Taylor school leaders defend plan to shut Kennedy High
Taylor school officials are defending the planned closure of Kennedy High School after the board of education reversed an earlier decision to keep the building open.
The board’s vote last week means freshmen at Kennedy will move this fall to Truman High School, followed by upperclassmen in fall 2018.
“Obviously, it’s not an easy thing to do; no one wants to close a high school,” Superintendent Ben Williams said. “But not only is there an economic reason to do it, even more importantly, there’s an instructional reason.”
Combining staff and resources will allow the district to offer students more honors, advanced placement and elective classes, he said. The move also will free up about $2 million annually from Kennedy’s operating costs, which will be made available to the entire district, Williams said.
The decision to close Kennedy followed years of declining enrollment, according to the superintendent.
“The district historically had three high schools but that was with 20,000-plus students, more than 20 years ago,” he said. “Currently, with around 6,700 students, we can’t maintain that many buildings.”
Conditions at Kennedy made it the clear target for closure. The structure was built in 1965 and has no air conditioning, a weak heating system, an outdated roof and a shuttered pool.
It also has two levels but no elevator, meaning students who need accommodations must attend Truman, Williams said. Since it was built more than 50 years ago, it has been grandfathered out of requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Many repairs, including a broken pool pump, would be “cost prohibitive to fix,” Williams said. “And it has a weak boiler/heater system, so it’s problematic to heat the building in the winter.
“Once you start adding these things up, there are so many strikes against the building.”
Structural issues aside, Kennedy is too small to host all 1,780 of the district’s high school students. About 900 students attend the school, which can accommodate around 1,600. Meanwhile, another 880 attend Truman, which has a 2,100-student capacity, Williams said.
Board member David Meyers voted in late March to keep both schools open; that plan passed 4-3 at the time. He requested a second vote on the topic during the meeting last week and switched his vote.
“One of my original reasons for keeping it open was I was worried about the backlash from people that elected me — the backlash I’m now facing,” said Meyers, who added that he’s had friends stop talking to him and has heard members of the public call for his resignation. “And one of the other things I’m still nervous about is I want a smooth transition.”
Meyers said Kennedy’s poor condition ranked high among reasons for changing his vote.
“Kennedy is falling apart. There’s a whole section of Kennedy that has to be locked off because it’s not safe,” Meyers said. “In my heart of hearts, I believe we made the right decision. We open up so much more intellectual advancement by combining these schools for the kids.”
Several community members spoke at the March meeting in favor of merging the schools, Williams said.
“All the people that were there spoke in favor of (Kennedy’s) closing,” he said. “There were a couple parents, a principal, a senior at Kennedy, a coach.”
But the board voted to preserve both schools — for a brief time.
Meyers said he left the meeting already pondering a change of heart.
“As soon as I (voted to keep Kennedy open), I had regretted my decision,” he said. “Because at the end of the day, it all comes down to the students. It comes down to what we can offer them.”
Williams said the option to close Kennedy was not listed on last week’s meeting agenda, but the board member offered the discussion during a portion of the session set aside for members to introduce topics of their choice.
The staggered closing gives athletes a chance to transfer eligibility to play and allows the community time to discuss rebranding options for Truman, including a possible new name, mascot, colors and fight song, Williams said. Officials will hear community input before deciding whether to rename the school.