Facing potential bankruptcy, the board that governs the once flush-with-cash Kansas City school district is taking the unusual and contentious step of shuttering almost half its schools.
Administrators say the closures are necessary to keep the district from plowing through what little is left of the $2 billion it received as part of a groundbreaking desegregation case.
The Kansas City school board narrowly approved the plan to close 29 out of 61 schools Wednesday night at a meeting packed with angry parents. The schools will close before the fall.
Update: The mayor of Kansas City clarified in an interview with CNBC that the affected district is only one of 14 in Kansas City, Missouri. See video below.
Although other districts nationwide are considering closures as the recession ravages their budgets, Kansas City's plan is striking. In rapidly shrinking Detroit, 29 schools closed before classes began this fall, but that still left the district with 172 schools. Most other districts are closing just one or two schools.
Emotional board member Duane Kelly told the crowd of more than 200 people Wednesday night, "This is the most painful vote I have ever cast" in 10 years on the board. Some chanted for the removal of the superintendent, while one woman asked the crowd, "Is anyone else ready to homeschool their children?"
Kansas City Councilwoman Sharon Sanders Brooks said the closure plan had prompted some housing developers to consider backing out of projects.
"The urban core has suffered white flight post-the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. the Board of Education, blockbusting by the real estate industry, redlining by banks and other financial institutions, retail and grocery store abandonment," Brooks said to applause from the standing-room-only crowd.
"And now the public education system is aiding and abetting in the economic demise of our school district," she said. "It is shameful and sinful."
Under the approved plan, teachers at six other low-performing schools will be required to reapply for their jobs, and the district will try to sell its downtown central office. It also is expected to cut about 700 of the district's 3,000 jobs, including about 285 teachers.
District officials face dozens of issues as they begin the massive job of downsizing the district — reworking school bus routes, figuring out what to do with vacant buildings and slashing its payroll.
Superintendent John Covington has spent the past month making the case to sometimes angry groups of parents and students that the closures are necessary.
Once the district had enough desegregation money to build such amenities as an Olympic-sized swimming pool. But the effort to use upscale facilities and programs to lure in students from the suburbs never worked quite as planned.
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.
Many students have left for publicly funded charter schools, private and parochial schools and the suburbs. The school district also isn't the only one serving students in Kansas City; several smaller ones operate in the city's boundaries.
Covington has blamed previous administrations for failing to close schools as the enrollment — and the money that comes with it — shrank. Past school closure plans were either scaled back or scrapped entirely.
Administrators warned that without the cuts, the district would have been in the red by 2011.
"None of us liked voting for this," board member and former desegregation attorney Arthur Benson said, "but it was necessary."