Buses wait to pick up students at Symington Elementary, one of the schools under consideration for closure. Photo by Edward Madison.

City and State Officials weigh in on possible closure of Hickman Mills schools

By John Sharp

Several area city and state elected officials and major community organizations have urged the Hickman Mills Board of Education not to approve closing multiple elementary schools next school year as proposed by a Florida-based consulting firm and first disclosed to the public at a meeting the District hosted February 12.

At that meeting MGT Consulting Group recommended closing four of the district’s eight currently operating elementary schools – Dobbs, Johnson, Symington and Truman.

Following objections by many parents and community residents, the next day the district distributed three school closure options it attributed to the consultants.  One additional option recommended closing only Johnson, Symington and Truman, and the other new option suggested closing Ingels instead of Johnson.

At a February 21 school board meeting the consulting firm presented three school closure options — its original option of closing four schools, its revised option of only closing three and a new option of closing all five schools named above.  Of these, it recommended the district implement its original proposal to close Dobbs, Johnson, Symington and Truman.

Since that meeting School Superintendent Dr. Yolanda Cargile has recommended her first choice is to close three existing elementary schools – Johnson, Symington and Truman.  She also has presented an alternate choice to the board of only closing Symington and Truman.

The school board was scheduled to discuss the proposed school closures at a working session March 3 at press time, and to vote on them and other major changes in district operations recommended by the consulting firm and superintendent at a special meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday, March 7, in the multipurpose room of Smith-Hale Middle School, 9010A Old Santa Fe Rd., which is open to the public and allows public comments on agenda items.

The recommendation to close schools was based in part on the school board’s desire to cut costs to increase the district’s declining fund balance and on a long range projection of annual student enrollment decreases of 1.5 to 2.4 percent prepared by Finco Geodemographics of Stillwater, OK, as part of a Demographics & Enrollment Projection Study presented to the District in October 2018 by Business Information Services of Blue Springs.

“With new jobs, upgraded housing, rising test scores and great programs like pre-kindergarten instruction for all 4-year-olds, it would seem that enrollment will significantly increase in the near term, not decrease as projected.”

City Councilman Kevin McManus

In response to the consulting firm’s recommendations, City Councilman Scott Taylor wrote Cargile and school board members that “…with the great progress the district is making toward regaining full accreditation and with the investments that are bringing new jobs and better housing to the district, closing schools based on ill-founded projections of future drops in enrollment seems imprudent.”

Taylor’s 6th District colleague Councilman Kevin McManus in a letter to Cargile and board members wrote, “With new jobs, upgraded housing, rising test scores and great programs like pre-kindergarten instruction for all 4-year-olds, it would seem that enrollment will significantly increase in the near term, not decrease as projected.”

McManus noted in his letter the consultant’s recommendation appears to ignore “…the thousands of new jobs that already have come to the school district, the thousands more that are anticipated, the multifamily housing renovation projects that have already been completed, the major renovation projects that are currently in the planning stage and the 204-unit River Birch high-end housing project which was recently approved.”

“Shuttering schools in the district,” McManus wrote, “will significantly impact not only the students and their families, but it also has a chilling effect on future growth and success of the entire region.”

State Representative DaRon McGee who lives in the Hickman Mills School District expressed similar sentiments in a letter to Cargile and the board, noting, “I read the Florida consulting firm’s report, and it didn’t even mention our phenomenal job growth, our new and renovated housing and our students’ improving test scores.  Everything is based on past trends. That is faulty methodology for making future projections when transformative change has occurred.”

“I understand the need to stabilize the district’s fund balance,” McGee wrote, “but let’s not do it in a way that scares off some of our best teachers, hampers our effort to recruit outstanding teachers, blights our neighborhoods with boarded up schools and seriously damages our district’s image.”

Carol McClure, co-chair of the Southern Communities Coalition, wrote the school board that closing several schools simultaneously would send a message to the community as a whole that the district is only concerned with its bottom line.

“Businesses will see no reason to locate here,” she added.

The South Kansas City Alliance board voted to oppose closing multiple schools in the district and also to oppose the district accepting projections that school enrollment will continue to shrink through the 2027-28 school year.  As board president, I wrote the superintendent and board that residents of the community were overjoyed at the tremendous improvement in the district’s Annual Progress Report issued by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education which put the district just one year away from being eligible to regain full accreditation if this spring’s test scores equal or nearly equal last year’s.

“These scores coupled with offering full-day pre-kindergarten instruction to all 4-year-olds in the district and expanding project-based learning and an emphasis on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) will encourage more and more parents to enroll their children in district schools,” I wrote.

But I noted in my letter that multiple school closings and projections of steadily shrinking enrollment for the foreseeable future send a false message to the public that the district is declining instead of greatly improving.

“Such a message cripples the District’s ability to attract and retain top quality teachers and undermines efforts to continue to attract major investments in housing and retail job growth to the Hickman Mills area,” I concluded.  

Besides closing schools, other recommendations of both the consulting group and the superintendent that the school board is scheduled to vote on March 7 include having the remaining elementary schools change from serving 1st through 6th graders to serving kindergarten through 5th graders.  

They also are recommending 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 joint recommendation is 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 students in its attendance area.  All remaining pre-kindergarten students in the district would continue to attend the Freda Markley Early Childhood Center.