After Ruling, Focus in Kansas City Shifts To Putting Plan Into Action

May 02, 1990 12 min read

By William Snider

Kansas City, Mo.--Paseo High School is an old, Gothic stone building that sits atop one of the larger hills in this city, commanding a panoramic view of tree-lined but impoverished black neighborhoods.

It is slated to be demolished this summer to make way for two new schools, a middle school and a high school, that will share a separate state-of-the-art facility for fine and performing arts.

The architects of this district’s desegregation plan--one of the most expensive and ambitious ever attempted--hope the new schools, and others of comparable quality throughout the district, will lure back the thousands of white families who fled this city during earlier desegregation efforts.

Until recently, both critics and supporters of the plan have focused much of their attention on how its $500-million price tag would be met.

But the U.S. Supreme Court ended those worries last month when it ruled in a 5-to-4 decision that U.S. District Judge Russell G. Clark, who approved and oversees the plan, could order the district to increase property taxes to pay its share of the cost.

The ruling has been decried by commentators nationally as an unwarranted expansion of judicial powers, and it provoked Missouri’s two U.S. Senators, John C. Danforth and Christopher S. Bond, both Republicans, to sponsor a constitutional amendment to prohibit the federal judiciary from ordering state or local officials to levy or increase taxes.

But locally, it generated none of the organized protests that occurred in 1987, when Judge Clark first doubled the district’s tax rate and created an income-tax surcharge that was later struck down.

Instead, the school board’s first meeting since the ruling was dominated by the fate of Paseo High School. Alumni from the school’s whites-only days have joined with the school’s current students, all of whom are black, to protest its demolition.

Although most of the plan’s supporters characterized the protest as inconsequential and untimely, it symbolizes local discontent that is often overshadowed by the broader issues of the case.

“We should all remember that the parents of suburban white students are surely watching the way you treat us,” said Gornaia Jackson, a junior at Paseo who testified before the board.

“If you can ignore 500 of us, they will wonder how much attention you will pay to their single son or daughter,” she said.

After an hour in closed session, the board’s lawyer responded to the students’ petition with a now-familiar refrain: “Any reconsideration of the capital-improvements plan ... is simply not feasible under the existing court order.”

Five years after Judge Clark issued the first of several dozen orders that dictate the plan in minute detail, its most obvious impact can be seen in the dozen or so schools that have undergone extensive renovations and now appear as bright and well-equipped as those in much wealthier suburbs.

And the district’s capital-improvements plan is only now reaching its peak: Over the next six years, construction is to be completed on 21 state-of-the-art schools, and all 63 existing schools will be renovated to a level comparable to suburban schools.

Critics of Judge Clark’s plan have focused much of their attention on these improvements, which are intended both to correct decades of underfunded maintenance and to lure white families from better-funded and more convenient suburban schools.

Those criticisms were echoed by Associate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who wrote the stinging dissent to the Supreme Court’s opinion.

“Perhaps it is good educational policy to provide ... a 2,000-square-foot planetarium; greenhouses and vivariums; a 25-acre farm with an air-conditioned meeting room for 104 people; a Model United Nations wired for language translation; broadcast-capable radio and television studios with an editing and animation lab; a temperature-controlled art gallery ... swimming pools and numerous other facilities,” he wrote. “But these items are a part of a legitimate political debate over educational policy and spending priorities, not the Constitution’s command of racial equality.”

The capital-improvements plan, while the most expensive and logistically complicated part of the overall desegregation plan, is only one of four major features.

By this fall, the district is scheduled to have magnet programs in all of its middle and high schools and more than half of its elementary schools.

And the district has implemented numerous initiatives in schools that remain nearly all-black, including class-size reductions, early childhood programs, extended-day programs, an “effective schools” allotment of discretionary funding, and an upgrading of personnel and library resources that enabled the district to regain the state’s highest rating for districts, Triple-A.

The fourth prong of the plan--a voluntary interdistrict-transfer program with a dozen suburban districts--is the only part that has not been started, although a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled last month that it must begin this fall.

All told, implementing the court orders already issued will cost between $500 million and $700 million, and the plan’s advocates make no secret of the fact that they intend to seek additional funding to put magnet programs in all district schools.

Much of the plan’s cost will be borne by the state, whose officials have been among the most vocal critics of its scope. But lawyers for the plan’s supporters point out that the state did not propose an alternative plan, leaving Judge Clark with no option other than to accept or reject the plan developed jointly by school officials and a lawyer for the district’s black students.

The plan’s architects said they drew on lessons from other school-desegregation efforts of the past generation to devise a remedy that they believe has a much greater chance of succeeding than its predecessors.

“There were a lot of examples of small voluntary plans that worked” by the time this remedy was developed, said Arthur Benson 2nd, the lawyer who represents the black plaintiffs in the case.

The full-scale voluntary plan he helped develop “neatly matches the scope of the violation,” he added.

“We’re very fortunate,” said Julia Hill, president of the board of education. “There are many things that other districts are crying for that we have here because of this court case.”

Although the district has been unable for 20 years to persuade the number of voters required under state law to approve levy increases, a majority of voters appear to support the plan itself, as evidenced by their rejection of anti-desegregation candidates who ran in last month’s school-board elections.

But while the plan has provided the district with an unprecedented opportunity, school officials also acknowledge the situation has its drawbacks.

“Administrating under a court order is a very difficult and time-consuming process,” said George Garcia, the district’s superintendent. ''We may come to a decision administratively, then we have to convince the board of directors, then we have to convince the desegregation monitoring committee, then we have to convince the court.”

“We’re also operating in a fish bowl. We’re the hottest story in town,” he said. “The controversy that’s constantly around us makes it really hard for people to listen with an open ear. I’m always amazed by how little people actually know about the district except the headlines they see.”

A certain amount of the friction that has emerged during the plan’s implementation is due to the sheer logistical complexity of carrying out the changes called for. The problems are particularly acute at the beginning of each school year, because students in schools that are slated to undergo renovation have to be housed in other fa8cilities and transportation routes have to be redrawn to accommodate the growing numbers of magnets.

Delays in renovating and constructing schools, purchasing equipment, and recruiting teachers with experience in the magnet themes have added an additional layer of complication. The district has opened Latin grammar schools without Latin teachers and computer magnets without computers, and must frequently start magnet programs before their facilities are completed.

“They don’t have time to implement it slowly enough to make sure they minimize their mistakes, so it creates problems for them,” said Norman B. Hudson, president of the Kansas City Federation of Teachers.

The plan’s delicate balance and tight timeframes are cited by district officials as part of the reason they are unwilling to accommodate changes sought in the plan by groups such as the Paseo High supporters.

“Honoring a request like that would create huge ripple effects throughout all the schools,” Mr. Benson said. “The district’s promises to hundreds of other kids would have to be broken.”

But the board’s rigid adherence to the plan has also irritated some community residents.

“They made their decisions five years ago, and now they’re just trying to ease it through with the least amount of squabble,” said one white resident who declined to be named. “But they’re ending up with the most squabble.”

Others have directed their criticism at the substance of the plan, particularly its emphasis on attracting and retaining white students.

One of the most volatile issues has been a provision that requires all new magnet schools to open with an enrollment that is 60 percent minority and 40 percent white. The district’s enrollment is more than 70 percent minority.

Because the district has attracted thousands fewer white students than it would need to fill the available seats at the magnet schools, officials have been forced to admit fewer black students to the programs than wish to attend. Estimates of the number of black students denied access to the better programs vary from several hundred to several thousand.

Judge Clark has yet to rule on a variety of motions that have been filed in an attempt to abolish or amend the quotas. Even the plan’s supporters, who ardently defend the quota system, acknowledge that it will have to be changed before next year, when no traditional neighborhood schools will be left at the middle- and high-school levels.

Clinton Adams, president of the Coalition for Educational and Economic Justice, said the quota problem reflects an overemphasis on integration on the part of the “misguided liberals and social engineers” who devised the plan.

“It’s not fair to have magnet seats sitting vacant that black kids want to go to but they can’t get into,” he said. “Instead, they get assigned to overcrowded traditional schools.”

“I just think the primary thrust should be to educate blacks, not to attract whites,” he added. “Why should we reward the whites who fled the system? It was the blacks who were wronged, who were victims of the separate-but-unequal school system. Integration is a noble goal, but its pursuit must be secondary to academic achievement.”

Supporters of the plan insist that the entire plan would not have been possible without an emphasis on integration, because the Constitution does not provide a guarantee of high-quality education.

“I think the two are inseparable,” said Eugene E. Eubanks, a professor of education at the University of Missouri and the chairman of the court-appointed monitoring committee.

Some black leaders also question the amounts spent on transporting students and renovating facilities, saying it would be better to focus the available resources on improving educational quality. Others say the total abolition of neighborhood schools could make it more difficult for parents to become involved in their children’s education.

But the biggest battle looming concerns the fate of the voluntary interdistrict-transfer program that was first ordered five years ago and that the Eighth Circuit judges said must be implemented by the fall.

The suburban districts were initially defendants in the lawsuit, but were found not guilty of contributing to the problems of the city district and were dismissed from the case in 1984.

Supporters of the plan insist that this component, under which up to 6,000 of the district’s 24,000 black students would transfer to suburban schools, is vitally necessary if all of the district’s schools are to succeed in meeting the 60-40 quotas.

The legal action against the suburbs has fueled lingering resentment toward the city district, and the suburban districts named in the case decided by the Eighth Circuit are appealing the decision.

Suburban residents also fear that they will be asked to absorb some of the costs of educating the transfer students, officials of those districts said.

S. Gene Denisar, superintendent of schools in North Kansas City, blames the Eighth Circuit’s decision in part for the defeat a day later of nine bond issues his district was seeking to have approved. “I think our taxpayers had a real question about whether they should be obligated to carry a tax burden for out-of-district students,” he said.

And some black leaders are ques4tioning the desirability of sending black students to suburban districts where they would constitute a distinct minority.

“It’s not in the best of interest of black kids to go to school in an environment where there are no black teachers, no black principals, and no black administrators, and where blacks are treated as second-class citizens,” said Mr. Adams, who opposes the interdistrict plan.

Even Ms. Hill, the president of the board, expressed some reservations about the transfer plan.

“Many of us are hoping that we won’t just throw the children out,” she said. “They need some support staff out there.”

The Kansas City Star reported last week that Judge Clark may order that $11 million be used to reward students who transfer to a district where they are in the minority with one-year college scholarships for each year they participate in the program.

Almost everyone interviewed gave the plan’s success thus far only mixed reviews.

The two most frequently cited problems are that the district has fallen far short of its goals in attracting white students, and that indicators of student achievement have improved only modestly despite the significant sums expended.

Some, like Mr. Benson, blame district officials for lackluster implementation efforts and for failing to do an adequate job of recruiting both students and well-qualified employees.

“The plan is great, but the implementation has been less than great,” he said.

District officials and others say that the plan’s architects had unrealistic expectations for its success, and that the negative attitudes that many whites hold toward the city’s schools are more deeply ingrained than many had supposed.

“The expectations in most quarters have been that we should have been able to achieve more,” Mr. Garcia said. “But with everything occurring all at once, I think we’ve made realistic progress. We were in a downward spiral and had been for several years, and we’ve halted that. We’re also gaining whites instead of losing them.”

Added Robert L. Henley, superintendent of the suburban Independence schools: “Kansas City is on the right road, and they’ve come a long way. I think the plan is going to work, but these things take time.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 02, 1990 edition of Education Week as After Ruling, Focus in Kansas City Shifts To Putting Plan Into Action