The grass is all brown, dormant for another couple of months. Trees are bare, and flowerbeds empty. But the Shawnee Mission School District is drenched in green right now — $223 million, in fact, the result of district residents voting to lavishly support their schools with a bond issue.
My kids are pumped.
“Mom, did the schools get their bajillion dollars?” my son asked.
Our elementary school is one of several that will be rebuilt with part of that bond money. The rebuild will be completed about the time my kids move on to middle school. Although he will never attend class in the new building, my son has a wish list for the building.
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Oh, boy, I thought, as he began to tell me his plan. Its details, however, surprised me.
He and a friend determined there should be a student advisory board to determine the needs for the new school. My son would run for president of the board.
I asked what they thought would be important in the new school.
“Better bathroom stalls,” he said right off the bat. “The locks are broken, and people are always walking in on each other accidentally. Everyone hates that.”
With good reason, I thought. I mentally added better ventilation to the list of imperatives. Pee-ew.
“And,” he continued, “there should be solar panels.”
He made no mention of firehouse slides, video game simulation wings, or bouncy house rooms. Be practical, and be environmentally responsible, were the wishes of at least two students.
The buildings are the shells of our kids’ education, and those shells matter. A tolerable bathroom and an efficient heating and cooling system all help our kids learn. I know, I sat through 90-plus degree days in an unconditioned junior high and high school. The only thing I learned on those days was the importance of society agreeing, as a whole, that every single member would put on deodorant every morning.
But kids don’t learn much from the building itself. A building can present opportunities — our high school greenhouse taught me to plant seeds and grow vegetables. A tour through a field of solar panels showed my kids how to harness the sun’s energy. A pool can save lives by providing the opportunity to learn to swim.
But a building can’t teach. Walls can’t read the needs of the children they contain and protect. For facilities to serve their purpose, they need to be jam-packed with living, breathing, fairly compensated, perceptive, fully trained staff. Gifted children need challenge, challenged kids need intervention. And every child needs both physical and mental health support. Brains need creative opportunities to grow.
Sophisticated education tailors programs to meet individual kids’ needs. I know — just recently one of my kids’ teachers and the school nurse greeted me with an arsenal of techniques to help my child conquer anxiety. No building, no iPad app, no spreadsheet could have provided that tailored solution for my unique child.
It’s easy to look at this sum of money and think that education is in good shape. That at least this school district can breathe a sigh of relief despite state budget cuts. It might appear that the funding our children need to grow and thrive is in place. But this may not be so.
I follow a group, Game on for Kansas Schools, that shares oodles of information about education needs and news. One after another, articles demystify the smoke-and-mirrors surrounding the state’s education budgets — and the true impact on schools, including those that appear to be flush with local funding. The scary information that emerges is that the resource that should be placed as the No. 1 one concern is the one in jeopardy: our educators.
The good news is that we care. Local monies are approved with overwhelming voter support, and we’re smart enough to look deep into the numbers and read the headlines that point us to the truth — then fight to see that the next generation gets their own fighting chance.
Overland Park mom and freelancer Emily Parnell writes weekly.