Shawnee Mission's new superintendent brings his Independence lesson plans to a new state 

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Photo by Barrett Emke

Jim Hinson has faced plenty of audiences since July 1, his first day on the job as the Shawnee Mission School District's superintendent.

Many days, his meetings have looked like this one, an August 28 gathering of about 30 local elected officials and bureaucrats at the school district's administrative headquarters in Merriam.

At one point, he poses a question to the group: Had any of them seen a television news segment about how William Jewell College in Liberty opened a new library that has no books on its shelves, but instead a bunch of iPads that store literature electronically?

He gets no response.

Hinson begins to explain why the approach that William Jewell is taking with its new library is emblematic of how educators must consider their work differently from the traditional model. Technology plays a role, he points out.

"I'm not saying we're eliminating the library," Hinson says.

"Thank you!" says Nancy Hupp, a Merriam City Council member and vice chairwoman of the Johnson County Library Board.

This is how Hinson, former superintendent of the Independence School District, has spent his summer.

During what the Shawnee Mission Board of Education is calling a "listening tour," administrators, teachers, parents, businesspeople and politicians have been testing Hinson's firm handshake, and he in turn has been gauging what his constituents think about the school district. The 87-day period is ticking down to September 25, when he's due to give what amounts to a state-of-the-district address at the Shawnee Mission Education Foundation's annual meeting, at the Overland Park Convention Center.

Hinson likes a challenge. That, he says, is why he left his last job. After 12 years as superintendent of the Independence School District, he had run out of obstacles.

"It was like there wasn't anything new," Hinson says. "I don't mean that in a derogatory sense ... I'm not good at treading water or stagnation."

"In his mind, I don't know if he had another big challenge in Independence that he could step up and find," says Dale Herl, Hinson's successor as Independence superintendent.

Hinson started as a sixth-grade teacher in Carthage, Missouri. Six years later, he became an elementary school principal in that district, a job he held for six years. From there, he was a superintendent for the school district in Greenfield, Missouri, and then superintendent in Newton County, Missouri, before arriving in Independence in 2001.

He was working a three-year contract with Independence when a Shawnee Mission School District recruiter earmarked him as a good fit to replace Gene Johnson, who was due to retire at the end of the 2012–13 school year. Shawnee Mission's Board of Education had begun a national search, but its new top administrator turned out to be in the same metro.

Shawnee Mission agreed to pay him a base salary of $217,950, about the same as what he made in Independence. There, his salary for 2013–14 was supposed to be between $215,000 and $225,000, according to that contract.

"Dr. Hinson is very charismatic and dynamic," Shawnee Mission board president Deb Zila tells The Pitch.

Hinson, 51, had also maxed out his Missouri retirement benefits — but not his marketability.

"Honestly, he could retire from Missouri with full retirement and go to Kansas and have a full salary," Herl says. "Financially, it was very beneficial for him. To a greater extent, he's a man who loves challenges."

He has come to the right district.

Over the past three years, Shawnee Mission — besieged by a lousy economy that has led to state funding cuts and decreasing property valuations — has eliminated more than 400 staff positions.

That doesn't make the district unique among other school systems in Kansas, but the developments have felt especially severe to those who recall Shawnee Mission's history. In 1970, as Shawnee Mission began to earn national attention for its academic performance, the district had an enrollment of 45,702. Today, enrollment stands at 27,770, and Shawnee Mission is distinct among other Johnson County school districts in that, despite the area's reputation for affluence, it's grappling with an influx of financially distressed families with school-age children.

About 8,250 children in the Shawnee Mission School District live below the federal poverty line, which means a household income of $23,550 for a family of four. Some 40 percent of students in the district are eligible for free or reduced lunches — up from 10 percent in 2001.

The reasons for this are straightforward, and they start with the 2008 recession and the fact that the Shawnee Mission School District covers mostly inner-ring suburbs. Those communities can't expand and are slow to redevelop, which leaves an older housing stock that's affordable for those looking to get out of the urban core.

"I think one of the other things, one of the trends that's happening, is there's more employment in Johnson County, and a lot more of it is low-wage employment," says Karen Wulfkuhle, executive director of United Community Services of Johnson County, a community-planning nonprofit. She adds that about a third of the 300,000 jobs in Johnson County pay less than the $30,000 median income.

"I think we will continue to see greater income diversity in Johnson County as jobs don't pay wages that sustain an individual or a family," she says.

Those financial pressures within a family command more resources from the school district.

"From a nutritional standpoint, are they [families] trying to buy the most inexpensive food they can find that may not have the highest nutritional value, but it puts food on the table?" Hinson says. "Kids might come to us with dental concerns, and the parents can't afford to see a dentist, so we have to say as a school district: How can we help? We might have parents living in poverty, but they don't know the resources that are available for them, so we have social workers that put adults in contact with the appropriate resources available."

But resources have been limited for the district as its finances have eroded over the past few years.

The district pulled in $233 million for the 2008–09 school year. This year, it has $212.9 million to work with. The district has been running a deficit most years since 2008–09, which has reduced its fund balance (basically a savings account for the district) from $11.2 million in 2009–10 to $4.9 million this year.

Beyond cutting those 400 staffers, this has meant an inability to provide early childhood education, buy new library books, fund all-day kindergarten or assign social workers to homeless students.

Still, the district has managed to stay afloat in terms of academics.

Shawnee Mission School District students taking the ACT had an average score of 24 in 2012, outpacing the state average (21.8) and the national average (20.9).

But the district's cutbacks have put a sharper fee burden on parents. In some cases, they're paying for additional instruction for their children.

Judith Deedy, a Mission Hills parent, started an ad hoc parents group called Game on for Kansas Schools, originally centered on Belinder Elementary School. The idea is to call attention to public education's funding shortage.

Deedy has watched class sizes go up and has sent her daughter to school with things like reams of paper that the school can't easily afford. She has chipped in with other parents to hire math and reading aides at the school, at a total cost of $20,000.

"Shawnee Mission is struggling," Deedy tells The Pitch. "When I talk to other people around the state, they may have other issues, they're struggling, too. Blue Valley and Olathe aren't facing the same restrictions we are."

The Shawnee Mission School District gets $3,838 from the state for every student — the same as every other Kansas district. Trouble is, Shawnee Mission is supposed to get $4,492 for each student — same as every other district should.

For this, Deedy blames the Kansas Legislature.

The $4,492-per-student level is what the state courts require, but the Kansas Legislature has ignored that mandate by appropriating less, with the claim that the state doesn't have enough money.

Compounding matters is the fact that the Kansas Legislature commissioned its own study for what funding level makes sense for public education. That was in 2006, and the report found that 2013 funding should be $6,142 per student.

The conflict between lawmakers and the courts is heading for a showdown during next year's legislative session.

Lawyers for the state and for 52 school districts are suing the state on the claim that Kansas hasn't met its constitutional requirement to adequately fund schools. The case is set for oral arguments starting October 8. A decision is expected in January.

If the Kansas Supreme Court rules that the state needs to return funding to the $4,492-per-student level, a state finance and constitutional crisis could follow. Some legislators have said they'll continue to ignore the court's order if it comes down in favor of the schools.

John Robb, a Wichita-area lawyer representing various school districts, says, rhetoric aside, lawmakers will go ahead and give extra funding to the schools despite their willingness to ignore the mandate in recent years.

"I'm an optimist, and I believe the Legislature is going to live up to their constitutional oaths and support the constitution," Robb tells The Pitch. "Although there's been a lot of posturing that they're going to ignore the courts, I'm hopeful that they're going to follow their oath and the constitution. If that doesn't happen, I think what you will wind up with is an unconstitutional school-finance system. The most likely scenario is, the courts shut down the education system until such time as the Legislature does its job."

That would be an embarrassing prospect for Kansas, but one not without precedent. Kansas schools came within two days of closing down in 2005 when the Kansas Supreme Court issued a similar order to increase school funding. Legislators acquiesced to the order at the 11th hour.

Unlike 2005, however, Kansas in 2013 has cut taxes, specifically corporate income taxes for certain businesses. That has bean counters in Topeka predicting a budget shortfall of up to $300 million for the state's next budget year.

"I don't believe the state under the current tax law can sustain over the next five years," says Rep. Melissa Rooker, a Republican House member from Fairway who sits on the House Education Committee. "If you add the ramifications of losing the court case, I don't think it's a sustainable plan, and that's why I voted no. I don't have enough experience to know how we navigate the crisis, but I think such a crisis is on the horizon."

Hinson is more circumspect about the state's fiscal issues and their impact on education. He says he hasn't studied Kansas' new tax plan to know how it will affect education.

State funding is a big deal for school districts like Shawnee Mission, which has no other way to increase its own funding.

School districts have local option budgets, a way to increase local mill levies to raise more cash. But Shawnee Mission has hit the state-imposed limit on how much it can increase local taxes, and the Legislature has been inflexible in lifting that cap.

Johnson County legislators are split on whether schools need more money. Lawmakers such as Rooker think the state can and should increase education funding.

Other, more conservative and small-government-minded members say school districts have more than enough and should instead operate more efficiently.

Hinson hears those people. "I trust we're going to find efficiencies," he says. "For me, coming outside of the district, I can look at our budget from a different lens. Am I going to find enough [efficiencies] to appropriately fund education at the Shawnee Mission School District? Based on current state funding, the answer is no. To me, the answer is between the two."

Hinson's résumé suggests one path toward that answer. He was superintendent of the Independence district in 2007, when voters there and in Kansas City approved the annexation of seven low-performing Kansas City, Missouri, School District schools into the Independence district.

One of them was Van Horn High School, one of the worst in Missouri at the time of the annexation.

Since joining the Independence School District, the once seemingly hopeless school — it graduated only about a third of its students back then — now sends 90 percent of its senior classes along with a diploma.

Hinson's work in that transition has earned him plaudits in northeast Johnson County, and may provide some clues on how Hinson might work with schools in distress.

Once an established haven for blue-collar jobs, western Independence and Sugar Creek became a no man's land in the 1980s, abandoned by employers and homeowners.

The Ford Motor Co. Assembly Plant left western Independence for Claycomo. Standard Oil closed a refinery there. Retail and catalog operations for Sears and Montgomery Ward followed suit.

Left jobless, families departed for Blue Springs and Lee's Summit. Empty houses were scooped up by slumlords. Drug use and crime surged.

Residents who remained found their community's problems compounded by the Kansas City, Missouri, School District. The district was a defendant in the nation's longest-running desegregation lawsuit, a case that sought to reverse the racial divisions in the district but in many ways made the problem worse.

A ruling by federal Judge Russell Clark ordered the state to throw money at the school buildings themselves. Rebuilding schools with appealing amenities, the thinking went, would make the district attractive to the white population that had headed to the suburbs.

Clark's ruling funneled more than $2 billion into the KC district, which converted the properties into magnet-style schools. Paseo High School became a performing-arts school. Central High School catered to athletics and computer-based education.

Van Horn High School, in western Independence, was modeled as an engineering school, while nearby elementary schools such as Fairmount Elementary and Mt. Washington Elementary became foreign-language-immersion schools.

The busing program, designed to transport students from one side of the Kansas City district to another to reach the various specialized schools, steered kids in western Independence away from nearby Van Horn in favor of downtown KC. Longtime residents of western Independence say this siphoned off the community's connection to its local schools. Van Horn didn't host a homecoming for four decades.

Bob Spradling, the pastor at Maywood Baptist Church, near Van Horn High School, watched families leave his congregation if they could find a way out and move elsewhere in the metro.

"We weren't getting served by Kansas City," Spradling says of the KC district. "Disenfranchised might be a little too strong of a word, but there was that sense."

The money flowing into the Kansas City schools didn't improve academic performance.

"It was one of those experiments we tried and then realized, 'Gee, maybe this didn't work so well,'" Spradling says. "School is a real key sense of community."

Bill Rogers, a Fairmount-area resident who now lives next door to the house where he grew up, worked in Van Horn High School for the Local Investment Commission in the late 1990s and 2000s.

Rogers says students at Van Horn didn't seem to have much connection to the school, and the teachers there perhaps less so.

"They felt it was better if you [students] didn't come, they didn't have to deal with you," Rogers recalls.

While talk stretches back to the 1970s about having the Independence School District annex schools on the west side of town, the effort didn't hit its stride until former state Sen. Victor Callahan undertook some legislative gymnastics to compel a vote in Independence and Kansas City, Missouri, with the support of local businesses and churches.

"It wasn't led by the school district," says Hinson, who arrived in Independence in 2001. "Eventually those leaders came to me to say, 'OK, if we can get this on the ballot and it's approved, how is the school district going to respond to this?' My response was, 'If you get it on the ballot and it's approved, I can guarantee you as a school district this will work.' "

The measure passed easily among both Independence and Kansas City voters.

After a string of lawsuits from the KC district failed to stop the annexation, the Independence district had schools in its boundaries that were in dismal shape aesthetically and academically.

The Independence district issued $85 million in bonds to fix up the buildings.

At Van Horn, volunteers painted many of the classrooms' walls. An old football scoreboard that had been covered in vines was replaced, and the football field reconstructed and surrounded by a new synthetic track.

Hinson ordered that metal detectors be removed from the entrances at Van Horn. "That was a cultural change," he says. "That told the kids, 'We have a different expectation for you and we're going to trust you. We don't need this any longer.'"

There were also staffing changes.

Hinson required that all current employees in the annexed schools interview for their positions alongside new applicants. The existing employees didn't fare well; only 12 from the seven annexed schools stayed on after the interview process.

Hinson says the district needed staffers who were invested in the schools' performance and in the students. This was how he set about reversing the previous district's culture.

"The level of expectation was set high and it was set high intentionally, but the message was, 'Every student, regardless of anything else, can perform at the appropriate level, and there are no excuses,'" Hinson says. "By the way, kids respond really well to that. I think kids respond really well to expectations set before them if you show you care and you're willing to go the extra mile. There had been a culture of failure and a culture of low expectations, a lack of parental involvement, virtually no community or business involvement in the schools."

Performance has inched upward at Van Horn since the annexation. In 2007, the average ACT score was 16; in 2012, it was 18.

"They've made the transition fully into our school district," says Herl, Hinson's successor in Independence. "I don't see any more of a transition. The buildings, we continue to do things to improve them but we do that with all our schools."

Herl in 2011 wrote his dissertation about the transition of the KC district schools into Independence as a blueprint for turning around struggling schools. He concluded that the changes were successful.

"I think, number one, he [Hinson] has an unfailing belief in kids and that good teaching will prevail if you care about kids," Herl says.

Whatever his No. 1 priority turns out to be, Hinson is reluctant to shed much light on his plans for the Shawnee Mission School District, at least for another month. He has arrived, he says, without any prescribed ideas about what to change.

"My goals and vision for the district are really based on what the community wants," Hinson tells The Pitch. "It's highly inappropriate to ride in on a horse and say, 'You're doing this right and this wrong and here's what we're going to do.'"

Some lessons from Independence, however, may carry over to his new job.

He leaves open the possibility of making staff changes in the district, if not to the extent that followed the Independence annexation of 2007.

"That experience also helps me understand, regardless of a student coming from an affluent family or a family that can't find a way to put bread on the table, all these kids in the school district can be extremely successful," he says.

He pauses when asked if he's staying in Shawnee Mission for good. Six weeks into the job, he says, no one had asked that question yet.

"I think the answer is, I don't know," Hinson says. "I don't have any ambitions to go anywhere else."

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