What's next after K.C. school closures?

Barbara Shelley

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: The board of education in Kansas City, Mo., took a vote last night on how to save their city's long-troubled school system. It was close. But by the end of the evening a plan to shut down 28 of the district's 61 schools and lay off 700 people did pass. The vote was 5-4. The district says the plan should cut $50 million from the budget.

Barbara Shelley is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. She's been writing about schools there and the city itself for quite a while. Barb, it's good to have you with us.

Barbara Shelley: Good to be here.

Ryssdal: What's the reaction in town today after this announcement?

SHELLEY: Well, I think you have two different reactions. You have the reaction from people that are going to be directly affected. And that's the families and the teachers and the students. And there's a lot of anguish in that group. You have another reaction from I would say business types and people that see this as a hope that a smaller, more streamlined school district will mean better performance and a better academic potential for the district.

Ryssdal: That's actually what John Covington, the superintendent there said. Lay out his rationale for us on that one would you?

SHELLEY: Well, his rationale is that he came here in July and saw a district that was seriously underperforming academically and also was going bankrupt fairly quickly. He thinks the district will be out of money next year. So his rationale was to take a look at the buildings, and he saw high schools operating at 40 percent capacity, elementary schools at 60 percent capacity. And he said we can't sustain this.

Ryssdal: Forty and 60 percent capacity, so this could not have possibly come as a surprise to anybody.

SHELLEY: Oh no, superintendents have proposed closing for years. It's just that the board has always whiffed on it. You know, there's always been a lot of reaction, and the boards haven't been able to do it.

Ryssdal: Kansas City has had kind of a troubled history with its school district. Give us just a little bit of perspective, would you?

SHELLEY: Kansas City in the mid-80s became the site of what became the most expensive desegregation effort that anyone knows that went on in the United States. And the rationale is let's build a first-rate school district. Let's offer really cutting edge, great programs, and that's how we'll desegregate, by making these schools so attractive that people will come in from the suburbs to use them.

Ryssdal: And it just didn't go out so well, or what happened?

SHELLEY: It had some success in the beginning, and then the Supreme Court basically cut the program off at the knees. But what has really happened over the years is I would say chronic mismanagement, and lack of focus on the core mission of a school district, which is teaching and learning.

Ryssdal: Now, that the superintendent has convinced the school board to close these schools, what's his plan to fix things?

SHELLEY: Well, his plan is, once he shores up the finances, he's talking about better professional development, pay-for-performance, the kind of things that we're hearing out of the education department right now that's going to have teachers really be stakeholders in their students' educations.

Ryssdal: Your kids I'm told are out of the Kansas City schools now, but you've been around for a while. What's your take? Is this going to work?

SHELLEY: Yes, it could work. We have great kids in Kansas City. You know, this superintendent, John Covington, people have a lot of hope for him. We've had a parade of superintendents through her. And Dr. Covington has a good track record. He's brought in what appears to be a very sharp executive team that knows what they are doing.

Ryssdal: In the short term though, in the meanwhile, Kansas City kids come this fall are going to have to find new schools.

SHELLEY: Well, they are. This isn't the first time they've reconfigured buildings and reconfigured grades, and a lot of the families have a bit of fatigue about these constant changes, but there's going to be another round.

Ryssdal: Barb Shelley. She writes a column for the Kansas City Star. Barb, thanks a lot.

SHELLEY: Sure thing. Thank you.

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