by Brent KalewiThe Hickman Mills School District has been seeking answers to cope with a $5.5 million shortfall. In the district’s effort to reach its goal, it has been leaning on the help of Florida-based MGT Consulting
The district held a public forum on Tuesday, February 12 at Smith-Hale Middle School, to allow MGT to present recommendations, which included closing four of the district’s nine elementary schools – Truman, Symington, Dobbs and Johnson. The schools were selected based on a scoring chart that graded the schools’ condition and suitability. The chart showed that seven of the district’s schools were classified as poor or unsatisfactory in the suitability category.
“Those buildings are actually serving as a barrier for educators to do the work that they are in charge of doing,” said Portia Bates of MGT Consulting Group.
A learning environment can impact student performance anywhere from 12-20 percent, according to Bates. Only one of the district buildings is currently at the 85 percent utilization rate recommended by MGT.
“Buildings that have low utilization rates really pull from your operational dollars,” Bates said.
Moving the students into fewer buildings would save the district on busing, staffing and maintenance costs, according to Bates. A demographic study showed that the district’s enrollment decreased by about 1,800 students during the last 32 years. The district’s enrollment is projected to drop from 5,773 in 2018-2019 to 4,472 in 2027.
John Sharp, a former Hickman Mills school board member, believes the projections are pessimistic, adding that residential projects and recent development of the city can help the student enrollment rate.
“I’ve always felt very positive about the district, but seeing the magnitude of these closures that have been recommended does cause me concern,” Sharp said. “To close four elementary schools sends a bad message to residents of this district. In the neighborhood I live in, I’m seeing houses being renovated that have been vacant and abandoned for 10-20 years. I don’t think we are going to keep seeing this decline in population.”
Dan Weakley, Executive Director of Operations for Hickman Mills, said the district has a fiscal responsibility to use tax dollars in the best possible way for kids. He added that the data in the demographic study is extremely important in the district’s decision-making process.
“We have had ups and downs in economic development over the last 32 years, but the one consistent thing that has happened during that time, is that enrollment has continued to decline,” Weakley said.
An additional item to consider, according to Weakley, is reducing transportation costs and providing opportunities to bring students to closer proximity to their schools.
In order to make up the other portion of the deficit, additional budget reduction recommendations by the district’s Executive Leadership Team include cutting travel costs, restructuring programs, decreasing building and district supplies, and reconfiguring grades. The cuts would equate to more than $3.3 million. The proposed grade reconfiguration plan includes moving pre-kindergarten to one building; having elementary serving students in kindergarten through fifth grade; Smith-Hale Middle School as sixth-eighth grade; and sending freshmen back to Ruskin High School.
The district reduced the budget by $2.8 million last school year, according to Superintendent Dr. Yolanda Cargile.
“The team and I have really worked in looking at how we can spend dollars in a more fiscally responsible manner because the board has challenged us,” Cargile said. “Each board member really wants to make sure that we spend our dollars in the most impactful way to serve children effectively.”
The district’s fund balance was at 8.5 percent at end of 2017-2018 school year. The fund balance for the end of 2018-2019 school year is projected at 9.1 percent. Hickman Mills’ goal is to eventually reach 15 percent.
“It’s important that everyone in this room knows that we don’t engage in this work without feelings, emotions and concern for the best interest of children.” Cargile said. “But, when you are faced with a decision where the finances are depleting and your fund balance is decreasing, you have to make those difficult decisions.”
As far as possible layoffs, Casey Klapmeyer, Associate Superintendent of Human Resources and Accountability, said no decisions have been made.
“We’re working behind the scenes in knowing staffing at each building, so that when we get to a point when we make a recommendation to the board, we’ll quickly have a turnaround time to inform staff,” Klapmeyer said. “As soon as the decisions are finalized, communicating any staffing changes that will take place will be a priority.”
School board president Wakisha Briggs said the final decisions should be made in the best interest of the district’s future, which includes hiring teachers, investing in facilities, making sure their students compete well with neighboring school districts and improving community engagement and economic development in south Kansas City.
“The number one goal for this district is to provide students with a high quality education, and we must figure out a way to stabilize our budget,” Briggs said.
Bates and district leadership emphasized that the final recommendation could be different than the one presented at the forum.
“We are not done with the options. The schools that you see proposed here may or may not be the final schools that are proposed to be closed,” Bates said.
A final recommendation is scheduled to take place at the Thursday, February 21 school board meeting that begins at 6:30 p.m. at the Smith-Hale Middle School multipurpose room, 9010 Old Santa Fe Road. The Board of Education's vote, however, will likely not take place until a special scheduled meeting on Thursday, March 7.