Education: Everything's Up to Date

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My daughter, Annie, attends the elementary school in Westboro, Missouri. I sit on the local school board. The social event of the winter season here is the school Christmas program. But last Christmas, it was clear that all is not well with our school.

As we arrived, all of the cars followed a rather circuitous route to avoid the collapsed culvert we can't afford to fix. The music-room roof leaks. And the third floor of the 80-year-old school building has been closed because the district can no longer afford a high school. In fact, we have only four teachers for kindergarten through sixth grade.

Meanwhile, in Kansas City, the state will spend over $200,000 this year just to maintain the Olympic-sized swimming pool in one of the district's schools. And part of that money comes from Westboro and other similar school districts.

In 1984, a federal court found the Kansas City school district and the state of Missouri liable for past segregation. Although official segregation had ended in 1954, Kansas City, like many other urban school districts, had seen a continuing decline in the number of white students as white families moved to the suburbs.

When the desegregation case first went to court, the Kansas City school district claimed to have achieved "internal desegregation." After Judge Russell Clark reconstructed the case, the school district claimed it "had not eliminated all the vestiges of the prior system."

To attract white students to the Kansas City schools, Clark ordered the state and city to equip the schools with swimming pools, greenhouses, farms, and, in one school, a log cabin. That's right, a log cabin. The state must pay three-quarters of the cost of these amenities. And if the Kansas City school district can't afford to pay all of its share, the state must pick up the difference.

In other words, the Kansas City school district gets major improvements in its physical plant—a billion dollars' worth—at the expense of the state of Missouri. With that great deal at stake, we can expect the school district never to eliminate the last vestiges of segregation.

In Missouri, the state plugs the money it allocates for education into a formula that determines the funds each school receives. If less money is available, then each school finds its funding reduced.

In 1991 alone, the state spent more than $10,000 per student on desegregation in Kansas City. Here in Westboro, students got about $3,500 each. The state contributed a little over $1,000 per student.

Westboro has nothing to compare with Kansas City's Pitcher Classical Greek Academy, with its emphasis on athletics. Or K.C.'s Military Magnet School, with its $1.3-million field house and $150,000 weight room. Or the model United Nations, wired for language translation.

One Kansas City school spent $700 each for 30 light fixtures. If we had an extra $700, I imagine we could fix the roof. Another school was torn down after $600,000 was spent to renovate it, and its replacement will cost $32 million. The Computers Unlimited magnet school has a computer for every two students. Well, we've got computers in Westboro, too. Four. But only because a local grocery ran a promotion trading computers for sales receipts. Our principal and some of the mothers gathered more than 10,000 receipts to purchase our computers.

Our superintendent doubles as the kindergarten teacher. And the librarian. In her spare time, she teaches social studies to the fifth-graders. All for around $20,000 a year. Kansas City pays its new superintendent, Walter Marks, $300,000. Our superintendent has never been investigated by a grand jury. However, a grand jury in California concluded that Marks had mismanaged the budget of his former employer, the Richmond school district. Since Judge Clark wasn't providing funding for the district in California, it went into bankruptcy.

Clark brought our loss, and Kansas City's gain, into sharp focus this summer when he appropriated another $71 million—almost 10 percent of the total state budget for education—to cover overruns in K.C.'s construction budget. Every other school district in the state, including Westboro, had its funding cut.

When the state complained about the cost of the desegregation remedy, the plaintiffs' lawyer, Arthur A. Benson II, said, "We are fighting for scraps of food on the plate, when we should be fighting to put more food on the plate." Well, Mr. Benson, a billion dollars may be scraps in Kansas City, but it's real money in Westboro. Incidentally, the state pays the fees for Benson and his colleagues. So far, their fees alone would operate the Westboro school system for nearly 10 years.

At our next board meeting, we'll try to decide what to cut so Kansas City's school system can continue its profligate ways. Our textbooks will last another year. Our teachers will go a sixth year without a raise. And while the kids in Kansas City are enjoying their TV and radio broadcast studios (including animation facilities), and their zoo facilities, and their art gallery, the Westboro school board will be up on the roof with a bucket of roofing tar.

Blake Hurst operates a farm and greenhouse in Missouri.