Kansas City’s cutbacks are a warning to the entire country
“This is the most painful vote I ever cast.” These nine words, reported in Thursday’s Kansas City Star, came from Kansas City (Missouri) School Board member Duane Kelly as he supported a proposal to close 28 of the city’s 61 public schools at the end of the school year. The district needed to cut $50 million or face a state takeover, and its school buildings were at half capacity due to a steady stream of students leaving to attend charter, private, or suburban schools. (If you’re curious to know how things got so bad, a well-written op-ed from Barb Shelly of the Star, entitled, “The fall of the Kansas City School District (and what it should do now),” is available here.)
But this story is significant for much more than its impact on students and teachers in our nation’s 35th largest city. The significance lies in the title of a story about this situation from the New York Times: ”Board’s Decision to Close 28 Kansas City Schools Follows Years of Inaction.” Susan Saulny, the story’s author, explains:
The sudden move suggests a depth of dysfunction here that is rarely associated with Kansas City, a lively heartland town with a reputation for order. But a closer look at the school board’s recent history reveals a chaotic, almost nonfunctioning body that put off making tough choices and even routine improvements for generations. Experts said that in the board’s years of inaction is a cautionary tale for school districts everywhere. ‘This is extraordinary,’ said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, a research group in Washington. ‘The school board was dysfunctional for years. There was very poor governance for a long period of time, and it was like a revolving door with superintendents.’”
It’s clear, at least to me, that Kansas City will be better off in the long run for having made this move. The district’s schools will be at full capacity, which means taxpayer dollars won’t be wasted on extra buildings, and resources can be better targeted to teachers and students. However, it also is true that citizens have suffered and will continue to suffer a great disruption. In the short-term, parents will need to adapt to new transportation schedules and children will need to adapt to new school buildings, teachers, and peers. Beyond those immediate inconveniences, dozens of buildings will be vacant across the city; in some neighborhoods the loss of a school will mean the loss of a community center and safe space for children, and perhaps even diminished community services like police patrols and street repairs. And layoffs accompanying the school closings may result in those former teachers leaving the city for greener pastures, thus decreasing the city’s revenue base.
Why does this matter? In my mind, the failure of citizens, the city council, school board members, and school system leaders to make difficult decisions over the years led to a drastic decision being the only option. And this seems to be the pattern of behavior and decision-making (or lackthereof) that we have on a national level when it comes to things like immigration, energy, health care, social security, medicare, etc. We put off making difficult decisions until we face a crisis, and then we whine about the drastic decisions that must be made because of our previous failure to act. After the vote, one of the parents interviewed in the NYT story opined, “This is too much, too fast.” She may be right. But it was the only option after decades of doing too little, too slowly.
(I deliberately used ”we” in the preceding paragraph, because a school system, like our government, is directly accountable to the people. We choose those who lead it and if we aren’t happy with their performance we can replace them. And if we think our ideas are better than theirs, we can run for office ourselves. It’s easy to blame the school board (or the government) for mistakes or inaction, but its members were elected by citizens of Kansas City. Unfortunately, anyone who has studied school districts knows that most citizens are extremely apathetic when it comes to voting for school board members–despite the fact that education expenditures often are the single largest portion of a community’s budget. So at least some of the blame goes to citizens who did not vote, did not run for office, or did not pay attention to what the school board was and was not doing.)