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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.