Kansas City can build all the convention hotels, airports and streetcars it wants. But unless its children get a good early education, it will always be held back, Mayor Sly James said in his final State of the City address Tuesday.
This summer marks the end of James’ eight years as mayor. He’s term limited, and 11 candidates are running in a primary election to replace him. Speaking at Rockhurst University, where he graduated in 1980, James focused most heavily not on his administration’s biggest projects, but the visions that have not – or not yet – been realized. He cited, for example, an inability to curb gun violence and imposing gun control in Kansas City “because of the nonsensical ideology in the state of Missouri.”
And he lobbied hard for a 3/8-cent sales tax increase to fund a pre-K expansion. That’s on voters’ ballots next week.
“We owe it to our kids,” James said. “We owe it to their kids to do what we can when we have this opportunity. And that opportunity is sitting in front of us now. We cannot revert back to the city that never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”
He said the city has a “moral responsibility to make sure every one of our children are educated and prepared to lead Kansas City into the future.”
“We’re the adults here,” James said. “They’re children, and they can’t educate themselves. That’s our job.”
In James’ time as mayor, the city has continued rebuilding its downtown, starting a streetcar line and construction of a convention hotel. On Monday, he spoke at the groundbreaking for a new single terminal at Kansas City International Airport.
Although the mayor’s office has little direct power over public schools, James has considered education a part of his mission. During his first year in office, he launched Turn the Page KC, an initiative to promote reading proficiency by third grade.
James said he regards access to pre-K as both an investment in the city’s workforce and an anti-crime program. It’s an idea the city can turn down, he said, as it waits for the next proposed fix.
“But that child who’s denied a quality education could very well be the adolescent or adult who decides to steal your car, take your stuff, hurt your loved one because he’s uneducated, hopeless and has no options,” he said.
It means that hotels, airports and streetcars aren’t enough, he said.
“Our foundation will continue to crack under the weight of pervasive crime and poverty, the lack of adequate numbers of skilled workers, persistent racial inequity — all of which can and have to be improved, starting with high-quality pre-k, starting with quality education, starting with my friends here in the yellow shirts, with better housing,” James said.
The yellow shirt-clad group in the audience Tuesday was the newly-formed KC Tenants group, which is demanding that the city address a growing housing affordability issue. In a response to James’ address, its representatives argued that the true state of the city is a crisis of evictions and housing that is either unaffordable or deteriorating at the hands of out-of-state landlords allowed to evade regulatory scrutiny.
Brynne Musser, a grassroots leader in KC Tenants, said Kansas City’s renaissance is not felt by all of the city’s residents. She noted half of the city’s residents are renters and minimum wage workers have to work multiple full-time jobs to afford a one-bedroom home.
“As rents rise, demand for truly affordable housing far outpaces supply. We are living one emergency away from an eviction,” Musser said. “That’s the state of our city.”
Lorenzo Hughes, a grassroots leader in the group, said without action soon, they won’t be able to live in Kansas City.
“The city will have been bought and sold by big developers,” Hughes said. “Rents will have raised beyond what we can pay. We will be displaced, forced further and further away from our jobs and from our kids’ schools.”
In an interview after his speech, James agreed something had to be done about affordable housing and looked to Councilman Quinton Lucas, 3rd District at-large, who chairs the housing committee. He is also running for mayor.
As he approaches the end of his tenure, James said it’s easy for retiring public officials to think about what they should have done differently.
“And for me, probably a little more often than I’d like to think about — what shouldn’t I have said? For the record, there isn’t much on the ‘what shouldn’t I have said’ list that pertains to either guns or education,” James said.
As he wrapped up his final State of the City address, James said the city has exceeded his expectations.
“I’ve learned that we are no one’s understudy. We are not fly over country,” James said. “We are, instead, recognized by this nation as a rising star city. Kansas City has arrived. We are limited only by our own imagination and only if we fail to remember that what got us where to where we are is by working together.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Brynne Musser. It has been updated.