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For Lee’s Summit, schools shape a shining city

A decade ago, Lee’s Summit was the Charlie Brown of school districts — flat on its back in agony and embarrassment.

Like Lucy pulling the football away in the comic strips, the school district’s patrons continually tricked it.

They passed bond issues to build new schools for the fast-growing district but rejected property tax increases to operate them. So newly built schools twice sat empty for a year. The remaining schools turned closets into classrooms.

In all, patrons defeated seven consecutive levy increases.

What a difference a decade makes. Because now the schools are part of the reason Lee’s Summit cracked the top 10, at No. 10, in The Kansas City Star’s analysis of suburban quality of life.

“The basic growth of Lee’s Summit has been driven by the school district,” says Bob Johnson, a state representative and longtime political leader in the southeast Jackson County city.

Student achievement is reaching new heights. Test scores are rising faster than in the rest of the state. And in The Star’s comparisons of suburbs metrowide, Lee’s Summit placed sixth in elementary school math scores.

It’s a new and improved school district. And it has led to a new and improved city.

If you haven’t been to Lee’s Summit for a while, take a look. There’s a freshness and colorfulness to it.

Buildings with green-tinted glass. Shopping centers with roofs painted purple, blue or red. Subdivisions with stone, stucco and slate in earth tones. Downtown storefronts with awnings in a rainbow of hues.

Three decades ago, Lee’s Summit was still a small town with a population around 20,000. Today, it’s soaring past 80,000.

A dozen or so years ago, much of the eight-square-block downtown core was vacant. Today it includes art galleries, coffee shops, bakeries, bars, even a bike shop.

“If I want to eat out at a nice restaurant, we don’t have to leave Lee’s Summit anymore,” says longtime Mayor Karen Messerli. “It’s more of a full-service community today.”

It’s no coincidence Lee’s Summit turned a corner once its school district did. Because it has been shown that as schools go, so go communities.

And Lee’s Summit’s district is certainly on the go.

Ew-ew-ah-ah

Jungle sounds spill out from the school classroom. Drums. Roars. Monkey screeches. Ew-ew-ew-ew-ah-ah-ah-ah.

They’re all coming from computers. The high school students in this Lee’s Summit entertainment media technology class sit in front of Macintoshes around the sides of a clean, carpeted room. Groups of students, some wearing Disciple and Warped Tour music T-shirts, have recorded silly sounds and now are stringing them together with a drum beat.

Ew-ew-doom-doom-ew-ew-doom-doom. It’s one way they’re learning to mix and produce modern music.

“This isn’t being done anywhere else in this part of the country,” says Bob White, director of this special school.

It’s called the Summit Technology Academy and it occupies one corner of the low-slung, mall-like Summit Technology Center, the former AT&T microelectronics plant converted into office space with high-powered telecommunications infrastructure.

The academy offers half-day elective courses in such tech-oriented studies as engineering, computer networking and biosciences. But rather than teach theory, the academy’s classes focus on real-life job experiences. Senior engineering students, for instance, design a sewer sludge plant and present their work to real-life engineers to critique.

It’s like high-tech vocational training.

That’s the way Dane Oleson looks at it. The Lee’s Summit North High School senior plays guitar and bass in a folk alternative band that won his school’s “battle of the bands.” But he realizes a more realistic future might be outside a band. He wants to work in recording studios.

“Taking this class will give me a jump start,” he says.

The fact that the tech academy even exists is a testament to how Lee’s Summit overcame its school funding troubles.

Basically, the school district formed new alliances in the community. Dialogues with a developer, for instance, led to free space for the tech academy. Meanwhile, the district also created citizen task forces that mapped out a series of small tax increases. As a result, district voters since 1996 have passed four consecutive levy increases.

Since then, the school district’s average high school ACT test scores have risen eight times faster than the state’s averages. Just last year, it set a new district high in ACT scores.

A trend toward tech

The connection between good schools and good suburbs is unmistakable: “City officials,” according to a National League of Cities survey, “view the quality of public education and local schools as the cornerstone of their cities’ success.”

For good reason. A Clemson University study established that good schools offered a one-two economic punch: They drew college-educated people to a community, which then improved its attractiveness to businesses because companies tend to seek an educated work force.

All that has been the case in Lee’s Summit.

The city now has more tech-oriented companies in engineering, sciences and computers than downtown Kansas City does, according to the latest U.S. Census figures. Some Lee’s Summit firms like R&D Tool and Engineering Co. even hire computer technicians right out of the tech academy.

Also, the city is adding more residents per year than at any time in its history. Real estate agents say some home buyers pick certain neighborhoods because of the schools. “The schools drive residential development,” says Jim Riffe, who is doing his first project in Lee’s Summit, an upper-bracket lake community called Woodland Shores, after working exclusively in Johnson County. “I wouldn’t have considered building there if I didn’t feel the schools were good.”

Overall, compared with other local suburbs, Lee’s Summit ranked high in The Star’s measures of growth and attractiveness. The city finished second in total single-family housing permits for 2003 and 2004. To keep up with growth, the city continually added recreational facilities and built new roads, ranking third and eighth respectively in those comparisons.

Nevertheless, the city still has some growing up to do.

It ranks low among other suburbs in retail services per capita, as conveniences ranging from restaurants to dry cleaners take years to follow rooftops. And the city’s building spree in schools and roads has resulted in the third-worst property tax burden among local suburban areas.

Yet, people keep coming because of the schools. People like Matthew and Angie Sullivan.

They grew up in Blue Springs. Then they went back to live in Blue Springs after college. But after marrying and moving away from the metropolitan area, they returned with a preschooler, and the decision about where to reside was no longer so cut-and-dried. They ended up in a red brick-and-stucco house in a new Lee’s Summit subdivision.

“We were torn, but one of the deciding factors was school test scores,” Angie says. She’s now on the PTA board at her daughter’s elementary school and has no regrets about breaking away from family.

“It’s great here,” she said. “Lee’s Summit seems to be going places.”

Population: 78,659.

History: The city was founded in 1865 by William B. Howard and originally named Strother, his wife’s maiden name. But the post office asked for a change because another town was named Strother.

So who’s Lee: It could be Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, but it could also be Dr. Pleasant Lea, a respected citizen who was killed in the Civil War. The summit part is easier –– the city is the highest point on the railroad line between Kansas City and St. Louis.

Did you know: This year Money magazine named Lee’s Summit No. 77 in its list of top 100 places to live.

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