Kansas City to close 26 schools. Unprecedented move in US?

Education experts say they can’t recall when so many of a district's schools have been closed. The Kansas City school district has struggled for years with declining enrollment and integration issues.

Ed Zurga/AP
Duane Kelly, member of the Kansas City School Board, reacts during a meeting of the board, Wednesday, in Kansas City, Mo. The Kansas City school board voted Wednesday night to close nearly half the district's schools in a desperate bid to stay afloat.

It’s the end of the road for nearly half the schools in Kansas City, Mo. – a district that has struggled for decades to integrate and boost achievement amid plummeting enrollments.

The board of education voted 5 to 4 Wednesday to close 26 schools and several other sites, including its headquarters. The consolidation will also involve cutting hundreds of teaching positions and support staff.

The closure decision has been “difficult ... and emotional” for the community, superintendent John Covington acknowledged at a press conference Thursday. But he and the board decided that his “Right Sizing” plan is necessary to save about $50 million and stave off bankruptcy.

Now the details have to be worked out so this fall, the district’s nearly 18,000 students can adjust to new bus routes, make new friends, and get used to some sites where everyone from kindergartners to high-schoolers will share space.

“When your building closes ... it’s always difficult.... But we could not continue to run buildings that were only a third full and had classes with six or seven kids,” says Andrea Flinders, president of the Kansas City Federation of Teachers & School-Related Personnel, which had input on the plan. “We can use our resources a lot more effectively if we can get this district down to the right size.”

Although school districts nationwide are dealing with big fiscal challenges, education experts say they can’t recall anywhere that the share of schools closing at any one time has been this large.

“It was very courageous of the Kansas City school board to do what it did,” says Michael Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. “It is a sign of things to come.... A number of urban districts around the country need to downsize.... They’ve lost lots of students either to suburbs or to charter schools, and they have too many facilities [that cost] a lot of money [to operate].”

Six percent of school districts closed some schools this year because of budget concerns, and 11 percent are considering closures for next year, according to a survey by the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va.

In the case of Kansas City, the long-term failure of its integration efforts has contributed the declining enrollment. The number of students has slid to about a quarter of its peak in the late 1960s.

The city received $2 billion in a landmark desegregation suit in 1985. In an attempt to bring back students who had fled the public system, it proceeded to build schools with amenities such as an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

“The theory of trying to draw in middle-class families from the suburbs is a good one, but there was no sophistication to that effort,” says Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation in Washington. Cities such as Hartford, Conn., were more successful after thorough research on what would truly bring families back, he says.

“Without addressing the larger issue of concentrations of poverty, the Kansas City public schools are likely to continue to spiral downward,” Mr. Kahlenberg says. “Kids in Kansas City public schools ... already feel shut off from mainstream society. Now, the government is telling them even the schools that they had aren’t going to survive.... There’s likely to be even greater alienation that stems from this.”

If funding for education isn’t stepped up when the current federal stimulus dollars disappear after the next school year, more districts will be faced with dramatic choices beyond shutting underutilized buildings, warns Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools: “Do you give up your art and music programs, or close a magnet center even though it’s popular?” he asks. “These are issues that will impact equity and access mainly in underserved communities.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this story.

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