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Mayor's "Schools First" Plan Could be D.O.A.
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Mayor Mark Funkhouser met with neighborhood leaders at the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Center to get feedback on his Schools First plan.
Credit:  Daniel Starling

Mayor’s Schools First Plan Could Be D.O.A

Analysis by Daniel Starling

Mayor Mark Funkhouser’s nascent “School’s First Plan” is filled with lofty, civic-minded ideas that sound good on paper but will be difficult—if not impossible to implement—due to the Mayor’s lack of political capital. Unfortunately for the children of the Kansas City Missouri School District, this project appears to be dead on arrival.

On Thursday, Mayor Funkhouser met with leaders of neighborhood associations from around the city, to try to drum up support for his ambitious, $100 million, school-centered neighborhood revitalization plan. In general, comments from the group of 20 or so community leaders were in favor of the Mayor’s ideas for change. Others remained skeptical that downward trends of urban blight, crime, declining enrollment and white flight from Kansas City, Mo., neighborhoods could be reversed anytime soon, or at all by this Mayor.

Recently we have seen a renewed focus on rescuing the long floundering public school system, with strong support for the current Superintendent John Covington’s “Right Sizing Plan”—bringing a ray of hope for a new era of cooperation in between City Hall and the School Board.

Funkhouser’s plan is based around the infamous Giuliani-era “Broken Windows” philosophy of dealing with persistent urban problems like graffiti and abandoned buildings and other quality of life crimes, first. The Mayor sees an opportunity for the city to reverse decades-old trends if he can only convince the City Council, the Police Department, the School Board, community leaders and voter/taxpayers to buy in. That may be a long shot at best.

Mayor Funkhouser said he knows too often the urban core is passed over by potential family homeowners because of low property values and the notoriously failing public schools. He pointed out the need to establish “real credibility with delivery of services,” stating that surveys show “most don’t believe the services are worth the taxes they pay”.

According to Funkhouser, “we lose a family from the urban core every 12 hours. We have to stop (it). This is not a city that is financially, economically or environmentally viable” citing that the city has lost 100,000 residents since the 1970’s despite its rapid expansion north of the river.

“I said to Dr. Covington, I can’t succeed if you don’t succeed,” Mayor Funkhouser recalled a conversation with the school’s superintendent. “Our fates are tied together.”

“We need to build up the neighborhood around the schools and let him take care of what goes on inside the schools,” added Funkhouser.

Residents of Kansas City shouldn’t hold their breath. No amount of good intentions the Mayor puts forward with his Schools First initiative will be enough to change his fate or that of his administration, which is seen as severely weakened and widely unpopular.

Even the Kansas City Star’s editorial board criticized the Mayor’s plan as not being well thought out, citing this process of proposing a big ticket plan without input from the community beforehand as “not doing his homework”.

“Schools First sounds like a pretty good slogan,” the mayor announced. “They want the schools to be better and I want them to be better.”

Funkhouser will need more than pithy words and slogans to see his plan even past these initial meetings with the community, as he goes hat in hand to enlist their support and dollars for his new plan to improve services and infrastructure in and around hundreds of schools in Kansas City, Mo.

“I don’t have all the answers,” the Mayor admitted. “I need your input.”

Calling his plan “comprehensive”, he insisted it addressed a simple fact; “Make a neighborhood walkable and property values go up.”

Among the most controversial parts of his plan is to invest millions into sidewalk repair and adding new sections in and around schools, in hopes that children and parents will feel comfortable walking to and from their neighborhood schools.

One attendee stated that no amount of shiny new sidewalks will change the fact that many perceive the schools as unsafe for their children to attend much less walk to. “Safety in the schools was the first priority,” she added.

The mayor insisted that he was wanted to get more police officers on the street and install real community policing in neighborhoods around the schools. “We need better communication with the police department and have them target around schools,” said the Mayor.

Other community leaders pointed out the lack of code enforcement officers around the city to deal with urban blight, abandoned buildings and other quality of life violations.

Funkhouser said one of his aims is to create a City Hall Office of School Support that could help facilitate solutions and indentify problems at every school in the city. A place where teachers, administrators, parents and concerned community members could make complaints or get some answers to their questions.

“We in City government treated the school district like it was absolutely toxic,” he said. “I am not going to do that. We have good schools in Kansas City, Mo, well-performing schools—all we’ve got to do is allow the district to replicate that.”

“If there is one measure it’s the percentage of people who say it’s a good place to raise children,” added Funkhouser. “It’s at 47 percent now. This is the canary in the mine shaft.”

The Mayor also stated that his plan was not “a silver bullet” and that he would need to win several “political fights to move this forward”. Among these fight will be convincing the Police Department to assign more of its dwindling manpower resources to the schools, getting his initiative on the ballot, extension of the quarter cent public safety tax that is set to expire, and improving overall communications between the schools, the department and City Hall.

Toi Wilson, who sits on the board of the Blue Hills Neighborhood Association said she would support the Mayor’s plan because she was “raised in neighborhood schools and being able to walk to school will make a big difference.”

“If families could again have their children go to schools in their neighborhood, the families will return,” added Wilson. “I will be willing to email (my organization) to have a meeting with (the mayor).

When asked about the years of court ordered desegregation that employed busing students far from the neighborhoods to attend school, Ms. Wilson agreed that it had  “run its course.”

“For a time it was a solution,” Wilson added. “It’s time to move on. Hopefully Dr. Covington can right the ship.”

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