Kansas high school’s $47,000 piano strikes a sour note

A $47,000 concert grand piano for a Kansas City, Kan., high school is hitting some sour notes in the state’s school finance debate.

Some critics of school spending are questioning whether a public high school really needs such a high-end instrument and have adopted the piano as kind of a symbolic example of wasteful school spending.

“It just seems like a lot of money for a piano,” said former state Sen. Chris Steineger, who learned of the purchase from a friend and put it on Facebook in a post starting with the word “Zounds!”

“Maybe it is top of the line, but maybe instead of a Cadillac they need an entry-level Chevy piano for $10,000,” Steineger said.

John Altevogt, a longtime conservative activist, dug up the purchasing report and posted it to his Facebook wall, with the comment: “And yet we’re to believe that they don’t have enough money.”

The school board gave final approval on the purchase Jan. 22, following a correction to the original bid sheet approved a week earlier.

“This will allow Sumner Academy to have a musical instrument of this caliber equal to the grand pianos in the other high schools,” Superintendent Cynthia Lane’s report to the school board said.

Documents show the school district is purchasing the piano from Schmitt Music, a chain that has a store in Overland Park, for $47,070.

The bid also includes a dolly ($718) to move it on and a piano cover ($403), for a total purchase price of $48,191.

That’s about $7,000 less than the only competing bid, from Steinway Hall.

The board approved the piano on its consent agenda, a list of routine expenditures and staff recommendations that are handled through a single vote.

Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center and a member of the House Education Budget Committee, said he’s more worried about six-figure salaries for school administrators, but expenditures like $48,000 for a piano raise questions of stewardship of the public’s money that could come up in the Statehouse debate on education funding.

“First blush you hear it and you just kind of go, ‘Are you kidding me?’” Huebert said. “I would find it kind of hard to believe you could justify spending that kind of money that’s supposed to be going to educate our children, at a time when supposedly they’ve been cut to the bone.”

The purchase comes against the backdrop of a special court panel’s ruling that schools are unconstitutionally underfunded, and an education spending plan by Gov. Sam Brownback that the Education Department says would cut more than $127 million from annual operating funds for schools.

“It (the piano) is something that maybe you can justify it,” Huebert said. “But even at that it’s something you could second-guess and say you could probably get a good quality piano for a lot less.

“And it’s like, shouldn’t that money be spent on helping to meet the achievement gap, and working with kids and the tutors and the people in the classroom that you need to have?”

Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said the piano buy undoubtedly creates a “bad visual” for legislators like him, who are fighting to protect school funding.

“I’m sure we’ll see that come up in the debate on the House floor,” Ward said. “Some of these conservatives are going to say, ‘You’re spending $50,000 on a piano when you’re telling us you’re starving.’”

Lane’s report said the request “is to replace a piano that is in poor condition due to age and use.”

“This piano is used in the music department at Sumner Academy as a tool for instruction in various classes daily,” the report said.

The academy was previously the district’s fine arts magnet school and remains the home of its academically rigorous and prestigious International Baccalaureate program. Admission to the academy is competitive, and it attracts many of the highest-achieving students in the district.

Some of those students are preparing for careers in music performance and need a concert-quality piano to prepare for scholarship auditions, said Robert Young, the district’s director of purchasing.

“The piano out there was 40 to 50 years old,” he said.

Rep. Carolyn Bridges, D-Wichita, said she would need to know more about the purchase before passing judgment on it.

“I guess I’d have to see the circumstances,” said Bridges, a retired school principal and a member of the House Education Committee.

She said having quality instruments for students to learn on is important and a school needs a good piano to accompany performing groups.

“You figure it’s probably going to last them 20 to 30 years,” she said. “It’s almost a capital outlay investment when you think about it.”

But she acknowledged it could become a problem for education supporters in the Legislature.

“The timing doesn’t seem very good, that’s for sure,” she said.

Ward said he thinks it’s going to be a problem whether the expense is justifiable or not.

“Maybe there’s a perfectly valid explanation,” he said. “But if you’re explaining, you’re losing.”

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