Hickman Mills faces challenges, may close schools

A consulting group has recommended closure of four schools in the Hickman Mills School District. But is it necessary?

Truman Elementary School is one of four schools being considered for closure in the Hickman Mills School District.

South KC Perspective

Hickman Mills Faces Challenges, May Close Schools

By John Sharp

The Hickman Mills School District Board of Education will hear the final recommendations of consultants on closing schools and changing what grades are assigned to its remaining schools at its 6:30 p.m. meeting tonight (Thursday, February 21) in the multipurpose room of Smith-Hale Middle School, 9010A Old Santa Fe Rd.

John Sharp

A Board vote on the recommendations is scheduled for Thursday, March 7.

The elementary schools recommended for closure by MGT Consulting Group at a public meeting on February 12 (the first time the public heard about the specific closure recommendations) were Dobbs, Johnson, Symington and Truman.

(I have lived in the District for 51 years and both my children attended District schools.  I serve on the Board of the Hickman Mills Educational Foundation that raises money for student scholarships and teacher grants.   I hate to publicly admit this, but I was so stunned by the magnitude of the proposed closures that I choked up and almost wept.)

Following objections voiced by many parents and community residents (including me) at that meeting, the following day the District distributed three options for school closure that it attributed to the consultants.

Besides the original closure recommendation, one option recommended closing Johnson, Symington and Truman schools, but not Dobbs.  The other option raised the possibility of closing Ingels Elementary instead of Johnson.

Besides recommending closing so many schools, the consulting firm also recommended that the remaining elementary schools change from serving 1st through 6th graders to serving kindergarten through 5th graders.  It recommended that the District’s middle school change from serving 7th and 8th graders to serving 6th through 8th graders and that 9th graders be transferred from the current Freshman Center in the former Hickman Mills High School to join 10th through 12th graders at Ruskin High School.

Another recommendation was that Ervin Early Learning Center that now combines with Freda Markley Early Childhood Center to serve all pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students in the District be converted to an elementary school to serve pre-kindergarten through 5th grade.

The main factor influencing the recommendation for such drastic school closures appears to be the consultants’ projection, based on past trends, that student enrollment in the Hickman Mills schools will decrease from 5,773 this school year to only 4,472 by 2027, a 22.5 percent drop.

I might be forced to agree with projecting enrollment declines (although nothing so drastic) if student achievement in the District was trending downward, if a vacant Bannister Mall still looked like a scene from a disaster movie, if the former Bannister Federal Complex was boarded up instead of being demolished and cleaned up ahead of schedule for redevelopment, if the land on the south side of 87th St. just east of U.S. 71 was still just a barren mined-out area instead of the nearly full Three Trails Industrial Park, and if no new housing projects were moving forward and if nobody was renovating vacant houses in the District.

But of course none of that is true!

Hickman Mills’ score on its 2018 Annual Progress Report by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education was its highest in five years, putting it on track to regain full accreditation next year if this year’s score is as good or nearly as good as last year’s.

Bannister Mall has been replaced by the Cerner Innovations Campus which has already brought about 3,000 highly paid jobs to the District with a similar number expected at the two office towers now being constructed on the site.

The industrial park planned for the former Bannister Federal Complex site just outside of the District boundaries is expected to generate well over 1,000 jobs, adding to the hundreds of new jobs that already have been created at the Three Trails Industrial Park with more to come.

The city recently approved the upscale River Birch multifamily housing project in the District just west of I-49 and south of I-435 which is scheduled to break ground this spring for 204 two and three bedroom units that are expected to rent for $1,500 and up a month.  Every day I drive by houses in my neighborhood that are being renovated to appeal to the thousands of new employees coming to south Kansas City, many of whom will want to live close to work instead of facing a time-consuming and costly commute from the outer ring of suburbs.

I sincerely hope the Hickman Mills School Board Thursday rejects these drastic school closures that are justified by overly pessimistic enrollment projections that were based strictly on past history and ignored recent academic progress and job growth.  These enrollment projections should be rejected too, the sooner the better.

Just publicly proposing such drastic closures has been harmful.  I’m sure many of the teachers at the five schools that may be on the chopping block are already sending resumes  to other districts that are hiring right now for next school year, and the ones most likely to be quickly hired will be the District’s  brightest and best.

And how likely will it be that the District will be successful in recruiting top teaching talent to fill vacancies when possible applicants hear about the possibility of such massive school closures.

Accepting projections of continued enrollment decreases will be seen by many parents as a tacit admission that District leaders believe the District is going downhill and won’t offer a good enough education to attract more students, which may influence them to consider moving to other districts as well.

Of course the prospect of families leaving the District could cripple efforts to bring more housing and retail services to the area since investors in those two sectors look for areas with growing or at least stable populations.

While the District does need to trim expenses and begin to build up its fund balance to handle any unexpected emergencies, it does not have to do it in a way that harms the District’s image, distracts staff from what should be their main focus – regaining full accreditation, and jeopardizes the revitalization of our neighborhoods.

I hope District residents will attend Thursday’s meeting and express similar thoughts during the public comment portion of the meeting.

We can’t have good schools without good neighborhoods, and can’t have good neighborhoods without good schools!

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