Falling Stars

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The lack of a solid track record has contributed to a sense that the nation's costliest and most ambitious desegregation plan has essentially missed the mark.

A turning point arrived in June 1995, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 5-4 decision that undercut a central rationale for the city's extensive network of magnet schools.

The court found that the state, which has picked up about two-thirds of the district's $1.9 billion desegregation bill since the mid-1980s, could no longer be forced to underwrite the attempt to attract and pay for white students from the suburbs.

The decision put the case back in the lap of U.S. District Judge Russell G. Clark, with clear directions to end the case as soon as possible and return the city schools to local control. That step led to talks between the district and state that resulted in a deal approved by Judge Clark, who oversaw the case from 1977 until District Judge Dean Whipple took it over last year.

The agreement called for the state to pay the district $314 million over three years and then to be released from its obligations. The last of the payments are to be made by June of next year, zippering the deep pocket that has brought so much change to Kansas City's schools.

In light of the agreement, district officials are scrambling to slash at least $55 million from their $301 million budget by 1999. But no one really knows if those cuts will be enough. That's because school officials are banking on state and local revenue sources--to replace some of the vanishing desegregation aid--that just might not come through.

In their budget projections, district leaders are figuring on receiving $30 million to $40 million in new state funding once the current subsidies evaporate. But with many lawmakers fed up with what they see as lavish spending by Kansas City, such aid is far from certain.

Likewise, school officials are counting on the more than $75 million a year they raise through a local tax surcharge that the court ordered over city voters' objections. If court oversight of the district is removed, authority for the surcharge would go with it.

In hopes of plugging the gaping hole that would make in the district's budget, state leaders have placed a statewide referendum on the April ballot to essentially authorize the current tax rate. Again, the outcome is uncertain.

But what is clear is that without those twin funding sources, the district faces fiscal problems of lethal proportions.

"If we don't get the money, then turn out the lights," Williams says during an interview in his well-appointed office in the district's downtown headquarters. "The state will have to take over the district, or it will have to be divided up and absorbed into surrounding districts."

Few observers believe state leaders would allow either of those scenarios to unfold, despite widespread grumblings about Kansas City's schools. Still, the possibility of a financial apocalypse strengthened the district's resolve to scale back magnet programs school leaders here say they can no longer afford. The restructurings approved this month are expected to save some $11 million, mostly in reduced busing costs.

"Dollars are not as plentiful as they once were," Williams says. "So we have to make some decisions based on the amount of money we need to cut."

One place where such painful choices are playing out is the Mount Washington German Elementary School, the district's only magnet school devoted solely to full immersion in the German language.

"There will be some hard decisions made, and we're going to have to adjust ourselves to reality."

Marieta West,
Mount Washington
German School

Adorning the halls of the immaculate red-brick building are large color photographs of Bavarian castles. Next to them hang dozens of student writing samples, every one in German. Most teachers are native speakers of the language, including Katrin Lederer.

On a weekday morning, "Frau" Lederer helps her 1st graders compile palm-sized vocabulary booklets and compose sentences in their notebooks. Like her colleagues throughout the building, she says she's disheartened by the decision to phase out the program.

"It's such a good idea to do immersion programs with this age group," she explains. "And everything here is established. To throw it all away--what for?"

To soften the blow, district officials plan to continue a limited version of the program for one more year. But next fall, Mount Washington will begin its conversion to a comprehensive K-5 school.

Although she was holding out hope until just a few weeks ago that the German program might be spared, Principal Marieta West seems resigned to the change. "I feel that before we had desegregation we were still educating children well," she says. "There will be some hard decisions made, and we're going to have to adjust ourselves to reality."

At Central High School, the jewel of Kansas City's schools, similar adjustments are in store. Often referred to by locals as "the Taj Mahal," the low-slung, 250,000-square-foot structure has become a potent symbol of the strengths and weaknesses of the district's magnet schools.

Since its construction in 1991, the $25.9 million complex has housed dual magnet themes. One stresses the use of computers across the curriculum. The other is a "classical Greek" theme, offering what the district calls "a liberal arts education" reflecting the Hellenistic ideal of a sound body and sound mind. Studying the Greek language is not part of the package.

In line with that theme's emphasis on athletics, the district packed Central High with sports facilities that put many colleges to shame. The fieldhouse boasts an indoor track, handball courts, a weight-training room stocked with equipment, and enough basketball hoops to play three simultaneous full-court games.

Upstairs, not far from the wrestling and fencing rooms, a fully equipped gymnastics facility stands ready to carry out its planners' original goal of preparing students for Olympic-level competition. Perhaps most impressive is the "natatorium"--with its eight-lane, Olympic-sized pool and 14-foot diving tank.

"You won't find too many high schools in the country that have this," boasts Principal Willie Bowie.

Yet for all its fine trappings, Central's Greek theme has basically been a bust. Achievement is too low and costs too high to justify keeping the program, the district concluded. Although the computer theme will continue, the Greek theme will soon be ancient history.

In Bowie's eyes, what doomed the theme more than anything was the lack of seriousness among many of the students it attracted. "A lot of kids come here for the wrong reasons, just to say they go to Central High School," he says. "They aren't participating athletically, and they aren't doing well academically."

But whatever the cause of the theme's demise, Bowie says he's already scaling back the program. He has done away with such extras as a fencing instructor, for instance, and has dropped the curtain on the Greek plays that took place in a specially designed, 300-seat theater. With his magnet budget scheduled to shrink from approximately $1 million to $388,000 next school year, Bowie says he's considering cutting head athletic coaches' pay from $5,000 per season to $2,500.

But even with such economies, the principal says he still worries about upkeep once the magnet theme is gone, a concern echoed throughout the district as the cutbacks play out.

Across town at Satchel Paige Classical Greek Elementary School, the Greek theme is also on its way out, but the 75-foot indoor pool that accompanied it will remain.

For the time being, Principal Zora Durham expects to retain the swimming instructor and keep the pool open. Whether she'll be able to in the future, however, is not a sure thing. "I'd hate to see the pool just go to waste, be drained, and just sit there," she says. "But I'll have to manage my budget very carefully."

Superintendent Williams says the district has no plans to drain its pools or put the computer labs in mothballs. One reason the district intends to close schools, he said, is to keep the remaining ones afloat. "Certainly there's a gap in what's needed to maintain our buildings," he says. "But with closing schools, we concentrate our resources."

The district's blueprint for scaling back its magnet program is one piece of a broader plan that Judge Clark ordered the district to craft to end the 21-year-old desegregation case. That transition plan will determine how the district intends to live within its new budget constraints and fulfill Judge Clark's 1997 directive to narrow the achievement gap between black and white students.

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