KANSAS CITY — Kansas City was held up as a national example of bold thinking when it tried to integrate its schools by making them better than the suburban districts where many kids were moving. The result was one school with an Olympic-sized swimming pool and another with recording studios.
Now it's on the brink of bankruptcy and considering another bold move: closing nearly half its schools to stay afloat.
Schools officials say the cuts are necessary to keep the district from plowing through what little is left of the $2 billion it received as part of a groundbreaking desegregation case.
Buffeted for years by declining enrollment, political squabbling and a revolving door of leadership, the district's fortunes are so bleak that Superintendent John Covington has said diplomas given to many graduates "aren't worth the paper they're printed on."
Kansas City is among the most striking examples of the challenges of saving urban school districts. The city used gobs of cash to improve facilities, but boosting lagging test scores and stemming the exodus of students were more elusive. Like other big city districts, it finds itself struggling to become more than just the last resort for large pockets of poverty in the urban core.
Some districts like Boston and Cleveland have tried busing in students from other neighborhoods, while others such as Chicago have built magnet schools with specialized facilities and curriculums.
The latest possible solution for Kansas City is the plan Covington submitted to the school board last week that called for closing 29 out of 61 schools to eliminate a projected $50 million budget shortfall. Covington also has said he wants to cut about 700 of the district's 3,000 jobs, including 285 teachers. The school board vote is Wednesday.
The proposal has stunned the community.
"It's crazy," said Donnell Fletcher, the father of two girls, ages 4 and 12. "I just hope that with all the changes that they are planning on making, that the kids are the ones who are the most important and that hopefully they will get the resources and the education they need to be successful."
When Fletcher, 33, was a teenager, he transferred from a posh private school in the city to attend a showpiece of the desegregation plan, a high school with a high-profile fencing program. He, like many, wonders where the money has gone.
This year officials expect to overspend the $316 million budget by $15 million and if nothing changes, the district will be in the red by 2011.
It wasn't supposed to be this way.
Kansas City appeared headed for a recovery when a federal judge in 1985 declared the district was unconstitutionally segregated. To boost test scores, integrate the schools and repair decrepit classrooms, the state was ordered to spend about $2 billion to address the problems.
The district went on a buying spree that included a six-lane indoor track and a mock court complete with a judge's chamber and jury deliberation room. But student achievement remained low, and the anticipated flood of students from the suburbs turned out to be more like a trickle. Court supervision of the desegregation case ended in 2003.
The district continues to lose students. In the late 1960s enrollment peaked at 75,000. It dropped to 35,000 a decade ago and now sits at just under 18,000.
Only about half of Kansas City's elementary school students and about 40 percent of middle and high school students now attend the city's public schools. Many of the other students have left for publicly funded charter schools, private and parochial schools and the suburbs.
Fewer students means the district gets less money from the state.
At the height of spending in 1991-92, Kansas City invested more than $11,700 per student — more than double that year's national average of $5,001, according to U.S. Census figures. Today, the district spends an average of $15,158 on each student, compared to a national average of $9,666 in 2006-07, the latest figures available.
Nationwide public districts are closing schools to better cope with a recession that has eaten away at academic budgets. In rapidly shrinking Detroit, 29 schools closed before classes began this fall, leaving the district with 172 schools. Washington, D.C. closed 23 of its schools in 2008 because of under-enrollment; last year only three were closed.
But proportionally, Kansas City's potential closures are striking in scope.
"That is huge," said Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "I have not heard of a reduction of that size anywhere else. That is incredibly large."
Although Kansas City is still running the buildings, many schools have an empty feel. Several classrooms sit vacant, many hallways are sparse with students and some teachers have a dozen or fewer students.
Amid the turmoil, Missouri State Auditor Susan Montee's office is auditing the district's books from the past two years to get a better idea of where the money went.
Covington has faulted previous school leaders for failing to act as enrollment shrunk. Past administrators proposed closures, but the plans were either scaled back or scrapped entirely after community protests.
The community is no less passionate this time. Public hearings on the plan have been filled with hundreds of parents, students and community members holding signs and chanting in protest.
Angry parents said kids are being punished for the district's failures. They raised concerns about overcrowding, although board officials say the average class size is only expected to increase by a few students.
The high school that Sasteh Mosley's son and daughter attend would get students from two other schools.
"My first reaction to them closing half the schools was that whole idea that children are going to be crammed into an educational system that doesn't work already," Mosley said. "If you try to tell me teachers are going to be more effective, that doesn't sail."
One of the youngest speakers at a forum, 9-year-old Richard Fisher III, had tears in his eyes as he begged administrators to keep his school open.
"Why do you want to close down our school?" asked Richard, still clad in his blue and white school uniform. "We learn, play and have fun."