The recent breakdown of negotiations that could have resulted in a great public high school in Kansas City’s Southwest corridor brought on unpleasant flashbacks.
It was 10 or 15 years ago, and I was at a school board meeting, watching a board member object to spending money on a school in a “privileged” part of town. I was hearing a community activist bluster about “elitist whites” and listening to someone say the district couldn’t have an academically selective high school elsewhere without cannibalizing Lincoln College Preparatory Academy.
Help! I thought we had gotten past seeing everything that happens in the Kansas City Public Schools through race-tinted lenses.
Actually, we have. Just not far enough.
Fast forward to now and the dashed hopes that the school district and the highly regarded Academie Lafayette charter school might team up on a high school at the Southwest building on Wornall Road.
This would have been a transformative achievement. Families with children approaching high school could have an option other than moving or paying private school tuition. The Kansas City Public Schools could have an opportunity to prove itself a worthy partner. Academie Lafayette could finally serve students from preschool up until high school graduation.
But on March 10, leaders from the charter school and school district announced they were stuck on several crucial issues and were putting the project on hold.
An hour or so earlier, a collection of groups, including the Urban League of Greater Kansas City, Black United Front, the Freedom Inc. political club and Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equality, had held a separate news conference to denounce the partnership.
The proposed deal was elitist, they said. It would mostly benefit white families. If successful it would threaten Lincoln Prep — as though Kansas City can’t sustain two high schools for high-achieving students.
Ugh. Such a blast from the past.
Opposition from the community groups didn’t singlehandedly dismantle the proposal. The Academie Lafayette board had decided on Monday night to suspend negotiations and focus on other projects.
But the groups’ input left no doubt that more negotiations will face a blowback.
Some issues stalling the talks had merit.
Academie Lafayette had proposed that its eighth-grade students graduate automatically to the new high school, which would be run by the charter school. An equal or slightly larger number of district students would have to pass a test or otherwise qualify in order to enroll.
That plan would have displaced many of the 400 students currently at Southwest High School. But the underused building is costly to maintain and may have to be shuttered soon in any case. The best way for the Kansas City Public Schools to ensure stability for all of its students is to boost enrollment and fill buildings.
What had no place in this debate is the old, corrosive argument that the Kansas City Public Schools, a mostly black district, shouldn’t use its resources on a school that might mostly serve white families.
A high-achieving high school in the Southwest corridor would be a draw for white families who live there. But the language-rich school being proposed would appeal to plenty of minority families. Surely a mechanism to encourage a racially diverse enrollment could be worked out.
Mayor Sly James has called upon the two parties to try again. At least some board members on both sides say they want to do that, although everyone is vague about how it would happen.
But next time, if there is one, others need to step up and provide some cover. Neighborhood associations, business groups and more political leaders have to affirm that there is nothing racist or elitist about working toward a great public high school to serve tax-paying families in all parts of the school district.