Monday, January 31, 2011

It's Time for a Paradigm Shift

Everybody seems to have a solution or someone to blame for the education problems we face. There’s vouchers. There’s charter schools. There’s school choice. We blame parents. We blame teachers. We blame TV and on and on and on. In all the arguments and all the blame games, when do you ever hear the school board mentioned?

A while back one of the cable channels devoted an entire week to education. They talked to experts. They held panels. Not once did they bring up school boards or talk with a school board member.

Educating our children is a state responsibility but states have delegated much of that responsibility to local school boards. School boards are, therefore, state agencies and the school board members provide local citizen control over education. Their most important job is to employ a superintendent and then hold that person responsible for managing the schools and thus hiring the appropriate personnel.

This is an awesome responsibility; yet, it doesn’t seem to be taken seriously by the general public. On a totem pole of elected officials, school board members rank at the bottom. Most generally, in any gathering where elected officials are recognized there is no mention of a school board member being present. Last week I attended a candidate forum at UMKC. One of the last remarks by one of the moderators was to tell everyone to be sure to vote in the primary in February and then the general in March. Also, don’t forget the e-tax election April 5. Well, no. April 5 is a school board election and the e-tax happens to be on the same ballot.

It seems like a simple solution. Let’s take our school boards seriously. Let’s actually give some thought to the qualifications board member candidates have and their reasons for running in the first place. Sometimes school boards seem to be nothing more than stepping stones for higher office. They’re a way to gain name recognition so when the ‘important’ election comes along there will be a greater chance of winning.

I may be jaded but it seems like it doesn’t much matter who’s in office, you can pretty well expect what will happen. If the Republicans are in charge, things will go one way. If the Democrats are in charge, things will go a different way. Sometimes we simply seem to be spinning our wheels.

It’s time for people to wake up and realize we can no longer spin our wheels with education. Our children are our future. Doesn’t that make the people in charge of their education more important than those running our city? Maybe if we took school boards seriously, the people who run for them would, too. Maybe then we’d be able to elect school board members who actually knew something about what their responsibilites are. Maybe then we’d have school boards that actually took responsibility for the children in their districts and held their superintendents accountable. Maybe then we’d actually begin to see our children being educated the way they should be.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

What about the others?

A group calling themselves Kansas Citians United for Educational Achievement is hosting candidate forums for council and mayoral candidates. There will be no endorsements but candidates will be graded based on a rubric to be revealed next week. The topic for questions will be education and city government. Airick Leonard West, president of the KCMO School District school board has said, “This is about the next mayor and city council endorsing public education -- and by extension our shared economic future.” A flier about the forums states: Mayoral and city council candidates will show how much consideration they will give education when making citywide decisions.

At first glance this sounds like a very good idea. While government entities should be working together, school districts generally have had to pretty much go it alone. When I first heard about these forums I applauded this group for trying to figure out what could be done to help support education in this city. After all, everyone knows about how ‘it takes a village’. Then I had an opportunity to actually read the questions to be posed to the candidates. They’re not about what KCMO can do to support education, but about what KCMO can do to support KCMSD.

Kansas Citians United includes many city-wide organizations such as CCO, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Freedom, Inc., Greater Kansas City Women’s Political Caucus, and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Greater Kansas City, so I’m not sure why the focus is on only one district when there are 14 partly or entirely within Kansas City.

I thought I’d just list a few of the ideas Mr. West has suggested as possible responses to their questions:

Help fundraise for the KCMSD Education Foundation.

I think almost every school district has an education foundation and would love to have the city help them with fundraising.

Offer bonus RFP points to businesses where 100% of employees have volunteered at a KCMSD school at least 4 hrs per month for more than 12 months.

There was a time when schools had plenty of room mothers and other volunteers, but times and issues change. Now volunteers are needed to be ‘fill-in’ grandparents or to help kids with reading or do other tutoring; and that’s most of the KC school districts not just KCMSD.

Provide internships for KCMSD scholars.

Don’t students from all of our school districts deserve internships?

Allocate parking ticket revenue back to “night hoops” style program with KCMSD.

I can remember several years ago when Hickman Mills opened Ruskin High School for the night hoops program. If they were to do that again, I’m sure they would be greatful for some of the parking ticket revenue.

Provide trash removal services and archiving district documents and artifacts.

This would help the bottom line of all school district budgets; however, not just anyone can archive district documents due to student privacy laws.

Assist with building demolition where necessary.

This is a possible response to “things KCMO can do to assist with KCMSD’s building surplus”. Currently, the city can’t even afford to demolish vacant houses which only serve to drive down neighborhood property values.

Identify functions that both KCMO and KCMSD perform that could benefit from collaborations or placed under consolidated contracts.

Wow. I bet a lot of the districts would like in on this one.

Organize ATA bus lines such that they conveniently serve the before/after school needs of KCMSD high scholars.

This is a real problem for south KC. There have been programs at both schools and the community center, but no way for a lot of the students to get there. There are very few buses that even run out here and the routes are only on a couple of streets.

Organize twice per year gatherings between KCMO city councilpersons and KCMSD board members.

Let’s see. There are 14 school districts. That would be 28 (or almost a month’s worth) of additional meetings for the councilpersons. Even if the meetings only entailed each councilperson to meet with school board members in their respective district that would be an additional 8 meetings for the sixth district alone.

Send school info home via utility bills.

This could be helpful from several standpoints but I’m not sure how practical it would be with so many school districts, some of which are in other towns.

Many of these, as well as others, are good suggestions and would help any school district. They’re just impractical for a city like Kansas City. KCMSD certainly gets the most attention but that doesn’t mean it’s the only district that needs help. It would be unfair to provide many of these services for one district and leave the rest to struggle on their own.

One suggestion offered by Mr. West was especially good for all. That was for the city to pass a truancy ordinance. Right now everyone’s hands are tied. I know several police officers who would love to help when they see kids out and about during school hours, but legally there’s nothing they can do.

Another suggestion I didn’t see would be to change the representation on the TIF commission. I know the current council fooled around with that but that’s all they did. The majority representation should be by the majority affected and that’s the school districts.

All of the school districts partly or entirely within Kansas City have needs that should or could be helped by the city. Those who live outside of the KCMSD are still a part of KCMO and they pay their taxes. It would be unjust to use those tax dollars for only one school district. It is also not feasible for the city to undertake so many of these suggestions for all the school districts.

The premiss of these forums is good. The city should pay more attention to and be more supportive of its school districts, but everyone needs to remember that there is more to KCMO than just KCMSD.