Image: Superintendent John Covington
Ed Zurga  /  AP
Superintendent John Covington listens to citizens during a meeting of the Kansas City School Board on Wednesday in Kansas City, Mo. The Kansas City school board voted to close nearly half the district's schools in a desperate bid to stay afloat.
updated 3/11/2010 1:43:56 PM ET 2010-03-11T18:43:56

Kansas City's school superintendent said Thursday the plan to shutter nearly half the district's schools, while "painful," will move forward quickly so that all the closures will be complete by fall.

The board voted 5-4 after parents and community leaders made final pleas to spare the schools even as the beleaguered district seeks to erase a projected $50 million budget shortfall. Administrators say they had no choice because without them, the district would have been in the red by 2011.

"It has been a difficult and painful and emotional process that affects our entire community," superintendent John Covington said at a news conference. "No one likes closing schools."

Now officials have to focus on the massive job of downsizing the district — reworking school bus routes, figuring out what to do with vacant buildings and slashing its payroll.

Transition plan
Covington said he has been working on the transition plan for several weeks and that it would be in place for the start of the school year. He gave few details, but said the plan would likely involve staggering start and class schedule times for middle school students who would attend school with high school students.

"We will be moving forward with deliberate speed to put together a transformation plan that we will be using to make sure that the quality of educational opportunities and the services that we provide for all children in the Kansas City schools that will remain open is of high quality," Covington said.

Administrators have said the closures are necessary to keep the district from plowing through what little is left of the $2 billion it received as part of a groundbreaking desegregation case.

Although other districts nationwide are considering closures as the recession ravages their budgets, Kansas City's plan is striking. In rapidly shrinking Detroit, 29 schools closed before classes began this fall, but that still left the district with 172 schools. Most other districts are closing just one or two schools.

Emotional board member Duane Kelly told the crowd of more than 200 people Wednesday, "This is the most painful vote I have ever cast" in 10 years on the board. Some chanted for the removal of the superintendent, while one woman asked the crowd, "Is anyone else ready to homeschool their children?"

Kansas City Councilwoman Sharon Sanders Brooks said the closure plan had prompted some housing developers to consider backing out of projects.

"The urban core has suffered white flight post-the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. the Board of Education, blockbusting by the real estate industry, redlining by banks and other financial institutions, retail and grocery store abandonment," Brooks said.

"And now the public education system is aiding and abetting in the economic demise of our school district," she said. "It is shameful and sinful."

Job cuts expected
Under the approved plan, teachers at six other low-performing schools will be required to reapply for their jobs, and the district will try to sell its downtown central office. It also is expected to cut about 700 of the district's 3,000 jobs, including about 285 teachers.

Video: New standards Covington has spent the past month making the case to sometimes angry groups of parents and students that the closures are necessary.

Once the district had enough desegregation money to build such amenities as an Olympic-sized swimming pool. But the effort to use upscale facilities and programs to lure in students from the suburbs never worked quite as planned.

Covington has stressed that the district's buildings are only half-full as its population has plummeted amid political squabbling and chronically abysmal test scores. The district's enrollment of fewer than 18,000 students is about half of what the schools had a decade ago and just a quarter of its peak in the late 1960s.

Many students have left for publicly funded charter schools, private and parochial schools and the suburbs. The school district also isn't the only one serving students in Kansas City; several smaller ones operate in the city's boundaries.

Covington has blamed previous administrations for failing to close schools as the enrollment — and the money that comes with it — shrank. Past school closure plans were either scaled back or scrapped entirely.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Strapped for cash, Kansas City closes 26 schools

  1. Closed captioning of: Strapped for cash, Kansas City closes 26 schools

    >> good evening. when we talk about the lack of money in cities and towns around the country these days, this is what we mean. the superintendent of schools in kansas city , missouri, says he's got to close half the schools in the city or go broke by 2011 . it doesn't stop there. this is being watched closely and cutbacks are going to happen in a lot of places that just can't continue the way they've been going. this is the shot heard cross the country. you can imagine the impact on students, teachers, parents, administrators. we begin tonight outside one of those schools, nbc's john yang is in kansas city . john, good evening.

    >> reporter: good evening, brian. this elementary school is on the closing list. the superintendent calls it right-sizing. he says he's been working on the plan for months. analysts say the crisis has been in the making for decades. today kansas city school superintendent john covington said he had no choice.

    >> no one likes closing schools. it's hard. it's tough on families and it's certainly tough on our community.

    >> reporter: at the school board meeting parentsed vented their anger.

    >> i have little kids who will be going to school in a 12th grader.

    >> the school district is not where it's supposed to be. why bother our schools?

    >> reporter: the narrow 5-4 board vote leaves kansas city with 33 schools for about 17,000 students. it returns the system to the same size it was in 1890 , when the city's population was 1/3 of what it is today.

    >> we got here because of years of neglect in terms of meeting the needs of students.

    >> good job, good job.

    >> reporter: enrollment steadily declined from a peak of 77,000 in 1964 , as the city struggled with white flight to the suburbs and battles over court-ordered desegregation. on cnbc the mayor bee moaned years of neglect.

    >> we lost from kansas city 100,000 folks. they left because of poor city services , because of fear of crime and because of the school.

    >> reporter: many of the families that have stayed are increasingly choosing charter, private and parochial schools leaving the public system with $50 million in red ink . funding is a challenge for districts across the country. in 34 states officials are proposing cuts. 66% cut jobs this year, and 83% project cuts nor the next academic year. in kansas city hopes making the system smaller will make it better.

    >> closing schools and making the remaining schools stronger academically is unquestionably the right thing to do.

    >> reporter: the cuts will cost 700 jobs, nearly 300 teachers. teachers at six low-performing schools are going to have to reapply for their jobs if they want to be back next year. brian?

    >> john yank in kansas city . we'll talk a lot more about this issue. john, thanks.

    >> now we turn to the

    >>>

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