Yael T. Abouhalkah

Yael T. Abouhalkah: The feisty little school district that could

The recently opened Raytown Schools Wellness Center includes a full-size pool, treadmills and weights.
The recently opened Raytown Schools Wellness Center includes a full-size pool, treadmills and weights. jledford@kcstar.com

They say you can’t fight City Hall. But the Raytown school district and Superintendent Allan Markley sure are trying.

The feisty, inner-ring suburban district with close to 8,900 students is waging crucial battles in the courtroom and the classroom, closely watched by other local schools.

In the last two decades the Raytown district has transformed markedly. Its student population moved from 79 percent white to 34 percent. The number of students getting free or reduced lunch rose from 21.7 percent to 67.5 percent.

“We need to create opportunities for kids that exist beyond high school,” Markley said recently in his office in Raytown. His district’s borders extend to a large portion of Kansas City’s East Side (including my house) and a part of Independence.

Markley recently spent 45 minutes passionately discussing how the district is using innovative methods to teach mathematics to elementary children. He talked about “sticking to the same game plan” of trying to hang on to good teachers while Missouri education officials annually change state tests. He pointed to other challenges that include pervasive poverty and violence in parts of the district, plus hundreds of children living with someone other than their parents.

Sound familiar? Yes, these are the difficult issues that teachers and students deal with daily in other districts including North Kansas City, Grandview, Center, Hickman Mills, Independence and Kansas City.

Which brings us back to the legal tiffs.

▪ Raytown has a long-pending lawsuit against Kansas City and others, trying to get hold of millions in tax revenues created by the Blue Ridge Crossing Shopping Center. The city a decade ago approved a tax break for developers to replace the Blue Ridge Shopping Center.

The district thought it had worked out an agreement to compensate it for some lost future public dollars, but the suit claims the city reneged.

▪ Many local school officials in Missouri also will be keenly interested in a new district lawsuit. Markley contends his district is being shortchanged because some commercial properties are grossly undervalued by the county assessor’s office.

Proper assessments could lead to fairer taxes and a lower burden on homeowners, he said. If Raytown succeeds, other districts such as Lee’s Summit, Blue Springs and Independence may look for similar disparities and increased funding for schools.

▪ Finally, the Raytown district is involved in a suit with Kansas City over digital signs installed at schools in recent years. The city says the signs are prohibited in residential areas; the district disagrees.

Markley soon will be president-elect of the Missouri Association of School Administrators, and the battles he’s involved in here are common throughout the state.

“We’re all for economic development,” he said of the district. But current state law is unfair, he added, because it essentially allows cities to call the shots on how much future tax revenue can be diverted from taxing entities.

Markley still has time to celebrate victories.

One of the biggest in recent years is the recently opened Raytown Schools Wellness Center on Missouri 350. The center is huge, with 45,000 square feet and a renovated pool, plenty of treadmills and other workout equipment, community rooms and a medical clinic. District employees, retirees and families use it for free; district residents pay a fee.

Markley said the district expects to save millions of dollars as employees get healthier and take advantage of the clinic and its pharmacy.

The first-class facility is an example of the forward-thinking leadership needed to serve a fast-changing community that deserves a solid education.