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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.