So I'm on hold, and a recorded voice is describing the mission of the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation.
The foundation, I'm learning, strives to improve the quality of life by increasing charitable giving, connecting donors to the needs they care about, and leading on critical community issues.
All very nice.
I decided to call the foundation after Mayor Mark Funkhouser complained that the city's civic leaders had abandoned the Kansas City, Missouri, School District. The mayor wants to hold an education summit to generate ideas and create a sense of common purpose. It's a great idea — but one that several mayors before him have already tried. And those civic leaders he's chastising? They have formed task forces, too, and nothing has ever come of them.
Funkhouser's vision is a little weird. But if everyone before him had done what they said they were going to do, hard feelings about him and his summit needn't have reached the front page of The Kansas City Star, as they did earlier this month.
So with the idea that humiliation is a great motivator, let's name some names.
In an apparent effort to meet its mission of "leading on critical community issues," the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation commissioned a task force in 2005 to study higher education. This "blue ribbon" task force identified two major deficits in the city: the lack of a world-class research university and the dismal educational opportunities for blacks and Latinos.
In the Kansas City, Missouri, School District, four in five students are African-American or Latino. The task force encouraged the foundation to "tackle the leadership issue head-on and convene a strong group of civic leaders to support K-12 education reform."
I called Laura McKnight, the foundation's president and chief executive, in an effort to check up on her tackling skills. That's how I ended up on hold. Eventually, I left a message.
A foundation spokeswoman, Jackie Kindred, returned the call. She said I should talk to Benno Schmidt Jr., who had chaired the task force.
Schmidt is an accomplished fellow. He's a legal scholar and a former president of Yale University. He has even appeared in two Woody Allen movies. He also lives in New York — not exactly a keen vantage point from which to monitor the progress of Kansas City schools.
It sounded as if no one had heeded the call for civic leadership in the task force's reports — Time to Get It Right and its follow-up, Time to Get Things Done. For the K-12 aspect, at least, Time to Pat Ourselves on the Back and Take a Nice Nap might have been a better title for the foundation's blue-ribbon task force.
Large foundations aren't alone when it comes to failing the kids in the Kansas City School District. Politicians prize the worthless educational summit, as well.
Then Mayor Emanuel Cleaver convened a daylong summit at a Baptist church in 1999. The Urban League of Greater Kansas City acted as the sponsor.
Two years later, Mayor Kay Barnes huddled with former superintendent Bernard Taylor Jr. and others at the Westin Crown Center in an attempt to crack the riddle of urban education. The meeting was off-limits to the public, with Barnes citing the "delicate" nature of the work. The Urban League, once again, sponsored the event.
One person who attended the Barnes summit says it wasn't particularly productive. "I don't think anything tangible came out of it," says Judy Morgan, president of the Kansas City Federation of Teachers and School-Related Personnel.
For his part, Funkhouser envisioned a town-hall meeting of Sprint Center scale, with professional democracy consultants, an outfit called AmericaSpeaks, on hand to make sure the event didn't spiral into madness.
The idea met with skepticism. "A big summit that is unfocused and allows a lot of people to vent would not be helpful to any district," board member Arthur Benson tells me in an e-mail. "Even a big summit looking for solutions would result only in a long list of good ideas but without any movement toward implementation of them, except perhaps a resolve to form another."
Benson is probably right, although the Council of the Great City Schools (a national organization promoting high standards for urban schools) pushed for a citywide summit in its 2006 review of district operations. The Great City Schools audit is regarded as one of the more useful appraisals of the Kansas City district.
Alas, a convention-sized summit isn't happening anytime soon. Funkhouser hasn't been able to raise the $200,000 necessary to stage the event.
Forgetting his own diminished credibility, Funkhouser takes the lack of support to mean that civic leaders have written off the schools. Last week, I heard the mayor complain about how accepted it has become to trash the school board. "They have been vilified in a way that is completely out of bounds," Funkhouser said at a forum at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
One problem with the mayor's argument is that board members themselves have reached for torches and pitchforks.
Last spring, in announcing his decision to leave after one term, Bill Eddy complained that the board was "too large, too parochial, too entrenched, too linked to vested interests." Ingrid Burnett decided that she'd had enough of the dysfunction and resigned from the board last fall. Former board president David Smith left a few months later.
Still, Funkhouser is right when he criticizes the city's elites for abandoning the schools.
As it turns out, the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation didn't completely ignore its own call to action. In 2006, the foundation formed the Kansas City Roundtable on Access and Opportunity. The group spent two days at UMKC.
Many of the people who attended were veterans of previous task forces and summits. Gwen Grant, president of the Urban League, was there. So was Pete Levi, the head of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce and a veteran of Barnes' 2001 summit.
They produced a 141-page report filled with action verbs. The word "initiative" appears 99 times in the document — but damned if any is being taken.
"I don't remember that having much impact at all," Burnett says. Burnett adds that the board routinely received reports — from the NAACP, the Westport Presbyterian Church, all sorts of groups. But taking one set of suggestions meant discarding all the rest because there was no cohesion. "They just didn't even talk," Burnett says of all the organizations supposedly trying to help.
Meanwhile, it looks as if the business and philanthropic communities continue to regard urban education as a gruesome spectator event rather than a responsibility.
In 2005, the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City (a group of CEOs) initiated Kansas City's Partnership for Regional Education Preparation to provide support for the school districts in Kansas City, Missouri, and Kansas City, Kansas. To fund its work, PREP-KC has cashed checks from foundations supported by the Hall family, Sprint and H&R Block, as well as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Its achievements are not easy to discern. PREP-KC officials ignored my interview requests. The news and events section of the Web site hasn't been updated since last summer.
The "strategies and results" page of the Web site does link to a quote from someone praising PREP-KC's effort "to actually improve the quality of education for Kansas City students."
Who said that? The Greater Kansas City Community Foundation's Laura McKnight.
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