation covering the three scenarios, Jesse Lange, KCPS senior planner, presented data showing that the district spent just over 23% of its budget on K-12 instruction costs during the 2019-20 school year while spending nearly 28% on operations.
Peer districts in the Kansas City, Missouri, metro area all spent more on instruction than they did on operations.
The presentation also included a chart created by education consulting firm MGT, which helped create the scenarios. It compared KCPS to four similarly sized districts in Missouri, California, Oklahoma and Arizona.
Each of the other districts had 17-27 total schools, with an average of 22. KCPS had 32 listed on the chart, but Lange said it really has 37 counting preschools and alternative programs such as Manual Career and Technical Center.
KCPS is estimating that closing schools and streamlining the district’s central office would save tens of millions of dollars each year, even under the least dramatic scenario.
Closing more schools also cuts the estimated costs of maintaining and updating buildings.
The district has hundreds of millions of dollars worth of deferred maintenance and updates needed to make classrooms “future ready.”
Those updates include adding sinks to science classrooms to allow high school students to do experiments, and eliminating Wi-Fi dead zones so “kids aren’t locked out of the technology that they need to move forward,” Moxley said.
KCPS will still need to devote more than $300 million to capital projects, including nearly $175 million of necessary work, if it closes a dozen schools. But eliminating some buildings reduces the price tag by tens of millions of dollars and saves millions more each year.
That’s particularly important in KCPS since voters in the district haven’t approved a general obligation bond since the 1960s. School districts often use the bonds to finance building projects.
The district has seen an influx of federal relief funding in the past years, allowing it to expand academic and mental health support for students. KCPS plans to split the latest round of relief dollars — about $60 million — between the two upcoming school years.
After that funding runs out, the district is counting on a quick implementation of Blueprint 2030 to allow it to continue programs, said Erin Thompson, executive director of business and finance for KCPS.
The district plans to come up with more specific proposals in fall of 2022 and begin implementing some of the academic components, Lange said during the scenarios presentation. Building changes would begin in fall 2023 at the earliest.
As it determines which scenario to pursue, the district has sought input from the public.
More open-ended conversations to set goals started in spring 2021. They helped lead to a list of priorities:
In recent months, discussions have gotten more specific. KCPS has been presenting its three scenarios to groups of parents and community partners, asking for feedback on which they prefer.
Moxley said the district is trying to include all communities, including providing materials in various languages and working with organizations that serve immigrants and refugees.
The three scenarios aren’t the end of the discussion.
Under Scenarios 2 and 3, the district wouldn’t be able to fund its full list of improvements. So KCPS also offers surveys for both scenarios where community members choose and rank their top priorities — until they exceed the available budget.
The options include teacher raises for $11.6 million, which is the most expensive item. In the $2 million to $2.5 million range, residents could choose to expand virtual and night school options, provide permanent substitute teachers in all schools, expand music education, expand world language offerings and expand science teaching.
Through the end of the month, district residents can watch a presentation about the scenarios and complete the surveys on the Blueprint 2030 landing page.
One item that will be important to families hasn’t been part of the district’s presentation: which schools would close.
“We’ll get to a point where we are talking about specifics in terms of buildings and programs. We’re not there yet,” Moxley said.
“I know that a lot of people want to know kind of what we’re planning or if we’re targeting any specific schools or programs. We’re not. We’re really trying to figure out from what people are telling us — through the scenarios survey and the balancing act — what’s most important to Kansas City families, and then we’re going to try to build a plan from there.”
Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon, a member of the KC Media Collective, where this story first appeared. She is a Report for America corps member.