Monday, April 19, 2010

Schools First - Can't We Agree on Anything?

The level of discourse among the chattering class of Kansas City is sometimes astounding. Occasionally, though, a conversation with someone removed from the political sphere casts a shaft of light into the room, and the ugly reality of political gamesmanship is revealed in all its sordid detail.

A friend this weekend asked me what I thought about Funkhouser's Schools First initiative. I started to discuss the challenges it will face, and whether Jan Marcason and a couple others will do their best to sink it, and what the ramifications of the bonds would be, etc.. My friend looked at me with something near disgust, and shut me up with a few simple words. "It's a good idea, isn't it?"


Lost in all the maneuvering, all the intrigue, all the paybacks is that simple question. "It's a good idea, isn't it?"

It IS a good idea. The Schools First initiative would direct some of the city's resources toward one of its most troubled areas of public service, perfectly timed to build upon the spirit of change and opportunity developing in the Kansas City Metropolitan School District. Each of the 5 facets of the initiative would have a positive impact on the lives of children and families in our city.

Only in the oxygen-starved rooms of Council Chambers and Star Editorial cubicles can that be a bad thing. When all is said and done, the Schools First initiative is about helping children and families. Can't we at least agree on that?

What's wrong with using $100 million in general obligation bonds to improve infrastructure around the schools? The need to upgrade the city's infrastructure is universally acknowledged - the only question is where to start. Why not start where it will help the lives of children and families?

What's wrong with renewing the public safety sales tax and using it to support security around schools? Jefferson City stands ready and willing to make the necessary changes to the law so that we can spend our money on people instead of buildings.

What's wrong with prioritizing schools in city services? Why wouldn't we want to clean up graffiti around our schools first, and clear weeds from where school children walk?

What's wrong with seeking grant funding in partnerships with schools?

What's wrong with putting someone in City Hall in charge of making all this work smoothly?

Only in the misguided power world of politicos and editorialists is there anything wrong with helping children, families and schools. I hope that those members of the City Council who are "struggling" with this simple decision will come to their senses and work to improve the lives of children and families.

If we can't agree on that, voters will have a clear direction on whom to vote for in 2011. A lot of voters will agree on that.

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Anonymous Girty said...

First of all, a problem has not been appropriately identified.

There are two aspects to the problem statement:

First, what exact infrastructure is in disrepair? Other than a generalizing statement, no one has demonstrated there is a problem around most schools. An inventory rating the relative conditions of infrastructure components is a common tool, and we need this before we start even thinking about spending a ton of money.

Second, is there a correlation between test score improvement and the marginal improvement of sidewalks and graffiti and whatever else?

I live in a neighborhood with chronic graffiti. Removing graffiti once or twice doesn't fix a graffiti problem. And there is no correlation or facts that indicate treating the symptoms of graffiti (not the cause) improve test scores.

There is an appalling lack of data behind this proposal.

We have an honest discussion as to whether treating the symptoms of some city infrastructure issues will have any effect on test scores, FIRST.

We need to bring some facts to the table bedore spending $100M or more - and just as appalling is the fact the mayor refuses to talk about this initiative in any detail.

Facts please. If you spend $100M on instituting a merit pay system, and incerasing pay to attract high performing teachers - that's one thing.

This is serious - no one has even done an inventory to estimate the condition around the schools to determine whether there is a significant issue. There may be serious isues around 5 schiools, and the rest are ok - so we'll spend $100M fixing sidewalks around 5 schools?

On that note, I'd like to introduce a new initiative, it's called


We hold the mayor to standard that builds a quantitative & scientific basis prior to initiating public spending proposals.

4/19/2010 10:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I disagree with everything that Girty says. If he truly does not think that infrastructure around the schools needs upgrading, he has not walked the neighborhoods around the schools. Crumbling sidewalks, sewer problems, etc. abound. The issue is not whether the money would be wisely spent; it's whether it will put a dent in the problem. It's a start.

And why are test scores the only thing Girty cares about? Should children be exposed to graffiti and dangerous weed conditions just because their scores aren't high enough to satisfy Girty?

Basic human living conditions ought to be improved for our children and families; schools first seems well-aimed to accomplish that goal. What kind of a soul-less, uncaring creep thinks that we shouldn't improve lives unless we improve scores?

4/19/2010 10:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

People opposing Schools First is exactly the kind of nonsense that ought to be stopped!

4/19/2010 10:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

COME ON, COUNCIL!!!! Just for once, rise above your petty politics and do something good for this city.

Did you go into politics to prevent good things from happening for kids?

Grow up and do the right thing.

4/19/2010 1:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're absolutely right about this, Dan. The people who want to play political games with this good proposal are exposing themselves as worthless hacks.

Do it for the kids.

4/19/2010 4:01 PM  
Anonymous Girty said...

"Crumbling sidewalks, sewer problems, etc. abound."

So, sewer problems are to blame for low test scores?

Cracks in sidewlaks are causing low test scores - wait a minute, kids trip, get concussions, and then forget what they have studied.

Makes sense. LOL


4/19/2010 4:39 PM  
Blogger Do you see me? said...

If the city needs a Mayoral staff person to be the conduit for schools to know who to call get streets plowed, then I suggest someone else is not doing their job! Yes, infrastructure in the city needs attention and prioritizing areas around schools is fine - but we have 14 districts. How will the Mayor spread the resources (in an election year)? Finally, if you want to make an impact on underachieving kids in the urban core - get to work on employment and crime. Schools First is a weak platitude.

4/19/2010 7:52 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Girty - your obsession with with test scores shows an incredibly narrow view of the role that schools play in a neighborhood. Nobody is arguing that improved neighborhoods and safer schools will directly impact test scores. That's not the point.

Can You See Me - You make a couple good points, but fail to explain why Schools First is not a good idea. It would be nice if a Principal calling 311 would get the help s/he needs, but that's not reality in our city. Yes, a staff person to serve as a school ombudsman would be helpful. You should talk to a few principals.

I absolutely agree that crime and unemployment are problems in the urban core - as is a troubled school system (not just the KCMSD). Unlike you, though, I don't propose to wait until those problems are magically solved before we work to improve the lives of our children and families. Shall we wait until nuclear proliferation issues are solved, too?

4/20/2010 5:54 AM  
Anonymous Girty said...

How does the Schools First program make schools safer? Specifics - someone, anyone provide them - please.

How does the Schools First program improve neighborhoods, and how do improved neighborhoods increase test cores? New sidewalks have ZERO correlation to test scores. What's your definition of improved neighborhoods? Specifics - anyone -please.

This is a bunch of nonsense - no facts, nothing but general, unsupported statements.

That is why no credible appointed or elected official supports this.

Not one in the city, not one on the school board, not one in the county.


4/20/2010 3:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mom, apple pie and puppies are good things. Who could ever vote against them right?

Everyone, including Girty I'm sure, would agree that fixing infrastructure around schools is a good thing.

We are a city of finite resources. The real question is whether spending 100 million on Schools First, is better than say spending 100 million on health care, or police or housing assistance or public transportation, etc..

Girty brought up one metric to help make that determination and you and others chided her for it.

There are a hundred ways the city could spend money, that would directly or indirectly help children. But you seem to condemn anyone that believes we should give some thought to where the money should BEST be spent. Our city has a history of spending first, then later checking to see if it was a good idea.

Instead of putting Girty down, why don't you give her some facts as to why you think School's First is the best/better way to spend money?

That would be more productive than asking "Shall we wait until nuclear proliferation issues are solved, too?"

4/20/2010 5:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

this all comes down to priorities. what has the city prioritized over he past 5-10 years? the answer: arenas, entertainment districts, high end condos, retail centers, and endless corporate subsidies - this is where the city has prioritized its resources because this is where our politicians have been influenced to focus its energy, all in the name of economic development. what they fail to realize is that much of the resources that the city has dedicated to downtown development, strip malls, arenas, etc. really dont address the fundamental issues of kc's economic stagnation. to do so would be to focus on long term strategies such as developing a world class educational system (that includes everything from great teachers to a conducive physical environment where kids can learn) that is closely aligned with an effective work force development effort. unfortunately these long term strategies require a deep understanding of the issues as well as a process for implementing a solution, which our (shockingly) inexperienced politicians are deplorably void of. throw in all the other challenges (political infighting, apathetic voters, ineffective governance structures, etc.) and you have a recipe for the path of least resistance or most campaign contributions. so is schools first a good idea? in theory yes, and certainly deserves a better reception and support from the council and other community stakeholders to make it something that can be implemented (maybe not in its current form but something close). there was a major shift at the KCMSD with the recent board election. its time for the city to undergo one as well so that we can get people in there that know how to address issues like education of our kids and all the other issues that are increasingly becoming a burden on many kansas citians. remember, just because they were elected in 2007, doesnt mean they are entitled to another 4 years!

4/20/2010 9:41 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Girty -

Your singular obsession with test scores as the only measure of deservedness for our children to have a safe and clean environment is disturbing and misguided. But, the good news is that Schools First is a good enough idea that it passes even your horribly flawed test. Go read the report linked on the Mayor's homepage - - in the paragraph beginning "common sense". Here's a quotation - "Although there is no consensus on the exact contribution of family, school, and neighborhood to student performance, this research shows that school and family factors contribute equally to average test scores, with neighborhood conditions explaining a smaller, but third-largest portion of student performance."

I spent a little time at the Mayor's site yesterday, and there's a ton of information there to satisfy your concerns.

4/21/2010 6:16 AM  
Anonymous Girty said...

Thanks 5:12.

The argument made by Enterprise Community Partners is that infrastructure improvements in low income neighborhoods will draw in higher income people, creating a more mixed income environment.

This will draw in higher performing students, and the improved neighborhood environment will lift the performance of students already living there.

This argument presupposes that the money be targeted where the students live.

(But let's clarify that - is Schools First targeted at where the students go to school, or where they live? There is a difference, and it's exacerbated by the closing of 24 schools in the KCMSD. Anybody care to answer this question?)

Schools First does not target low-income neighborhoods where the children live - they target in and around the school premises.

Most students who attend a school live beyond the immediate neighborhood the school is in.

Why not target low income neighborhoods where the students live, and further, target the monies to those neighborhoods who have the best probability of benefiting from the spend?

This is a long term deal - results will take a minimum of 10 years - if it's successful. (Again, anybody care to take issue with this statement? Does anybody think we'll see results in 2 years?).

Schools First ignores the other factors that any community development professional would look to to target and prioritize limited $$.

Spending money in a neighborhood with extremely high perdcentage of dangerous and vacant buildings may never pay off, while investing money in other low income neighborhoods may have an incredibly higher chance of success.

Equal $$ applied to a set of low income neighborhoods equally, without regard to the individual circumstances of each neighborhood - always will result in failure.

But the advocates of schools first will argue we're going to throw the money at the schools - and dismiss the application of best practices in urban redevelopment.

As a matter of fact, as demonstrated on this blog, there is no patience or willingness to discuss the important considerations or complexities that should be raised in evaluating this Schools First proposal.

Let's not even talk about the fact that $100M was proposed assuming 24 schools that will be closed. Will the proposal be modified - decreased - to reflect this?

And let's not even talk about what benchmarks are set to measure whether this spend has been successful. Can anybody name the measurable objectives laid out by this proposal?

And I'll echo comments made by 5:12.

4/21/2010 12:53 PM  
Anonymous Girty said...

I forgot to add that just doing infrastructure improvements, however well-designed and targeted, typically do not bring a neighborhood back - there are other factors that come into play. very important factors. Like the quality of the housing stock, and what needs to occur to bring people back into a neighborhood. It's way more than just fixing streets and sidewalks.

But again, thinking and deliberative debate on this issue has not occurred, and we're left with people making generalizations.

Unfortunately, there is not an informed debate, and both sides don't appear to want one.

4/21/2010 3:36 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Girty, I'll admit that I've not given you credit for making your arguments in good faith, given that your questions seem wildly off the mark, at least to me, and the facts you claim to need clarification on are seem so flamingly obvious to me. But I'll step back and take you seriously, since you at least seem sincere.

Schools First is targeted on where the kids go to school.

As a point of clarification, you seem unaware of the fact that there are multiple school districts in KC - I think the number is 14 - plus charters, religious and privates. The Schools First initiative does not only touch upon the KCMSD - though, obviously, that's where much of the money would be spent.

Let's also clarify the infrastructure improvements. We're talking about making a $100 million dent in a $1.6 billion problem. Schools are located in neighborhoods, and that means the money will be spent in KC neighborhoods, and it is absolutely needed. This is not about putting a shiny monorail in a new suburb - this is about spending needed money for basic upkeep in areas where people live.

You ask about the timing of impact, and, again, you seem to be striving for a metric that does not necessarily exist. It's not strictly test scores, I can assure you of that. It's mostly about stemming the population loss in our urban core, which preserves tax base, etc. Now, we can both play games to achieve the results we want, mostly by playing games with our assumptions. In a couple years, if you want to argue that the initiative is a failure, you can find a suburb that is growing faster than the urban core. If I want to argue it is a success, I can use projections that show the urban core will eventually be entirely depopulated, and point to any remaining families as "proof" it was a rousing success.

Since we're both trying to discuss this in good faith now, let's save ourselves the exercise, shall we?

You have a lot more faith in urban development professionals than I do, so I'm not really swayed by your comments that the money would be better spent with the advice of that group. I'm not trying to be a jerk with that comment, but I'd just as soon flip a coin than wait for wisdom from academia.

4/21/2010 5:51 PM  
Blogger Dan said...


I'm much more of a real-world person. In the real world, there's no chance that the city will pass $100 million in GO bonds to help infrastructure to satisfy urban planning professionals. None. Maybe I'm wrong about my low opinion of the professionals, but, politically, I am absolutely correct. And notice that NOBODY was talking about spending $100 million in our neighborhoods for infrastructure until Mayor Funkhouser kicked off this initiative.

We both know that in the absence of school kids to make this happen, any and all money will be spent on pie-in-the-sky stupid stuff downtown like empty convention hotels. In good faith and in the real world, we agree on that, don't we?

If we spend the money on infrastructure surrounding schools, we will be 100% sure that the money spent will touch the world where our kids actually go every day. And, despite your assertion that most kids don't go to school near their homes, I respectfully suggest you are mistaken.

You are right that bringing neighborhoods back is a complex business, with many moving parts. You are right that housing stock, transportation, jobs, safety, etc. all play a role. But schools are clearly a major factor in the depopulation of our city - both the urban core and outside the urban core. This money might be a huge help to the Center School District, for instance.

I understand but don't share your thirst for details about every single aspect of the spending. That's just not the way the process works. If you expect to see a list of exactly where and how much of the money will be spent on a list of projects, we will never, ever spend any money on our neighborhoods.

Schools first is a good, politically feasible program to direct money where it will impact families and children in our city. It may not be engineered down to the micron, but nothing ever is.

4/21/2010 5:51 PM  

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