Kansas City School Board to Vote on Closures

The Kansas City school board is facing a stark choice: close nearly half its public schools or face a potential bankruptcy.

The board was scheduled to vote Wednesday night on its superintendent's proposal to shut down 29 out of 61 schools in a bid to erase a projected $50 million budget shortfall. Teachers at six other low-performing schools would be required to reapply for their jobs, and the district would sell its downtown central office.

The plan also would eliminate about 700 of 3,000 jobs, including 285 teachers. The district has said it would offer retirement incentives and rid itself of struggling teachers.

Superintendent John Covington has spent the past month making the case to sometimes angry groups of parents and students that the closures are necessary.

Covington has stressed that the district's buildings are only half full as its population has plummeted amid political squabbling and chronically abysmal test scores. The district's enrollment of fewer than 18,000 students is about half of what the schools had a decade ago and just a quarter of its peak in the late 1960s.

Fewer students means less money from the state. For the past few years, the district has been plowing through the large reserves it built up when money from a $2 billion court-ordered desegregation plan was flooding its coffers.

School administrators have said that without radical cuts, the district could be in the red by 2011.

Further stressing the budget, the district will lose $23.5 million in the upcoming academic year that it had received from the state for educating students who attended seven schools that have switched to a better-performing neighboring district.

While there has been a national rise in the closing of public schools as districts cope with a recession that has eaten away at academic budgets, the potential closures in Kansas City are striking in scope.

Detroit closed 29 schools before classes began this fall, but that still left the district with 172 schools. Many big districts are closing only one or two schools.