If you’re wondering what you can do to support local schools, says Shawnee Mission School District Superintendent Gene Johnson, the answer is pretty simple: Vote.
“We are at a real crossroads here and we need everybody’s help and support for that to change,” he said. “We need people who will help us advocate for improving the state’s school finance formula.”
Addressing the Northeast Johnson County Chamber of Commerce’s monthly luncheon, Johnson drew a broad historical sketch of the district, giving context to the present environment, where financial and demographic pressures are mounting even as district schools continue to produce impressive outcomes.
Over the past four years, Johnson said, the district has had to cut $28.8 million from its budget. As a result, the district has 400 fewer teachers today than it did in 2008 — even though enrollment has essentially been static.
“We’ve got a lot of people working in the district who have managed to make it work,” he said. “But it is a struggle.”
Johnson said improving the district’s financial position by lobbying for changes to the state school funding formula was among the top priorities for his administration in the coming year.
The district has seen enrollment dwindle over the course of 40 years to today’s 28,000 students as residential development in the county has shift further south and west. In the 1970s, Shawnee Mission had more than 45,000 students. As a result of the decreasing enrollment, the district has had to manage continuous school closures for decades in an effort to stay efficient, Johnson said.
In 1970, for instance, the district had 53 elementary schools. There are 33 open today.
“Just like any other business, and we are a business, we have to operate as efficiently as we can,” he said.
In his remarks, Johnson also noted relatively dramatic changes in the demographic makeup of the student population over the years. Near its peak in the 1970s, Johnson said, enrollment was probably “around 99 percent white.” Today, white students make up just over 67 percent of total enrollment. Hispanic students (15.9 percent) and black students (8.4 percent) make up increasingly large portions of Shawnee Mission classes today.
And over the past 10 years, Johnson said, the number of students whose families are struggling financially has grown. The number of students living below the poverty line increased 174 percent from 2000 to 2010. Today, one in four Shawnee Mission students get free or reduced meal subsidies — a three-fold increase since 2001.