Melinda Henneberger

Sly James on his pre-K sales tax plan: ‘This is the only funding mechanism that works’

In a recent interview, Mayor Sly James defended the three-eighths-cent sales tax increase that will be on the April ballot to fund quality pre-K for all Kansas City kids, only 35 percent of whom now attend any school before kindergarten. The following are excerpts from the conversation with the mayor.

Q: Why will some of the money go to schools outside the public school system?

A: The ecosystem of early childhood is such that the public schools do not teach, do not have the majority of the kids. The majority of the kids are in community-based providers. Those providers are private. Those providers are religious-based ... and mom-and-pops. The 4-year-olds are really the profit centers in those places; if you pull all of the 4-year-olds out and put them in public schools — which a) they have no capacity to do, either through personnel or facilities — then the community-based providers are stuck only with infants, toddlers and 3-year-olds, and the system will collapse because the student or kid-to-teacher ratio is much higher, and it’s much more cost intensive. When you get into the 4-year-olds and you’re able to spread that out, you can make a go. You take out 4-year-olds, the system will collapse; then you’ve got parents who’ve got 1- 2- and 3-year-olds and no place to go.

Q: Money going to parochial schools is the real sticking point?

A: First of all, I don’t know what their objection to religious-based schools is. They’re not teaching religion; they’re teaching a state-approved curriculum. Secondly, there’s already public money that goes to those facilities. Does anybody seriously argue that if a church catches on fire, we should not send the publicly-funded fire department to put the fire out? The school districts have said over and over that they spend money on private entities — special ed, for bus companies, all sorts of stuff — but for them, it’s not a voucher. It’s only when someone other than them does it that it becomes a voucher.

Q: In other cities with this same pre-K for all program, was there similar criticism?

A: A lot of them, if not all of them, had resistance from the public school industry. The public school industry believes that they are the ones who should control issues like this, despite the fact that they do not control issues like this.

Q: In your discussions with public school superintendents that eventually broke down, was there one issue that seemed most insurmountable?

A: The issues where our conversations broke down with superintendents were on the distribution of funds and the governance model to be used. They believe that because they have an elected school board that governance should lie with them, and then their third issue is the constitutionality of using public funds that would go to a religious-based institution or a private institution.

Q: Did you at any point feel that you were getting close to a compromise?

A: No, not on those issues. I thought on the governance issue, the governance was fairly easy. OK, we had an 11-person board, we’ll make it a 21-person board and give you six spots, seven spots, whatever. That’s easy. We could have done that. But we could not say hey, you guys just take it over and do it. That was something we could not do.

Q: Things seem to have gotten pretty intense between you and (KCPS Kansas City Public Schools Superintendent Mark) Bedell.

A: It’s not intense between me and Bedell. That may be coming from him, but it ain’t coming from me. I’m focused on getting pre-K done; he’s focused on something else, and that’s fine.

Q: But there’s a disagreement on how many spots you offered (the school districts) on the governance board?

A: Here’s the thing. They are confused. They somehow think the tax board means something. The tax board doesn’t do anything. The tax board is set up by statute, so it’s not a matter of me being able to alter that. It says exactly what it says, and you have to follow it. The tax board’s responsibility is pretty basic. Here’s the money, the money is accounted for, turn it over to the proper authority to use it for whatever and they’re out of the game.

We offered them spots on [the board that would actually oversee programs]. If they want to make a big deal out of the tax board, that’s really a nonstarter because it’s right there in black and white in the statute that says exactly how the tax board has to be constituted.

Q: What do you hear from the public on the plan?

A: I might be running around in selective company, but people get it. People understand the need to better educate the children of this community. Particularly parents. Any parent that’s tried to find day care for their child and has seen how much it costs and where they can go and found it so difficult to get and wound up on waiting lists, making do. Forty percent of our zip codes are quality pre-K deserts, and the other issue is affordability, at $12,000 a year for a 4-year-old ... There’s no educator who doesn’t know what needs to be done. The problem is there’s very little political will to get it done.

Q: Why is that?

A: It’s hard. It requires you to take a stance that people might disagree with. It costs money. How do you fund it? Nobody else is doing it; how do I know I’ll be successful? The education industry is bound by its own political problems like any other and to deny that is crazy.

Q: Why is this happening in your eighth year as mayor?

A: Because the plan was ready in year eight; it wasn’t ready before. The project started five years ago and school districts, KCPS in particular was in it, and they couldn’t figure out a way to fund it. First they wanted to fund it by property tax increases. Like Dr. Bedell said, they tried it twice; it failed twice. So now that there is no other option, this is what we have. This is the only funding mechanism that works, and it came up during my shift and I’m going to push it. I could just as easily sit back, put up my feet and say I’ve done everything I need to do; you guys take it from here. That’s not how I roll.

Q: If this doesn’t pass in April, what happens then?

A: There are people who want to have the state pay for it. Good luck with that. There are people who want to pass property taxes to pay for it; good luck with that. There are people who want to do things that have already been tried and have failed on numerous occasions. Good luck with that.

We’re trying the only thing that has a proven funding source to get pre-K, and we’re doing it in a way, a sliding scale, that we can make tuition discounts to just about every person on some level or another.

What happens after April of this year (if it doesn’t pass) I have no idea. I would guess the same thing that happened the previous April, and the previous April, and the 25 or 35 or 40 Aprils before that — absolutely not much ... There’s a way to do this if you want to make the commitment. If you don’t want to make the commitment, you can find 1,000 reasons why not.