Hobson’s Choice

I imagine that people who have never visited Kansas might have a narrow view of who we are. When you say “Kansas,” some people probably envision cowboys, cattle, and fields of crops as far as the eye can see. If we are honest, in some parts of Kansas, that image is pretty accurate. But there is much more to being a “Kansan” then those images convey.

I am a Kansan, one who grew up in a small town whose economy was dependent on small businesses and farming. For the better part of two decades, I have called Kansas City, Kansas home. What I have come to realize over those years is that small-town Kansas and urban Kansas City have more similarities than differences.  Both are communities built on rich traditions, with a deep sense of place and belonging, and with a shared value of collective responsibility for the quality of life of all citizens. What is different is that KCK is an international community, with an incredible diversity of cultures, where we welcome increasing numbers of families from around the world who desire to raise their families, find meaningful employment, and pursue the American dream.

What I value most about KCK is that we view our diversity as a gift. We embrace a diversity that goes beyond background and heritage, and includes thinking and ideas. In our schools, we lift up and value that diversity, as students come together in our classrooms to learn and grow. We lift up the world languages (nearly 70) spoken in the homes of our students. We lift up the collective value that with hard work, everyone can rise to their potential, rise above obstacles, and rise to reach their dreams.

Our approach to achieving the American dream is simple really. Just like any community, we have our challenges, ones that we work tirelessly to overcome each and every day. But we have learned that our competing values are not a Hobson’s Choice, best described by Henry Ford’s statement about the Model-T: “Any customer can have a car in any color as long as it is black.”  In my community, you can truly have, or be, any “color” you want. It’s not a take it or leave it proposition. It’s about realizing that the quality of life we want requires an inclusive frame of mind, and believing that we are at our best when we can recognize and celebrate our diversity. I pray that, across this beautiful country of ours, we find ways to lift up and celebrate those same values of diversity and inclusiveness. “It’s Up to Us.”

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Journey of a Superintendent: Gloria Dean (Alexander) Willis

willisJust before the New Year, the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools lost a giant, a woman who influenced the lives of literally tens of thousands of students and their families in this community. It’s hard to know where to begin to tell the story of such a remarkable life. I am filled with such a deep sense of loss and sadness, and yet I know that the lessons learned from this accomplished woman, whom I have the privilege of calling my mentor, will last well beyond her time here on earth.

Gloria Alexander Willis always wanted to be a teacher. She graduated from Tillotson College in Texas, and moved up to Kansas City, Kansas. She began teaching in 1953, the year before Brown v Board of Education. She began teaching at Attucks, and also taught at Douglass, Hawthorne, Bryant, Stanley and Emerson. Her vast talent was recognized, and the district tapped her to serve as a “helping teacher,” then as a reading specialist, and soon assigned her to serve as principal, first at Grant, and then at her beloved Quindaro Elementary School.

Her tenacity, strong work ethic, perseverance and determination were central to her ability to overcome the limitations placed on her early in her career. During those early years, she was told she could only teach black children. She was told when she got married that she had to resign. When she became pregnant, again she was told she had to resign.

District history doesn’t tell us exactly what caused the changes to those policies. However, it’s interesting that before the ink dried on Gloria Alexander’s first resignation, district leadership changed their policy and decided that married female teachers were positive models for our youth. Six months after her beloved daughter Sonya was Board, Mrs. Willis was back in front of students, doing what she loved.

Gloria Willis worked for the district for 41 years, and the year after she retired, she joined the Board of Education, where she served for another 21 years, including 14 as Board President. She began her career in a society where she was only allowed to teach children who looked like her, and ended her journey leading the most diverse school district in Kansas, and one of the most diverse in our nation. She often remarked how proud she was to lead a district where children from the world’s cultures, and all walks of life, come together to be educated.

During her tenure as president, the district implemented the First Things First Reform, and earned national awards and recognition as one of the best urban school districts in the nation. During her time on the Board, she never lost sight of the importance of the parent voice in decision making. We could always count on Mrs. Willis to ask with every proposal or recommendation: “What do the parents think?”, or “Have the parents been informed?”

Mrs. Willis influenced generations. At her memorial service, former students talked about her influence, and how she fought to give them the opportunity to succeed. It was fitting that just this past year, she was recognized by City Union Mission as one of several “Women Who Changed the Heart of the City.” I include myself among the thousands of individuals profoundly impacted by Gloria Willis.

Mrs. Willis, you will be deeply missed, but your legacy will be felt in this community for generations to come.

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Journey of a Superintendent: School Finance Formula

Dr. Cynthia Lane, Superintendent of the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools

Dr. Cynthia Lane, Superintendent of the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools

The current block grant system used to fund public schools in Kansas is set to sunset June 30, 2017. To prepare for the upcoming legislative session, Governor Brownback requested citizens from across the state share feedback with him about what is important to include in a school finance formula. I want to share the Core Tenants of a School Finance Formula that was drafted by our board and community. We believe that these tenants are critical to ensure quality education is accessible to all children and youth in our state.

  1. Funding must be tied to what is actually costs to educate students.
  2. Students’ educational needs vary; therefore, the funding formula must be both flexible and adequate to meet the needs of all Kansas students.
  3. The suitable provision of finance for educating our students is the responsibility of the state, and should not be based on the property wealth of a community. Equitable funding, derived from similar tax effort across all communities in Kansas, is essential.
  4. Any formula must meet constitutional requirements for equity and adequacy. The equity requirements of the constitution require that local dollars be equalized across the state, so that children have equal educational opportunity with similar tax effort. Attention is needed to insure local dollars are appropriately equalized.
  5. Funding for early childhood programs is critical to ensure all children enter Kindergarten prepared.
  6. Every Kansas student must have access to quality education which prepares them for college and careers in a global society.
  7. The formula should recognize local control and provide funding of educational services; in addition, the Legislature and school districts need budgeting predictability.
  8. Any funding formula that is both efficient and effective must directly tie funding to school districts to what it actually costs to educate students, as the previous formula did. As such, the previous formula was not deficient. Rather, it was not sufficiently funded, and for any new funding formula to be effective, it must be adequately funded.
  9. Any new formula needs to provide a mechanism to recognize increasing costs. One means to do this is through a direct connection to increases in the Consumer Price Index.
  10. Public funds should not be used to fund, or provide vouchers or tax credits for funding private schools.

As we enter the legislative session, I will be keeping in mind that quality public education is the backbone of what it means to be an American. I will also be reminding myself that “It’s Up to Us” to ensure that all children have access to excellent teachers and quality schools.

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Journey of a Superintendent: Thank You

thankyou3

On November 8, 2016, a no-tax increase bond for Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools was authorized with a 79% approval rate. This $235 million bond will keep tax rates the same for residents of KCK, and provide critical resources to allow the district to continue its progress in providing facilities that support the goal of graduating each student prepared for college and careers in a global society.

The bond approval is a strong statement of confidence by our community in the quality education occurring in our schools. The approval is also a testament as to why our community was recognized by the American’s Promise Alliance as one of the 100 best communities for young people.

On behalf of the Board of Education and the bond committee, I want to express our gratitude for the tremendous work done to inform our citizens about our facility needs, plans for improvements, and most importantly, the quality education occurring each and every day in our schools. The nearly 80% approval would not have been possible without the entire community working together.

Now, we are rolling up our sleeves and getting to work. We have staff hard at work planning out the projects we will undertake over the next five years, and we look forward to beginning the work in the new year. Please watch this space, along with the district website and our social media sites, for updates on our bond work.

Again, we are deeply appreciative and humbled by the support of this community. You have truly taken to heart the belief that “It’s Up to Us”!

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Journey of a Superintendent: Let’s Vote!

I was so excited to open my mail box a few days ago to find my election ballot. I have voted by mail for several years now. Allocating time to stand in a line is challenging. I have asked myself from time to time, “Why bother to vote?” But I know the answer. Voting is one of the most important tools we have to influence the policy makers, and to have a voice in the type of country, state, and community we want to live in. So I was excited to receive my ballot, even though I am weary of the type of rhetoric we have been subject to in this election cycle.

So please join in and vote. It’s not just about the presidential election. We know that decision is critical. The person we elect will send a message to the world about who we are as a nation. But if we want to see work get done, the down ballot elections for Congress and our state legislative elections are just as critical. In addition, I believe we should think long and hard about the judicial items on the ballot. Maintaining three independent branches of government is what makes our democracy work. Attempts to politicize our judicial branch could dramatically change our democracy, and that is a decision we mustn’t take lightly.

Lastly, and certainly not least, we have a school bond referendum on our ballot. The board, with the guidance of our Community Vision Committee, is asking us to vote on a zero tax increase bond in order to make significant improvement to our schools. You can find the details at www.kckps.org/pleasevote. The bond question is the very last item on the ballot for those living in KCKPS boundaries.

I for one am starting my voting decision from the bottom of the ballot. Approving the bond is about supporting a positive future in our community. After all, quality education is the backbone of any strong community, and essential for our children’s future. Successful passage of the bond will impact every school, and is an economic boost to our community. There may choices on the ballot that cause us angst. However, this bond item is a way each of us can help make our community even better. Please vote, and remember, “It’s Up to Us!”

 

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Journey of a Superintendent: #Hopeful

 

Dr. Cynthia Lane, Superintendent of the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools

Dr. Cynthia Lane, Superintendent of the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools

If one depended on the nightly news, or social media, to predict the future, he/she might think our youth are lost. Be honest, when many of us were kids, the same type of image was attributed to our generation.  Just like in “the day,” today the predominant message is that our youth are lost to the streets, without hope, and living lives without direction or purpose.

We must acknowledge that there are some young people whom we know are on a negative path. However, we should be careful not to paint our kids with such a wide brush. What I see every day fills me with confidence that our youth will make my community, state, and our nation stronger.

Every week, I spend time in our schools, visiting classrooms and talking with teachers and our students. Just today, I spent time with a few hundred teenagers in one of our high schools. These young people were designing projects and business plans tied to their passions and aspirations. I was struck by the fact that nearly all of the projects centered on helping others. The projects included strategies to improve health; empowerment networks for young women; an art show featuring art created by individuals with disabilities; fashion design to help the young professional dress with style while maintaining class and grace; and the development of an “App” that would focus on access to Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

What I observed today was one of many examples of our youth working hard to solve problems and improve our world.  Our kids certainly are growing up in times very different from my generation. If we take the time to really learn who they are, and what is important to our youth today, we will surely be inspired and hopeful for our future. I often say, “It’s Up to Us.” Today, I say: #Hopeful!

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Journey of a Superintendent: Stand in the Light

Dr. Cynthia Lane, Superintendent of the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools

Dr. Cynthia Lane, Superintendent of the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools

There are moments in life that affirm my belief that if you stay true to your principles, good things will happen.  I have learned that many times, just when it seems that disappointment and darkness will win the day, something changes, and a light of hope begins to flicker.

Kansas has been in darkness, since we moved away from the tenants of our constitution that require “equity” in educational opportunity through similar tax effort. This past Thursday, when the Legislature convened for the Special Session, we had a chance to move into the light, by ensuring our school finance system was amended to meet the equity requirement. As the session began, it was not at all clear that this would be the outcome.

The special session began with budget committees in both the House and Senate introducing identical bills, which would have reduced funding for all Kansas schools in order to find the money to provide equity. While a number of districts testified in favor of that plan, the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools (KCKPS) held firm to the principle that the $38 million necessary to provide equity should NOT come from school districts.  Our stance was not one of stubbornness, but rather anchored in our belief that to be in compliance with the Supreme Court’s admonishment to not harm adequacy, additional investment was required.

Throughout the session, educators, parents, and advocates from around the state came together to support our legislators.  A rally was held outside of the Capitol, with voices from across the state encouraging action to create equity and keep schools open.  I witnessed House and Senate members crossing party lines, engaged in collegial conversations, and exerting real effort to examine all possible options.  It soon became clear that there were alternative revenue sources available that would allow for additional investment in the education of our children. As the session progressed, the dark mood changed to one of hope and expectation.

I am so pleased to report that the Kansas Senate and the Kansas House passed and sent to Governor Brownback legislation that will equitably distribute money for public schools in Kansas, and when the Governor signs it, it prevents a school shutdown!

This session began with darkness and ended with Kansans standing in the light!  Let us learn from this experience.  When we work together, and stay true to our principles, good things are the result.  “It’s Up to Us!”

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Journey of a Superintendent: Kansas Supreme Courts Affirms Equity

Dr. Cynthia Lane, Superintendent of the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools

Dr. Cynthia Lane, Superintendent of the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools

The Kansas Supreme Court has ruled in favor of Kansas children and families, reminding us all that education is the cornerstone to the Kansas Constitution and our way of life. The Court ruled that the Kansas Legislature has again failed to establish a constitutional school finance formula in Kansas. The constitution requires that all school districts have equal access to substantially similar educational opportunity through similar tax effort. In other words, quality education must not be based on the zip code, or ability of your community to increase local taxes.

Our Legislature has until June 30, 2016 to correct the problem. If the Legislature fails to fulfill its constitutional obligation, Kansas will not have a constitutional school finance formula, school districts will be unable to spend any money, and schools will be forced to close. What this means in practical terms? Summer programs cease, vendors and employees are not paid, school feeding programs halt, repairs and maintenance to school facilities will not be completed. If there is a prolonged stoppage, school will likely not open in August on time. School closures would be devastating to our children, communities, and economy!

Legislative Options

The Legislature has limited options: Fix the formula before their June 1, 2016 scheduled adjournment, or come back in a special session (which would have to be ordered by the governor) to fix it. Another option might be to do nothing.

Is There Anything We Can Do?

The district has a “worst case scenario plan” that I hope we never have to implement. Right now, our energy is best spent on advocating and supporting our legislature to do their constitutional duty.

 The danger of a school shut-down is a legislative issue, and it is up to the Legislature to solve it. It is important that legislators hear from their constituents on this issue, and I encourage you to reach out to your legislators to let them know your feelings about the importance of equitable school funding for our students, and for students across the state.

We will continue to keep you updated on legislative issues through e-mail, and with information on our Legislative Page on the district website: http://kckps.org/index.php/legislative-information.

 

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Journey of a Superintendent: Keeping Our Eyes on the Prize!

Each year I have the privilege of congratulating nearly 1,000 graduates as they commence to the next phase in their life’s journey. It is so rewarding to be a small part of the accomplishments of our students, families, schools and community.

Superintendent Dr. Cynthia Lane at 2016 Commencement Ceremonies.

Superintendent Dr. Cynthia Lane at 2016 Commencement Ceremonies.

During convocation last August, we sent our employees off to begin the school year with a rewrite of the song, “Eyes on the Prize.” The lyrics included:

We have students who depend on you, to keep them focused and see them through . . . hold on, hold on. Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.

Thinking back over the school year, it is clear to me, that no matter our challenges, we have kept our eyes on the prize – the future of our kids.

Our students and schools certainly kept their eyes on the prize as:

It has certainly been a school year filled with accomplishments! I must say that we kept our eyes on the prize. Thank you students, teachers, families, and community! It is clear, that our focus is on what matters most to our future – our kids. Enjoy the summer and remember, “It’s Up to Us!”

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Journey of a Superintendent: The ABCs of School Finance

Dr. Cynthia Lane, Superintendent of the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools

Dr. Cynthia Lane, Superintendent of the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools

Last month in my blog, I was celebrating the Kansas Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of public schools and Kansas kids. It was the latest court decision in the Gannon vs. State of Kansas school funding lawsuit. The court found that schools must be financed equitably to ensure that every student, regardless of their zip code, receives the same opportunity to learn and prepare for their future.

Stories about school funding have been prevalent in the media during the past year, and I hope they continue to draw the interest of all Kansans. Education should be the top priority of every citizen; we are investing in our future. I encourage everyone to stay informed, and to speak out for public education.

I have had many people approach me and ask me questions about school finance – how it works, what the various proposed Bills mean, and what this latest court decision means to the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools. The reality is, there is a long history, and it is not easy to explain in a few sentences. Recently, the Lawrence Journal World published a story that provides “the ABCs of school finance” which is a detailed history of school finance and how we got here.

I wanted to share it with you to help you understand, and also, to encourage you to remain up-to-date on this issue. As Kansas residents, “It’s Up to Us.”

 

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