"Whew," he says. "What is it? Two more days? Heat gonna break in two days?"
It's about ten on a Wednesday morning. An early rain has momentarily taken the edge off the heat wave that has socked Kansas City with ten straight 100-degree days. But it's done nothing to cool the old two-story schoolhouse at 37th Street and Benton.
Wilson climbs the stairs and makes a pass through the second-floor hallway. He peeks into classrooms, where kids in blue-and-white uniforms have scooted their desks near fans that stir the thick air into a hot breeze.
When Wilson first became chairman of Ladd's parent advisory committee four years ago, teachers and fellow parents told him their first wish was for air conditioning. The school is one of 38 in Kansas City that doesn't have the amenity in most of its classrooms.
Although it's hard to quantify the heat's effect on young attention spans and motivation levels, no one can deny that kids miss out when district officials call for a week of half days so students can escape it. And that's not just for hot boxes like Ladd. Even students at air-conditioned schools -- two-thirds of those in the district -- get to cut out early during that essential first week when teachers try to set the tone for the coming year.
After a little research, Wilson learned that the cost of modernizing those schools would be enormous. Now that he's chairman of the district's parent advisory committee, he's made it one of his top goals.
Wilson knows the odds are against him. District officials estimate a cooling upgrade would top $70 million. Like all districts across Missouri, Kansas City's is reeling from budget cuts. Worse, it'll be hard for the district to raise more money given its reputation for mismanaging funds and given Kansas Citians' historic reluctance to pay higher taxes to improve their schools.
"I know people are suspicious of the district's spending," Wilson says. "But I think, as a community member or a parent, we have to take this thing by the horns."
Yet one question has always puzzled him. How could the district have spent $2 billion dollars on a desegregation case -- the most costly in history -- and still have 38 schools that feel like Third World barracks? In fact, for the past year, Arthur A. Benson II, the plaintiffs' attorney for the case, has been telling the media that the deseg plan earned an "A-plus" with regard to the building improvements it brought.
During the late 1980s and early '90s, when court-ordered money poured into the district so it could build state-of-the-art schools in an attempt to lure white kids back to its classrooms, district officials requested funds for air conditioning, Benson says. But he says Judge Russell Clark and the Desegregation Monitoring Committee, which, under the chairmanship of Eugene Eubanks, oversaw the district's compliance with the court's orders, agreed that air conditioning "wasn't a civil rights issue."
"Now how stupid does that sound to you?" Wilson asks. "There they were with all the money flowing, and someone comes up with a dumb-ass decision like that."
He pauses and ponders the way some of that money was spent -- on field trips to the Grand Canyon and European tours for a one-man high school fencing team. "You got enough money for knife fighting and Russian coaches?" he asks. "That's necessary for civil rights?"
To Wilson, it all seems absurd. A federal judge ended the desegregation case last month, even though the district is more segregated now than when the case was filed in 1976 ("The Long Walk Home," May 23, 2002). White kids still score higher on achievement tests than black kids do.
Wilson steps outside to cool off. Under a blanket of clouds, the late-summer air feels a good ten degrees cooler than inside the building. He points across the field behind the school to a pair of soccer goals that have rusted and begun to lean. "That's part of the deseg money," he says. "I'm glad they're there. I guess. But I've never seen them used."