The 13 candidates running for the four Shawnee Mission School Board seats up for election this April face one overarching question: how can the district maintain its reputation for great public education while confronting financial challenges that necessitate closing schools and cutting staff?
But sometimes overlooked in the debate about the cuts is an important fact: The district’s fortunes over the past few years have mirrored the economic stature of area families. As the economic downturn deepened, so did the financial strain on parents, and in turn, their children.
In 2003-2004 (the first year statistics are available through the Kansas Department of Education’s school report cards), just one of the district’s 36 current elementary schools had more than 50 percent of its student population categorized as economically disadvantaged. By 2009-2010, that number had risen to 11. In 2003-2004, 14.2 percent of the district’s students fell into the economically disadvantaged category. In 2009-2010, the number had more than doubled to 30.7 percent.
The economically disadvantaged figures come from the number of students who qualify for free and reduced meal programs. For the 2010-2011 school year, a family of four with an annual income of approximately $40,000 would qualify.
Though the SM East area has fared better than the rest of the district — none of the elementary schools that feed into SM East have an economically disadvantaged population above 50 percent — the numbers here are stark as well. Two elementary schools, Briarwood and Tomahawk, now have economically disadvantaged populations greater than 20 percent. And schools where economic strife was virtually non-existent have seen major growth. The number of economically disadvantaged students at Belinder Elementary has more than tripled, from 3.7 percent in 2003-2004 to 11.7 percent in 2009-2010.
Still, SM East is in significantly better shape than its district peers. The 2009-2010 figures show 8.65 percent of SM East students came from economically disadvantaged homes. The next lowest rate was at SM South, where 20.07 percent of students fell into the category.