Sly James wants his pre-K tax on November ballot. KC school officials say not so fast

Sly James says he’s focused on kids, not ‘adult drama’ in pre-K initiative

KC Mayor Sly James held a press conference Aug. 15 to address the city school district's decision to oppose putting his pre-K sales tax initiative on the November ballot.
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KC Mayor Sly James held a press conference Aug. 15 to address the city school district's decision to oppose putting his pre-K sales tax initiative on the November ballot.

Hours after Mayor Sly James told a City Council committee that Kansas City Public Schools supported his pre-K sales-tax initiative, the school board announced it does not want the proposal on the Nov. 6 ballot.

During a school board meeting Wednesday, board members and Superintendent Mark Bedell said the mayor’s plan leaves too many unanswered questions and unresolved issues.

Among them is the structure of the governing board that would oversee the program once it’s in action, and the possibility that it could be interpreted as a blueprint for pushing toward a voucher program that would draw state dollars away from public schools.

“We support early childhood expansion, we do not support this plan as it is,” Bedell said, adding later that at best, he remains neutral on the mayor’s plan.

The statement was part of a day-long back-and-forth between James, Bedell and their representatives over just where the school district stood on the plan. It featured James’ political consultant calling Bedell dishonest about his public stance and the mayor apologizing for “outing” Bedell on the issue.

The plan calls for a 3/8-cent citywide sales tax that would allow for the expansion of pre-K programs in Kansas City and would impact, in addition to Kansas City public schools, 14 other surrounding school districts. James has said his top priority is passing the tax.

The discord started early Wednesday morning when James presented the council’s finance and governance committee with the first substantive description of the proposal, in the form of a 63-page implementation plan.

Among the details:

Who is eligible: All families in Kansas City with a child who turns 4 before Aug. 1 and will enter kindergarten the following academic year.

What schools will be involved: All early childhood education providers in the city’s 15 public school districts or charter, private or faith-based programs who are licensed by the state can participate. They must agree to evaluations by independent experts and meet any requirements for improvement.

How will the city define “quality pre-K”: They are programs in which 50 percent to 100 percent of the lead teachers have bachelor’s degrees in education or childhood development and follow the curriculum approved by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Programs must maintain a student-staff ratio of 10-to-1, submit attendance records and prohibit suspensions or expulsions.

How tuition discounts would work: Discounts would be based on a sliding scale using family-based income, household size and the quality of the program. A family of four earning the city’s $45,000 median income, for example, would get the full $12,000 discount if a child attend a program rated at top quality. The same family at a so-called “emerging” program that required improvement would receive a $3,000 discount.

How the program would be governed: State law requires the city to establish a five-member tax board, with three members appointed by the mayor. One member would be named by the 15 school districts within the city and the other by four counties that are all or partly in the city. The board would review the pre-K plan and make recommendations to the council.

The council would contract with a nonprofit to oversee execution of the program. It would have a 17-member board comprising educators, parents, businesspeople and instructional experts.

This board would sign contracts with other entities as it saw fit. One possibility is the Mid-America Regional Council, which has administered the region’s federal Head Start grant for 13 years.

When James was asked which of the region’s school leaders supported the plan, he said Bedell.

“Although you have to be careful,” James noted. “They don’t want to be called out from the crowd here.”

James said after the hearing that he regretted “outing” Bedell.

Bedell was not happy to learn that he was presented at that meeting as being a supporter because earlier this month, a collection of superintendents from districts the plan will affect had agreed that they could not support it in its current state.

Bedell said on Wednesday that he had recently expressed his position “clearly” to the mayor.

In the hour-long school board meeting, Bedell said that not only does he not support putting the initiative on the November ballot, he would only support it for an April ballot if certain issues are adequately resolved.

The district said in their statement that their concerns revolve around four main areas:

The governance structure fails to provide an adequate amount of authority to the public school systems predominantly responsible for providing pre-K programs.

The plan raises concerns around providing equitable funding for programs in economically challenged “pre-K deserts” that need more access to early childhood education.

It’s unclear how the plan will measure outcomes.

The plan will funnel public money into private and parochial schools and will serve as a potential framework for implementing a voucher system in Kansas City, which will fragment the city’s educational landscape.

“We know it is part of our strategic plan to be able to offer more early childhood opportunities to the students within our boundaries,” Bedell said. “We have been clear with the KC Chamber of Commerce, we have been clear with the superintendents’ forum and the cooperative school districts that KCPS will benefit if we get more children into early childhood.”

Bedell said his position since November, when the district first learned about the plan, was that the school system would not stand in the way of the mayor’s efforts to pursue a sales tax for early childhood, “but we needed more information.”

Bedell said that after the superintendents met recently, they agreed to ask James for more time for discussion.

“To have this move at this rate is not in the best interest of school districts,” Bedell said.

Raytown officials agree.

“We are not in support of the mechanism and governing structure and that it presents as a voucher plan,” said Allan Markley, superintendent of Raytown schools, which already offers pre-K to all its 4-year-olds.

“The idea is so great and so worthy. We support expansion,” Markley said. “Why don’t we slow it down and as a group, figure it out so that it works for everyone.”

James told the council committee earlier Wednesday he expected opposition because the school leaders would not have control over the $30 million expected to be generated annually by the sales tax hike.

The pushback quickly became more intense when the mayor’s political consultant, Mark Nevins, said in a phone interview that Bedell’s hesitancy didn’t square with what he he heard at an Aug. 7 meeting of the KC Chamber’s Superintendents’ Forum, which convenes regularly to discuss education issues.

Nevins said most of the group was sharply opposed, except for Bedell.

“Dr. Bedell was singular in that meeting. He said, ‘I’m in a difficult spot because this plan actually works for my district. But I don’t want to go against everybody else in this room.’”

“So if he is suggesting anything other than that this plan works for his district, “ Nevins said, “then he isn’t telling the truth.”

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KCPS Superintendent Mark Bedell file photo Kansas City Star

This prompted another rebuttal from Bedell, who said, “it is unfortunate that this quote got taken out of context.” He reiterated that the district, while in support of expanding pre-K, has been consistent in saying that it has concerns and questions.

He said he’s been “fully transparent” with the mayor’s office about those concerns and “to say otherwise is simply inaccurate, disrespectful and disingenuous.”

Bedell insists that he stands with his fellow superintendents and his board in saying, “the proposal as it currently stands should not be placed on the November ballot.”

A statement released by the district late Wednesday afternoon said it “fully supports the creation of a public pre-K system where all families have equitable access to a high-quality early childhood education that will prepare their children to succeed in kindergarten. The proposed plan as provided thus far does not meet that goal. That is why the Board of Directors unanimously approved a motion Wednesday calling for the proposal to not be sent for a vote in the November general election.”

James tried to have the last word at a hastily called early evening press conference. He said he’d spoken to Bedell by phone and that the two were still “friends.”

”To the extent I might have misrepresented what Mark had told me previously, I apologize for that. But I had a slightly different recollection of our conversation,” James said.

But he had a few more words for critics of the plan.

“I have had for years people come and talk to me about this issue. They’ve all described the problem and not a single one has brought a solution,” he said. “As long as people want to come in and dump problems on my desk and ask me to help solve them they should be not be coming around kicking me in the face when I try to help.”

James said he was “not interested in all the adult drama, not interested in all the adult problems.”

James also said there was no compelling reason to wait until the April ballot. Far more voters are expected to come to the polls this fall, he said, and the issues won’t change.

“The bottom line is we can keep putting it off and putting it off but it ain’t going to change,” he said.

In a joint statement, the Urban League of Greater Kansas City and the Committee to Abolish Poverty also said James’ plan was unacceptable in its current form.

“The governance structure is absurd, convoluted and impractical,” the two groups said. They called it “a veiled voucher system” that uses public funds to benefit secular and private religious institutions and taxes the poor to subsidize the affluent.

“It is our position that it is time for us to go all in for our traditional public schools if we want to ensure that all children, irrespective of race and socioeconomic status, rise with the tide,” the statement said.

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