The Hickman Mills school board voted Thursday to shutter two elementary schools — less than the number recommended by consultants but more than critics in the community had wanted.
The consulting group had submitted three plans that involved closing three to five elementary schools and restructuring grade levels at the remaining buildings in the South Kansas City district.
But the board instead chose an alternative provided by Superintendent Yolanda Cargile that saves the district the least amount of money: just enough to meet the district’s goal of cutting $5.5 million from its budget and bringing reserves back up to 15 percent from the 8 percent they were projected to fall to next year.
And at the last minute, board members chose to save one of the two schools proposed to be closed in her plan. Symington Elementary will close after this year. But now Johnson Elementary, not Truman Elementary as originally proposed, will close too.
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Voting in favor were board members Wakisha Briggs, Luther Chandler, Evelyn Hildebrand, Clifford Ragan, Alvin Brooks and Shawn Kirkwood. The lone “no” vote was Carol Graves, who said she did not support closing any schools.
“We are in a damned if we do and doomed if we don’t position right now,” Kirkwood said. “We have to do what’s best for students now.”
Cargile, who spoke to the audience before the vote, said the decision to close school was not “personal.”
“If I had a choice we would not be presenting this information tonight,” Cargile said. “But as it stands we do not.”
The chosen plan means other changes for Hickman Mills students. All remaining elementary schools will house kindergarten through fifth grade. Sixth-graders, now part of elementary schools, will join seventh- and eighth-graders at Smith-Hale Middle School and the Freshman Center. Ninth-graders will move to Ruskin High School.
Freda Markley will be the primary preschool facility, and the Ervin Early Learning Center will become another elementary school, with pre-K through fifth grade.
The district had indicated in February that it would close elementary schools, but it had not settled on how many. The decision is part of $5.5 million in cuts needed to address declining enrollment and tax revenue shortfalls. Officials said that if the district took no action, its savings would be in the red by the 2021-22 school year.
In January, the district paid MGT Consulting Group $33,000 to study how best to restructure schools and bring savings back to required levels. The group studied the district’s demographics, enrollment and other data and shared information at two community meetings.
“There is no other way to say this except, you’ve got more capacity than you need,” Edward Humble, a representative from the Florida-based consultant group, told board members last month.
The group gave the district three options at a Feb. 21 meeting which involved closing as many as five schools: Dobbs, Johnson, Symington, Truman and Ingels and saving anywhere from $8.7 million to $10.4 million.
At the meeting, Cargile had recommended the consultant’s proposal to close three schools: Symington, Johnson and Truman but also put forth a slimmer alternative: just closing Symington and Truman.
Ultimately, Truman was spared, though officials say it is the district building in the worst condition.
Symington is the third worst. Johnson has the district’s largest utility bills, but the least amount of classrooms. The building on Marsh Avenue also has chronic flooding from its flawed design, district officials said Thursday.
It was this information, coupled with comments from a pastor and a parent who pleaded with board members not to interfere with a budding positive culture at Truman, that appeared to persuade them to close Johnson instead.
While board members chose the option with the least amount of closings, shuttering schools at all was strongly opposed by politicians, developers and community members who had spoken out against the decision for weeks. Many said closing schools would incorrectly signal that both the district and the community are in dire straits and would make recruiting teachers and businesses to the area more difficult.
Others felt that the district should wait to see if enrollment picks up following the recent news that Hickman Mills achieved its highest score in five years, a 77.3 percent, on the Missouri school Annual Performance Reports. Both Hickman Mills and Kansas City Public Schools are provisionally accredited and working toward full accreditation.
“I understand the need to stabilize the District’s fund balance, but let’s not do it in a way that scares off some of our best teachers, hampers our efforts to recruit outstanding teachers, blights our neighborhoods with boarded up schools and seriously damages our District’s image,” Missouri Rep. DaRon McGree wrote to board members March 1.
Owen Buckley, president of a local development group, told board members this his company purchased a shopping center in the area four years ago because the affordable homes and improving school district indicate the area is headed for a turnaround.
“We believe the neighborhood ‘landscape’ in South Kansas City is positioned to change dramatically — in a positive direction — over the next 5 to 7 years,” Buckley wrote to board members Thursday. “I am just suggesting that the board keep in mind the … demographic changes that are beginning to take place and to let these ‘play out’ and become evident, or not become evident if that’s the case, before you pull this important trigger.”
But district officials and the consultants said they expect enrollment to continue to decline. They say K-12 enrollment dropped from 6,309 in 2017 to 5,883 this year, and could drop to 4,472 by 2027. In addition, they said Jackson County had overestimated the tax revenue the district would receive for 2016 and 2017, leading to district overspending that needs to immediately be corrected.
Kirkwood told the audience he was unwilling to “gamble with your tax money” even if enrollment projections or South Kansas City business prospects trend up in the future.