Kansas City’s Shuttered Public Schools

A Look At What’s Going On With Kansas City’s Shuttered Public Schools


KCUR, By Esther Honig • Jun 8, 2015

It was a tearful, dramatic day five years ago, when the school board of Kansas City Public Schools decided to close 21 buildings in order to adjust to a shrinking student population. That was in addition to nine previously closed schools, leaving the district with 30 surplus buildings.

Kansas City is not the only district doing this around the country … Detroit, Philadelphia and Chicago all closed large numbers of school buildings in recent years. But in the wake of the school closures, Kansas City developed what was considered a pioneering program, asking communities to be part of the process of determining what would happen to the empty buildings.

Four years after the initiative began nine schools have been sold, three have been demolished, one is being leased and one was reclaimed for future use by the district. That leaves 16 schools still for sale. One of those properties is Blenheim, a massive 90-year-old school located at Prospect Avenue and Gregory Boulevard.

Shannon Jaax, the director of the repurposing initiative, gave me a tour of the Blenheim. A she unlocks the heavy metal doors, she releases a seal of stale cold air. As we walk the halls our steps echo over the linoleum tile. Windows are boarded up with plywood and gray paint peels from the walls, but the space still holds a lively energy. Of all the schools, Jaax has brought me here to show me an example of a property that she says holds potential.

This building as a really great layout” Jaax explains. “It’s of a nice size, where when you’re looking at a residential development, you can get enough units in here to make the project work, but there’s still challenges.”

There are four main factors that weigh in on the viability of repurposing an old school: condition, location, layout and size.

Blenheim has managed to stay in good condition — there’s been relatively little vandalism. It’s also in a good location because there are plenty of bus lines and other commercial properties nearby. Still, the building hasn’t sold. Two different developers have submitted plans for repurposing the school, but they fell through because of funding shortages.

Repurposing with a purpose
School districts don’t often act as realtors, but in many cities across the country, massive school closures have forced districts to recycle their shuttered properties. In Kansas City, the district spends $1.8 million a year in security and maintenance, but Jaax explains, the objective isn’t to sell them as quickly as possible.

“The school closures were very emotional and hard for parents, families for community members,” she says. “As a district we saw the impact that those closures had and one way of addressing that was to find good viable reuses and give the community a voice as we moved forward.”

Jaax helped pioneer a new model to help determine what becomes of the structures. At the beginning of 2011, she held meetings in each neighborhood with a closed school. Residents were invited to tour the sites and share what they wanted to see done.
As Jaax expected, every neighborhood wanted their school saved, but given the poor condition — or bizarre layout — she knew some schools were more fit to be demolished than repurposed. Many residents also wanted community centers and affordable senior housing, but that meant finding the right developer willing to take on those projects.

Learning to compromise
The Foutch Brothers, a development company, bought Switzer School on Kansas City’s westside a year ago for $450,000. Renovation have finally begun and director Steve Fouch offers to take me inside to see the old school before it’s gutted.

The air is moist and moldy, which Foutch says is from water damage and a failing roof. Parts of the building have been vacant for decades and last year the old library was burned in an arson fire. Foutch estimates it will cost $24 million to convert the school into 114 market rate apartments. That may be a daunting task for some, but Foutch says it’s like putting together a puzzle.

“It takes a lot of design ingenuity to figure out how to turn it from one thing to the next,” he says. “You have to be able to handle all the hazardous materials and the historic guidelines and syndicating tax credits.”

As we’re talking in the school’s main hall, Foutch suddenly goes quiet … he hears the faint voices of kids who have snuck onto the building. In seconds, he’s on the phone with police asking if they will stop by to scare off his “visitors.”

Vandals can cause serious damage to the old schools, and Foutch knows that. He’s repurposed 20 schools in cities and towns throughout the Midwest — it’s become his niche in the market. A low purchase price, with the added advantage of historic tax credits make them desirable, but in Kansas City he’s required to share his plans with the local residents before moving forward. Not something every developer is willing to do.

“We have lots of meetings,” says Foutch. “I try and work with them as best I can or other people try and get through to them on what their expectations are and realizing that it’s been here for 20, 25 years vacant.”

Some residents expressed that they would have liked more community space and perhaps a smaller parking lot. Foutch says he was open to these suggestions, but at the end of the day his plans have to be financially viable.

“All of their expectations just can’t be met,” he says. “If you want to see it saved you have to give in on a couple things.”

Even empty, these schools still hold sentiment and an identity for a neighborhood, which makes repurposing contentious. Residents in Waldo successfully fought plans that would replace the Bingham school with a Walmart grocery store. In the Historic Northeast, despite a campaign to save the Thacher school, it was recently demolished to create field space for students from North East Middle School.

Getting a second chance
In the Blue Hills neighborhood you’ll find the Cinderella story of school repurposing.
On a Thursday evening at the Mary L. Kelly Center, formerly the Graceland School, the building is packed with visitors. A church has rented out the gym for a conference and on the second floor there’s a performance by an adult line dancing class.

Families watch from the sideline of the spacious dance studio, while the performers — an all female ensemble of retirees — step in unison to 1990s R&B. Dance student Teresa Smith started coming here a year ago when it opened, and remembers when it was an abandoned school, but she’s thrilled that it’s now a community center.

“I look on the website and I see all the things that the kids can do and you know it’s just amazing,” she says. “See coming up in my day we didn’t have anything like this — and it’s free. I’m even taking a computer class here.”

The center offers recreational space, summer camp for kids and GED courses. In 2013 the developers, the non-profit The Upper Room, began working closely with the neighborhood to redesign the space and decide what resources they would offer. The result is a community asset, and that’s the goal.

But Graceland came with advantages. The building was in good condition and the developers had access to generous donors.

What to do with Willard Elementary
Just up the street from the Mary L. Kelly Center, on 51st and Garfield, is Willard Elementary. Built in 1924 with a unique Mediterranean style, Willard was closed in 2000. In the years since, vandals have torn the school apart to scavenge copper wire and piping. Many of the roof’s ceramic tiles lay shattered on the ground and the walls are marred with graffiti.

A block away, sisters Yolanda and Erica Hall sit on their front porch, enjoying the first day of summer vacation. Both girls agree that the blighted school has become a nuisance for the whole neighborhood.

“I just think it makes our neighborhood look bad,” says Erica. “The neighborhoods down here they usually already have a bad name and when you see big abandoned buildings that aren’t being taken care of it just makes it look worse.”

The state of this school is no secret. According to Shannon Jaax, developers last year walked away from a proposal on the building. The cost to repurpose Willard would outweigh the potential profit. If no use for it can be found, the site will become a candidate for demolition.

A race against time

Jacob Wagner, an Urban Planning professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, has been studying Kansas City’s repurposing efforts since 2007. He knows the effects a school like Willard can have on a neighborhood.

“They can cast a shadow over the neighborhood,” he says. “People feel like it’s bringing down property values and its impacting people’s perception of safety.”

Still he says that even these blighted school buildings are more valuable standing than demolished.

“Even after, if you do demolish the building you still have the challenge of managing a massive vacant lot so that’s a whole other problem.”

Wagner explains that because there’s no immediate market for these buildings, the best solution is to do a better job of preserving them for reuse in the future. Of course, that would require more money from the district, and that’s money that’s not being spent in the classroom.

So, for Willard and the 15 other schools in the district’s portfolio, it’s a race against time to find the right developers before another building is lost.

Entrepreneurial Scholar: Joohae Yoon, Urban Planning + Design


I am a student from South Korea. I have started my degree in 2011, as an Environmental Horticulture major at the University of Seoul. I was deeply interested in urban ecology, plant remediation and urban environmental systems.
My first visit to the U.S happened in fall, 2012. I applied for several different universities in other states as an exchange student but the only acceptance letter I received was from a state I have never heard of, Missouri. I researched this place for days and nights but still wasn’t sure if I could really like this place. But when I arrived, soon enough, the world turned around, introducing me to new experiences that I would have never had.
That’s when I first encountered the concept of entrepreneurship. I have been keeping my eyes on launching a start-up business ever since. Magazines like Entrepreneur, INC magazine and Forbes became one of my favorite pastime. I am now studying Urban Planning and Design at UMKC and an active member and a project leader of UMKC Enactus, a college students’ international non-profit organization dedicated to enabling progress through entrepreneurial action. I am in the process of gaining experience needed to launch a startup business. Getting selected as a recipient of UM System’s ESI program is an honor, and will help me improve my entrepreneurial skills as I prepare to start my own business, here in my 2nd home.

UM System names first class in its Entrepreneurial Scholars and Interns Program
Students from all four campuses will have a unique opportunity to enhance their entrepreneurship skills

COLUMBIA, Mo. – The University of Missouri System today announced the selection of the first 15 students to be part of the inaugural class of the UM System Entrepreneurial Scholars and Interns program. Starting in the spring semester, students will begin taking approved entrepreneurial-related courses to be followed by a 10-week, paid summer internship. This exclusive program provides the students with a strong academic foundation in entrepreneurship as well as the opportunity to learn from a mentor or work within a startup company.

“Entrepreneurial experiences for students, at such a young age, is huge for the state,” University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe said. “By creating this culture on our campuses—one that encourages innovation—we will produce well-educated entrepreneurs that will power Missouri’s 21st Century economy.”
The goal of the program is to create a steady stream of entrepreneurs around the state capable of taking their cutting-edge ideas to the market as new business ventures. Creating this new wave of well-educated entrepreneurs in Missouri will benefit the local, regional and national economies.
“Increasing research and economic development activity is integral to our strategic plan,” UM System Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs, Research and Economic Development Hank Foley said. “This opportunity for our students to collaborate with a like-minded cohort will be an engine for the state’s vitality in the coming years.”
The program introduces students from different degree programs on each of the four system campuses to entrepreneurial principles and practices and creates a network of connections centered on entrepreneurship. The application process was open to all undergraduate students on all four campuses. In total, 38 applications were received from disciplines ranging from journalism, environmental engineering, nursing and graphic design. Below is the list of students, their degree program and campus affiliation:
Natasha Brewer, Journalism, MU
Audrey Engel, Marketing, UMSL
Drew Forster, Agribusiness Management, MU
Teresa Frank, Business Finance, UMSL
Connor Hall, Finance, MU
Josh Jetter, Electrical & Computer Engineering, Missouri S&T
John Larrick, Finance & Real Estate, MU
Kimberly Miller, Entrepreneurship, UMKC
Andrew Neely, Business, UMSL
Erik O’Riley, Mechanical Engineering, Missouri S&T
Mary Puleo, Environmental Engineering, Missouri S&T
Nick Rollins, Information Science & Technology, Missouri S&T
Alexander Sweeney, Computer Science, UMKC
Aaron Vonderhaar, Mechanical Engineering, Missouri S&T
Joohae Yoon, Urban Planning & Design, UMKC

Excerpt from UM System press release 12/19/2014

UMKC Conservatory: Connections, Opportunities and Constraints

Date: December 10, 2014
Time: 2:30-4:30 pm

Katz Hall, Rm. 101

Students in Urban Planning + Design Studio I are exploring the opportunities and constraints of site planning and urban design on blocks immediately adjacent (East, South, and West) to the UMKC Conservatory Site in the Crossroads and Westside neighborhoods of Downtown Kansas City, Missouri.

free and open to the public / parking can be found directly west of Katz Hall in the metered lot. There is also on street parking directly north of the building on 50th Street.

graphic above from the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance Downtown Campus Design Charrette, September 2014, BNIM Architects

Planning Studio: UMKC Performing Arts Campus

Date: December 15, 2014
Time: 3:00 - 6:00pm

122 Southwest Blvd., Kansas City, MO

The Urban Planning + Design III studio has been working on a comprehensive plan for the work associated with the UMKC Performing Arts Campus downtown. Key questions being asked: How will this campus be integrated into and enhance three communities: institutional; professional; public both physically and programmatically?

The site for the UMKC Performing Arts Campus is at site that covers a full city block bounded by Broadway, Central, 17th and 18th streets, directly south of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. The UMKC effort  represents a multi-decade plan that was identified as one of the civic priorities for the region by the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.

free and open to the public

funded by: the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance