Published Online: March 12, 2010

Few Details About Ambitious K.C. School Closing Plan

Kansas City school officials promised Thursday to shut down nearly half the district's schools by the start of classes in the fall without offering details of how they intend to implement the complicated plan in just a matter of months.

The drastic project also calls for cutting hundreds of jobs and shuffling thousands of students. Officials say the changes are needed to keep the district from using up what little is left of the $2 billion it received as part of a groundbreaking desegregation case.

The school board on Wednesday night narrowly approved the plan that calls for closing 29 of 61 facilities, 26 traditional schools and three leased buildings that house early childhood programs. It also eliminates about 700 of 3,000 jobs and requires moving students from the shuttered buildings to other schools.

The district's enrollment of fewer than 18,000 students is about half of what the schools had a decade ago, with many students leaving for publicly funded charter schools, private and parochial schools and the suburbs.

Superintendent John Covington has said the district would be bankrupt in 18 months without the cuts.

At a news conference Thursday, Covington thanked the school board for approving the plan, but offered few details about how it would be implemented. He said he would give the board details about putting the plan in place in about a week.

He added that the transition plan itself would cost $25 million, and that he would "be looking at ways to generate" that money "from additional savings that we will be recommending to the board." He declined to offer more specifics about financing.

Covington said transition teams would be in place in the schools that are closing to help children and staff deal with the changes. He said the changes would likely involve staggered start times and class times for middle school students attending school with high school students in the fall.

Some of the district's buildings, including its downtown headquarters, would be sold. Other would be "repurposed," and used as parks, he said.

"We have until August to get this done, and there's no doubt in my mind that there's enough time between now and the opening of the school year to make it all happen," the superintendent said. "We're confident it will work."

He said he has been working on the transition plan for several weeks "anticipating the outcome" of Wednesday night's 5-4 school board vote.

"When you're talking about closing 26 schools, you can't wait until the ninth hour to get it done," he said. "If that's the case ... when we roll around to the opening day of school, you could very well have chaos.

"And so we already are putting together ... a plan to make sure that doesn't happen."

The plan has drawn considerable criticism from parents and some school board members. It also entails having teachers at six other low-performing schools reapply for their jobs.

Covington, who was hired by the board last year and began work in July, has blamed previous administrations for failing to close schools as the enrollment — and the money that comes with it — shrank. Past school closure plans were either scaled back or scrapped entirely.

Wanda J. Blanchett, dean of the school of education at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said Thursday that Covington's planned cuts and his timetable were not only feasible, but "critically important."

"And the reason I say that is because the district is still operating as far as its infrastructure is concerned as though it's serving 75,000 students," she said. "But in reality, it's serving slightly under 17,000 students.

"Not only is it feasible, but it's the right thing to do," she said.

Covington said he believes that parents and children eventually will "beam with pride" for their district.

"In a very short time, parents, members of the community, all our stakeholders will see this school district rise from the ashes," he said.

Associated Press Writer Heather Hollingsworth contributed to this report.

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