Monday, January 25, 2016

Smoke and Mirrors

In July 2007, my husband and I were exploring communities for relocation. We lived in Lee's Summit, Missouri, and settled in Kirkwood, Missouri.

When we were evaluating places to live, a loft on Washington Avenue, for instance, versus a sprawling home in O'Fallon, Missouri that was in a community similar to our Lee's Summit community, the issue of schools was paramount in the conversation.

One son was a 2007 high school graduate so the family lived on both sides of the state until he was safely off to Naval basic training in July.  We thought of living in two spaces, three-and-one-half hours apart, but realized the strain on the family was too much.

It was at almost the 11th hour that we found a fairly nice 3bedroom, 1.5 bath to rent on a sprawling corner lot on a tree lined street in a quaint suburb. We chose the suburb first, known for the high academic standards we had come to expect with an added bonus of full support of the visual and performing arts, we chose Kirkwood to be our new hometown. The other thing that we highly valued was the diversity, at that time it was twenty-five-percent. We didn't want our children to be the only ones of color.

2007 Kirkwood is a very different place than 2016 Kirkwood.

In those short nine years, we still value academics and the visual and performing arts, but something dark has surfaced in the suburb we chose to call home.

It is one thing that I was barely unpacked when the deep racial divide (unbeknowst to us) erupted a cold February night with a black man's final straw broken into gunfire at City Hall. It was another thing to uncover an educational betrayal that can no longer hide under stellar test scores.

There were and continue to be decisions made by the Kirkwood School Board that are not all in the best interests of the almost 5900 students that now walk through the halls.

The black students were complaining about mistreatment and exclusion at the high school. I was determined it wouldn't happen to my youngest son, one who started in Kirkwood at 8th grde. It was my mission to make sure that they knew not to mess with this black boy and that he had highly involved parents. It was something I also tried to have others do to advocate for their own children.

Bully mentality is what comes to mind, the perception that blacks and other children of color were less deserving or less able, except for the monied few.  The transfer kids and the Meacham Park kids were notoriously lumped into that refrain of the achievement gap.  I sat in one PTO meeting where the MAP test scores were discussed and one parent blatantly blurted out, "well, just send them back," in reference to the few black transfer students who were enrolled in the district. The behavior and mentality is disturbing.

It felt like we stepped into quicksand.

Every year since I lived here, there was a school board election and some "issue" on the ballot that seemed of utmost importance. All the things were athletic related.

It was in 2012 that a lot of cracks started to surface.  This was a couple years after the new superintendent, Dr. Tom Williams, was at the helm with some noticeable decisions made. The diversity was drastically cut with his grandfathering out the long-held transfer program that brought city kids (note, black) to this suburban district. One of the commitments Kirkwood had was that it would not eliminate the program, that it wanted diversity in the schools and that if that wasn't coming residentially, having students from south St. Louis neighborhoods coming to Kirkwood added a multicultural educational opportunity for everyone.

Somewhere this all went away and even with the Riverview Gardens students, the diversity was less than 11%.

In 2012, there was also the huge issue with the unexpected termination of a very effective and much loved grade level principal. It was completely against the usual model of the senior class principal becoming the following year's freshman class principal. It was all personal and the entire senior class, commnity, and supporters let the school board, superintendent, and public know that they were not happy with this decision made by the new high school principal.

In 2013, I ran for office.

I was among others who were asking the questions about decisions made like forcing iPad Minis when even high school students were saying it made more sense to give everyone laptos. Questions about the new athletic field, press box, and swanky turf all rose up against the backdrop of the common core, the "black" student achievement problem, the budget issues that were barely discussed with the public, and of course, the neoptism and highest paid superintendent in one of the smallest districts in the metro area. People were wondering what gives.

Two other people were voted into office and immediately, the vote for the new swimming pool was completed, despite the public vote being no. They found private money to have the pool built, competed in the summer of 2015.

Add that in between these times were the continuious handwring of the district in not being able to find black teachers but found as many LGBTQ and husband/wife combinations that they could come up with.

There was the construction of all the elementary schools and the state-of-the-art journalism wing and the ATLAS program literally at a Mason-Dixon line in the high school.

Yet, the Kirkwood mystic was continuing of it being one of the top districts and that Dr. Williams deserved his $300,000 package because of the high graduation rates, the scholars noted, the ACT scores, etc.

But under the surface, something else was happening.

The district conveneyed a task force to discuss the "African American Achievement Gap." It all ended up being a bunch of white teachers and administrators justifying why they didn't have black teachers at the high school, why they didn't have culturally relevant literature or history lessons, and why they just couldn't seem to educate "those " children. It was a lot of talk and still no teeth. Full disclosure, this writer was one of the members who was quite vocal about what resources would be put to closing the gap and math and reading. What other assessments of success were being used because of the well known and documented MAP testing bias. We are all still waiting, after the budget woes, we do not expect to have any focus placed on the black students in Kirkwood.

Against the backdrop of all this was brewing a financial crisis that the district was less than transparent in fully communicating with the public.

Kirkwood is a small town in every sense of the word. Generational in its quaintness, like the station plaza and vibrant downtown, Kirkwood had pride in its ability to be one place where its young people wanted to come back and settle after college. The mid-sized homes were what brought outsiders here with a vast array of ages, classes, and enough racial diversity to not feel isolated.

We wondered what changed?

It is mentioned that the infill  housing had a part to play where a bungalow was torn down with a builder replacing it with a Chesterfield/O'Fallon mini mansion blocking out the sun of a tiny one story This was happening in several parts of the nine square miles (fifteen if the Meacham Park neighborhood is included). Clearly the city fathers wanted to be like Town & Country or their lust to be like Clayton was getting to them.

Kirkwood 2035 posters were going up and open meetings were being held against the backdrop of this PropA tax increase.  Both things were meaning seniors were being taxed out of their homes and young families would not be able to afford a $700,000 home, despite the slick marketing of this being a "Destination District." The school and the city liked to say they were separate, but one person running for mayor was once president of the school board until he termed out. The two are intwined, and missed in all of it was the effect their illusions of grandeur were having on the public.

Kirkwood has grown, yes, but not bursting at the seams like they wanted everyone to believe.

The 15:1 classroom ratio they touted in marketing campaigns is now being treatened as double that in size and the scare tactics happened before the ink was dry.

The November ballot issue, the only thing Kirkwood came out to vote on, was soundly defeated.  It's 60% no vote was a referendeum on the district's spending and the school board's inept actions.

At issue was not so much the need to pay more, we all understand that a highly valued education costs, that taxes are our price for living in a society. It is why my husband and I chose public school despite some of our similarily educated colleagues advocating for private schools like CBS, Burroughs, or MICDS.

The thing that happened here was a breakdown of trust.

Dr. Tom Williams is one of the two highest paid superintendents in the state.

Someone told me why was I focusing on his salary and compensation package.

In my comment in the 2013 election, I mentioned that if there were to be administrative cuts, it made sense to start there. We were a smaller district then and on a per-student-basis, he was not delivering performance that warranted that much money. My former district, Lee's Summit, had three high schools, three middle schools, five elementary schools, an alternative school and an academy and the superintendent then in 2007 did not make as much as Dr. Williams. Even here in the St. Louis area, he was making more than Clayton's superintendent who was delivering results higher than Kirkwood. He was making more than St. Louis Public's superintendent whose Metro was consistently higher ranked than Kirkwood. It just didn't add up, even more affluent LaDue was not paying its superintendent as much as Kirkwood.

I also stated that one household should not be bringing in close to $300,000 of Kirkwood taxpayer money.

Kirkwood has husbands and wives as administrators, teachers, and otherwise highly paid individuals in the school district. There are mothers and daughters, aunts and nephews, so much nepotism that it is dripping with it .

My stance was unpopular to say the least and probably why my application to be a marketing and advertising teacher was sent to the Special School District, despite having taught at three universities and the MBA being a semi-terminal degree.

This school district is also top heavy in teachers with Master's and Doctoral degrees. That is to be applauded. But, those degrees are paid for by the public. Now, that is a great employment perk, but it is at a great expense if those teachers are already making top dollar.

The questions I had, though, didn't even center on the teachers, we want good teachers, as much as it centered on the top heavy administration. It was a stance that no one on the current or former boards was willing to take.

Now, they have to.

And in true form, they are punishing the public to coerce an action in what I believe will be a future tax vote.

I put this topic aside for a while to keep talking to people in the community. They are concerned. Teachers have showed up at school board meetings to tell them they were not informed the cuts would be so immediate and deep. Budgets were slashed 20% almost immediately after the vote. 25 teachers with their wealth of knowledge and contribution to the district have been told they will not be back. Some are retiring, others are simply being let go, along with 3 administrators, that is part of the concern, making the teachers pay for fiscal irresponsibility that didn't just happen in November 2015.

Mehlville and other mostly white suburban districts that cut funding was talked about as something that is in Kirkwood's future. Some retirees are trying to move out as the infill housing and  is making it impossible to live in a place they once called home for decades. Thoughts of Florissant, that has a higher property tax than Kirkwood, also swirled around. What is going to happen?

The local paper has had something about the vote in it every week since the November ballot issue. The school board president, E.J. Miller, has been in the paper a few times chastizing the public about the dire constraint and that we "willfully ignored what the defeat of Prop A would mean."

Bullying and blaming tactics are continuing. It is to the point of exhaustion. Teachers morale is plummeting and students, particularly those at the high school, are bearing the emotional brunt of this decision that didn't just show up with this school year.

I mentioned that I ran for office in 2013 and the issue of school finances was brought up back then.

One of the things I said was that I would not cut the teachers. I would start with the top, Dr. Williams, and work my way down. His salary and benefit package, as well as that of the top administrators, the dual family incomes (meaning two working in the district from the same immediate family) are all things I would consider. I would have also looked at the funding of the althletic departments over the academic departments.  That is an unpopular stance to take in a town that values bringing home the Turkey Day Bell, but it is a stance that needed to be considered. I would have also listened to the seniors being assessed out of their homes and the new families that can't afford to move here. Then I would have asked exactly what are we saying when they kept saying we are "destination district?"

The status of Kirkwood and conversation about it is beyond the nine square miles that make up this town, well, fifteen with the acquisition of Meacham Park.

People of color are barely here, so whether we voted or not, we were not the totality of the 60% of no voters who turned out to defeat Prop A. We will, however, bear some of the brunt of the decision. We know it means that the high school with zero black academic teachers (not counting the Orchestra director) for my daughter's freshman year. That there won't be any efforts to recruit or promote black teachers, and forget all the fancy talk about closing the "achievement gap." All that will be thrown out the window.

It was the citizenry who felt both bamboozled and betrayed. Those who remembered the no vote on the proposition to redo the athletic field and the board "finding the resources" to do it anyway. We have a swanky field, press box, concession stand, and amenities that rival the junior colleges. The field was barely stepped on before they broke ground for the new natatorium. Now, it is the stuff that colleges and universities would love to feature in their recruitment videos. That pool is olympic class, for a cadre of swim athletics that barely fill the overstuff clasrooms they keep threatening will happen. Why wasn't an effort used to get that same family to donate the $10MM to boosting the academic budget? This along with construction decisions, the Ipad Mini's and a host of other fiscal disregard caused the public to vote a referendum on the district.

I wonder if they will take notice.

2013 had two new school board members elected after a contentious election with five candidates, myself included.
2014 had two write-ins that no one knew anything about because they did not have to speak to the public.
2015 had two new school board members in a three member race with the jury still out on their performance.
2016 has just announced two school board positions that will not be an election because the two who won in 2013 are the only two who filed in 2016.

It makes me think that nothing will change, that the boys's (and a few girls') club will continue to do what they want without regard to the public impact, and will put the brunt of the impact on the students and teachers.

The smoke and mirrors, smoke and mirrors, smoke and mirrors. Will this be a community wide eye opening that causes the roughly 23,000 adults in Kirkwood to ask what do they really need and want? Do they have the backbone to collectively hold the city fathers and school administrators accountable to decisions they make or let them operate with impunity? There is a lot of handwring, letters to the editors, coffee shop conversations, and anger to go around.

I'm watching, waiting for the dust to settle, and see what we deem is important.

In the meantime, putting the oxygen mask on ourselves first, I've already started making plans for my daughters, I think other parents have also. Some are considering moving out, that it is not worth it, the inflated real estate, the bloated image, and the bullying tactics.

This is going to be an interesting year.

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