We are once again chang­ing the focus of our Board Watch project.  When we began our eval­u­a­tions of the Kansas City Missouri School Board meet­ings nearly four years ago we hoped that our feed­back would help bring about a more effec­tive school board, a key ele­ment in cre­at­ing high func­tion­ing schools to improve stu­dents’ aca­d­e­mic per­for­mance.  Since that time the dis­trict has lost its accred­i­ta­tion, yet another super­in­ten­dent has left abruptly along with most of his key staff, enroll­ment has con­tin­ued to dwin­dle along with fund­ing, half the build­ings have been closed, and the pub­lic has lost hope.  Students are already mov­ing to sur­round­ing dis­tricts, and it is likely when a court case is resolved even more stu­dents will trans­fer their enroll­ment to accred­ited dis­tricts. We have seen the board as mostly a benign body, not engaged in con­flict, micro­man­age­ment and favoritism as much as some past boards but not pro­vid­ing the dynamic lead­er­ship nec­es­sary to over­come decades of a dys­func­tional cul­ture that has failed to serve stu­dents’ needs.

Rather than attempt­ing to grade the school board’s per­for­mance, we will be keep­ing our fol­low­ers informed about devel­op­ments inside and out­side the orga­ni­za­tion that affect stu­dents.  The Kansas City school sys­tem is “in play.”  Its fate will impact stu­dents, fam­i­lies, eco­nomic devel­op­ment, com­mu­nity image and many other fac­tors.  A num­ber of pro­pos­als are on the table.  Mayor Sly James pro­poses to take over the school sys­tem and appoint a small board led by a CEO.  This idea has worked well in some cities and less well in oth­ers. (See Dave Helling’s arti­cle in the January 16, 2012 Kansas City Star.)  A pro­posal in the State Legislature, offered by Senator Victor Callahan, would allow sur­round­ing accred­ited dis­tricts to annex por­tions of the Kansas City District.  An adden­dum to that might cre­ate a new small urban core dis­trict.  (See Barbara Shelly’s col­umn in the January 6, 2012 Kansas City Star.)  A Missouri statute empow­ers the State Board of Education to take over an unac­cred­ited dis­trict two years after it loses accred­i­ta­tion, and it is being pro­posed that the two-year wait­ing period be elim­i­nated. The State takeover in St. Louis is com­monly described as prob­lem­atic, but there is now begin­ning to be progress.

Do the Right Thing for Kids has not yet endorsed any of these ini­tia­tives.  However, we have become con­vinced, sadly, that the cur­rent District is extremely unlikely to regain full accred­i­ta­tion, that the cur­rent dys­func­tional cul­ture at all lev­els would take many years to over­come, and that dras­tic steps are nec­es­sary to avoid wast­ing the lives of more young peo­ple.  A new orga­ni­za­tion is needed to achieve what is nec­es­sary.  We will let you know when and why we decide to sup­port one of the cur­rent options or some com­bi­na­tion.  In the mean­time, we hope you will stay informed and let local and state offi­cials know your views.

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The first Kansas City Public School Board meet­ing of the month is devoted to a work­shop for­mat in which the Board lis­tens to staff mem­bers give progress reports and updates on impor­tant projects.  It is not a board meet­ing in the usual sense, and board per­for­mance can only be eval­u­ated by the ques­tions board mem­bers raise.

At the January 11, 2012 meet­ing the Superintendent and his staff reported on a pro­posed $45 mil­lion Truman Career Academy, a new web­site and the pre­lim­i­nary FY 13 bud­get.  Discussions were pep­pered with ref­er­ences to “accred­i­ta­tion” and “stu­dent achieve­ment.”  We heard lit­tle about what is hap­pen­ing to improve teach­ing.  There was a rather sur­real qual­ity to the meet­ing as a badly fail­ing dis­trict talked about spend­ing $45 mil­lion on a facil­ity that could serve 5% of the stu­dents by 2019, espe­cially when there are so many empty build­ings.  The first ques­tion from the board asked about pro­tec­tion of minor­ity con­trac­tors rather than the effi­cacy of the project. As one observer pointed out, “As a tax­payer and vol­un­teer in a dis­trict school, I am much more con­cerned with teach­ing the 4,000+ K-3 level chil­dren how to read well. This will take more qual­ity teach­ers, smaller class sizes and ded­i­ca­tion from admin­is­tra­tors.  The chil­dren are there, they have the abil­ity, and it is not happening.”

The rather expen­sive new web­site looks good and will improve com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the var­i­ous con­stituen­cies.  Again, we won­der about pri­or­i­ties at this stage of the district’s his­tory.  Better com­mu­ni­ca­tion is always help­ful, but is it as help­ful as more good read­ing teachers?

The DTRTFK observers felt that the bud­get draft dis­cussed by the interim chief finan­cial offi­cer was well pre­sented and under­stand­able.  It may not have ade­quately accounted for the shrink­age in enroll­ment and fund­ing that is likely to occur nor the costs that would be involved if the tran­si­tion plan is fully implemented.

We will con­tinue to observe the school board and admin­is­tra­tors and report on evi­dence of con­crete, mea­sur­able progress or the lack of it.    We would like to hear your views.

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