Government & Politics

KC school district won’t support mayor’s pre-K tax. Others expected to do the same

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.

After nearly four months of talks, Kansas City Public Schools will not support Mayor Sly James’ plan for a sales tax to expand pre-kindergarten programs, according to a district statement obtained by The Star on Wednesday.

Fourteen other school districts that have some portion of their boundaries in Kansas City, and would also benefit from the proposed 3/8-cent tax, are expected to announce next week that they, too, cannot support the plan.

One of the main sticking points is who has control over the money and programs.

“We believe public school systems should be responsible for governing and providing pre-K programs that are funded by public dollars,” Superintendent Mark Bedell said in the statement, expected to be released in the coming days. “For this reason, and others … KCPS cannot support the proposed 3/8-cent sales tax to fund pre-K expansion across the city.”

In response to Bedell, James said in a statement to The Star: “While I am disappointed in their decision, I remain steadfast in my commitment to make sure every child has access to educational opportunities that will help them build successful futures for themselves, as well as Kansas City.”

The mayor’s program would be governed by a five-member tax board, with three members appointed by the mayor. One would be named by the 15 school districts and the other by four counties that are all or partly in the city. A nonprofit organization would be contracted to oversee the program, possibly the Mid-America Regional Council.

The sales tax hike would generate $30 million annually. All early childhood education providers in the city’s 15 public school districts could participate, as well as charter, private or faith-based programs licensed by the state.

James had wanted to put the pre-K sales tax to a citywide vote in November, but superintendents asked him to hold off so they could work with him on some details.

In August, James reluctantly agreed to wait and put the issue on the ballot in April. Superintendents have since met at least four times with city officials on the plan.

The two sides agreed on several parts. But on Wednesday, Bedell told members of the KCPS school board that he and other superintendents remained at odds with the mayor over three main issues: their districts would lose too much control, a portion of taxpayer money would be diverted to private and parochial schools and the sales tax would be unfair to low-income earners.

School district lawyers have said that using public funds to support faith-based education is unconstitutional, Bedell said.

James said the plan “was built to serve all families in Kansas City, including the majority whose four-year-olds are not served by the public school system.”

The 15 affected districts are members of Cooperating School Districts of Greater Kansas City. Its executive director, Gayden Carruth, said the group would issue a statement about the issue on Monday.

North Kansas City Superintendent Dan Clemens said all superintendents “are in consensus regarding the pre-K sales tax.”

Raytown schools Superintendent Allan Markley said funding parochial schools with the tax was also one of his concerns. “We can’t get behind and support use of public tax money for private or parochial education,” he said. He added that he appreciated that James listened to the districts’ concerns, even if they couldn’t reach an agreement.

James said the city had agreed to “substantive compromises” with the districts.

In his statement, Bedell said, “It appears that there is no more opportunity for progress on these issues.” However, Bedell has said and repeated at Wednesday’s meeting that while he cannot support the mayor’s plan in its current form, his district and others are very much in favor of more state funding for early childhood education.

“The district will focus on its legislative agenda and push for full state funding that would support pre-K expansion,” he told The Star.

Bedell and members of the school board mentioned Wednesday that supporting a sales tax now could hurt the district’s chance of getting public support for any tax levies down the road to fund not only pre-K expansion but also capital improvements.

In recent years KCPS has tried but failed to get a tax levy increase to grow its pre-K program.

The city does not need the support of the school districts to proceed, but the lack of support could influence voters.

Under the mayor’s plan, all Kansas City families with a child who turns 4 before Aug. 1 and will enter kindergarten the following academic year would be eligible for pre-K programs, with fees on a sliding scale.

Only 35 percent of the city’s 4- and 5-year-olds are in high-quality pre-K, city officials estimate. Research shows such programs can improve the life prospects of children by better preparing them for kindergarten.

Studies have shown that children from good pre-K programs are more likely to be reading proficiently by the third grade, attend college and enter the workforce.

In addition to Kansas City, North Kansas City and Raytown, the other districts that would be affected by the sales tax plan are Belton, Blue Springs, Center, Grandview, Hickman Mills, Independence, Kearney, Lee’s Summit, Liberty, Park Hill, Platte County and Smithville.

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Mará has written on all things education for The Star for 20 years, including issues of school safety, teen suicide, universal pre-K programs, college costs, campus protests and university branding.

Allison Kite reports on City Hall and local politics for The Star. She joined the paper in February 2018 and covered Midterm election races on both sides of the state line. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism with minors in economics and public policy from the University of Kansas.