A plan to double the size of the Crossroads Academy stumbled Wednesday when a city agency delayed consideration of the downtown charter school’s request for $5.5 million in tax increment financing assistance.
A divided Kansas City Tax Increment Financing Commission postponed its recommendation until March, with city-appointed commissioners mostly supporting the expansion plan for the 2-year-old school and representatives of other taxing jurisdictions criticizing the funding mechanism for the plan.
The charter school at 1015 Central St., which has 230 students, kindergarten through fifth grade, wants to buy and expand into the Uhlmann Building at 1009 Central and start programs for middle-school students next fall. The Uhlmann Co. supports the sale and is considering moving its 10-employee operation to midtown Kansas City.
Dean Johnson, the executive director of Crossroads Academy, was disappointed by the decision to postpone his school’s request for the TIF funding to help what would be a $7 million investment. The project would help the fast-growing school raise its enrollment to 270 students this fall.
“We need to look at our options,” Johnson said. “We’re not going to quit.”
The school had an option to buy the Uhlmann Building that expires this month, but Paul Uhlmann, president of the family-owned flour and grain business, said his company is willing to extend the deadline.
“We’re not in as big a hurry as the school is,” Uhlmann said. “They want to get it ready by August to get the kids back. I have a feeling they’ll get this done. I think it’s a good thing.”
Johnson said the school should be able to achieve its goal of having the new space ready by fall despite the postponement.
“While delayed by a month, all the components of our expansion project remain intact,” Johnson said. “We are working with the Uhlmann Co., architects and construction manager to compress our construction timeline to ensure that (the) delay does not impact student learning.”
The $5.5 million in tax increment financing aid would come from the 11th Street TIF Corridor Plan established in 1992 to help fund improvements on the west side of downtown between Ninth and 12th streets. The area has attracted hundreds of millions of dollars in private investment, and part of the new tax revenue has financed the TIF plan’s improvements.
Supporters said a charter school was exactly the kind of public amenity the 20 year-old TIF plan was designed to encourage, but the idea was opposed by TIF commissioners representing Kansas City Public Schools, Jackson County and the Kansas City Public Library.
“We’re making a huge public policy decision about the diversion of TIF funds for non-public schools, charter schools,” said Calvin Williford, a Jackson County TIF commissioner. “To make a decision that will take money from my two (taxing jurisdiction) colleagues and put it in a charter school is a huge precedent.”
Al Tunis, chief financial officer for Kansas City Public Schools, said the district has a $200 million backlog of capital needs.
“In my mind, the school district and other jurisdictions are writing a check for public improvements for a charter school,” he said.
But defenders of the proposal, notably J. Philip Kirk Jr., who has helped the Crossroads Academy with its real estate search, said the TIF revenues that would be used for the charter school expansion are not available for other uses. He said the revenues were intended to assist infrastructure projects within the boundaries of the 11th Street TIF Corridor.
“How can’t it be the purest of pure to take taxpayer money and put it in a school?” said Kirk. “Isn’t a school the most important infrastructure we can think of?”
Ron Yaffe, chairman of the TIF Commission, also said using the TIF incentive to help the Crossroads Academy project would not set a precedent for other charter schools to pursue a similar incentive.
“This strikes me as a unique situation, and if it accomplishes the mission of increasing value, educating students and revitalizing an area by completing the community we’re trying to create, good,” he said.
Supporters had hoped for the TIF Commission to make a recommendation Wednesday rather than postpone it. They believe whatever the decision, the TIF funding would be supported by the Kansas City Council, which has the final say. School officials also say they have a limited amount of time to get the Uhlmann building renovated in time for the fall semester.
That’s why some last-minute shifts in position left advocates unhappy.
The Crossroads Academy expansion proposal had received a letter of support from R. Crosby Kemper III, the director of the Kansas City Public Library.
“The students bring vitality to the library,” he said.
But Debbie Siragusa, the TIF commissioner who represents the library, voted in favor of the delay.
Siragusa said she represented other organizations in addition to the Kansas City Library, including the community college and Mid-Continent Library. She acknowledged Kemper supported the charter school but had asked her to question the proposed financing.
“I would not like to see Kansas City school money diverted to this,” she said.
The commission voted 6-5 to delay consideration, with all five members representing the taxing jurisdictions — the school district, Jackson County and the library — backing the delay.
The five supporters were all appointed by Mayor Sly James. The lone James appointee to vote for the delay was Estella Morales.