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Schools to close in Kansas City, Mo., by fall

Kansas City's school superintendent says the plan to shutter nearly half the district's schools, while "painful," will move forward  so that all the closures will be complete by fall.
Image: Superintendent John Covington
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. Ed Zurga / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

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.

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.