Times are tough for school boards and crossing guards in certain parts of the region.
Officials with the Shawnee Mission School District want to close five buildings. The proposal upset parents, but it pales in comparison with the painful choices made in Kansas City, Missouri, where the district has locked up two dozen schools and plans to sell an 11-story administration building.
But across the river in Kansas City, Kansas, the school district is upgrading. Construction is under way on a $14.8 million new administration building. The headquarters, at 59th Street and Parallel Parkway, will make KCK officials the envy of administrators who work in old light-bulb factories and Civil War forts. When it opens in December, the Board of Education will meet in a sun-kissed room overlooking a practice field at Schlagle High School.
Public school officials rarely ask for better workplaces, fearing they'll be cast as Taj Mahalers who put their own comfort ahead of children's needs. But officials in KCK have a rationale at the ready: They need somewhere to go.
For the last six years, most of the district's central-office personnel have worked at Indian Springs, a shopping center that makes a death rattle when cars approach its grim exterior. But the Unified Government of Wyandotte County condemned the former mall. The county is paying the district a $4.5 million relocation fee that helps the district recover the money it spent converting the mall's J.C. Penney.
President Barack Obama is also lending a hand. Thanks to federal stimulus money, the district will pay a mere 2.15 percent annual-interest rate on the bond money it spends on the new administration building, county records show.
So the district's decision to build new headquarters looks sensible enough. District officials needed a place to go. They had a down payment. They had a low-interest loan.
But they didn't have to use the modest windfall on new headquarters. They could have lobbied the Unified Government to remain at Indian Springs. (The district's dirt-cheap lease runs until 2013, and there are no immediate plans for the site.) Or they could have moved into existing office space somewhere. The Raytown school district did that five years ago, when it paid $850,000 for a 1980s-era building. Either plan would have left more money for Emerson and New Stanley elementary schools, where overcrowding forces students to attend classes in double-wide trailers.
But the allure of the shiny proved impossible to resist, especially when proposed by the district's favorite developer.
Despite the heft of the project — and despite the fact that work-starved developers would have outdone each other to give the district a good deal — the board never put out a call for competitive bids. It simply handed the project to Iowa-based Ladco Development, leaving no way to know whether someone had a better — or cheaper — idea.
Kansas requires school districts to solicit bids on construction projects that exceed $100,000. But the district says that rule didn't apply because the handpicked developer is providing "professional services," which officials say are exempt from competitive-bidding guidelines. (A $500,000 fee for Ladco's "services" was included in the cost of the project.)
Ladco is headquartered in Des Moines, but it has a growing presence in the area, especially in KCK. Three years ago, one of the company's reps, Mike Belew, pitched a plan to develop city-owned land near the Hilton Garden Inn. The downtown land, a surface parking lot, is within walking distance of the hotel and the adjoining convention center. Belew wanted to redevelop the lot and make the school district his chief tenant. (Belew referred questions to Ladco's home office, which did not respond to a request for comment.)
The economic downturn dashed Ladco's dreams of downtown redevelopment. But Belew kept after the school district. Earlier this year, the district moved some preschoolers, who also have been using Indian Springs, into a facility near 55th Street and State Avenue. Cost of the new school: $9 million, including a 5 percent developer's fee for Ladco.
Though the board did entertain a proposal from a different developer — an idea that was rejected in part because it would have put the school on the site of an old mine — there's no record of the district requesting bids for that project, either. Instead, the board simply followed the recommendation of Superintendent Jill Shackelford and Assistant Superintendent Cynthia Lane, who urged them to go with Ladco.
District officials say their agreement with Ladco puts the risk and responsibility on the developer. "The contract had a guaranteed maximum, which protected us from cost overruns, among other risks," district spokesman David Smith says.
Board Vice President Linda Pendleton credits Ladco with getting the project done on time and says the board's hands were forced by the Unified Government's decision to condemn Indian Springs. "They told us they wanted us out," Pendleton says.
Ladco's fees, from what I've been told, are reasonable. Still, the company's apparent indispensability to public officials in KCK has raised eyebrows. Though they don't do it on the record, developers privately bristle about how Ladco managed to bore a direct pipeline to the district's building fund.
And the money is still flowing.
Oddly enough, the KCK school district runs the finances of the city library system — an outdated arrangement long ago abandoned by other cities, including Kansas City, Missouri. Salary increases for library workers even come up before the Board of Education.
The library system's Argentine branch is a historic gem, a Carnegie library that has served the neighborhood since 1917. Made of stone and brick, it's a fine piece of neoclassical architecture. It's also cramped and unkind to people with disabilities.
Last year, the school board authorized the library staff to develop a plan to renovate the library. But then, in April, the board changed its mind and decided instead to buy a run-down strip center in Argentine for $600,000 and build a new library on the site. Estimated total cost: $5.5 million.
Preservationists are obviously aghast. Scott Lane, president of the Historic Kansas City Foundation, says it would be "shocking" if the existing Argentine Library was demolished, which is a possibility if the library materials move to another site. Renovating and adding on to the Carnegie library would also be cheaper than building new, according to preliminary cost estimates that the district received in 2008.
But Cynthia Lane (no relation), who took over as KCK school district superintendent this year, says "site issues" at the Carnegie library caused the board to look in another direction. Advocates for a new library say expanding the existing one would intrude into adjoining Emerson Park and cut down on parking.
Of course, saving the Carnegie also would interfere with Ladco's ability to provide its brand of "professional services." The Board of Education, you may have guessed, didn't invite other developers to pitch ideas for a new library. They simply agreed to buy what Argentine Library Holdings — a company run by Ladco's Mike Belew — was selling.