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Shawnee Mission's new superintendent brings his Independence lesson plans to a new state



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State funding is a big deal for school districts like Shawnee Mission, which has no other way to increase its own funding.

School districts have local option budgets, a way to increase local mill levies to raise more cash. But Shawnee Mission has hit the state-imposed limit on how much it can increase local taxes, and the Legislature has been inflexible in lifting that cap.

Johnson County legislators are split on whether schools need more money. Lawmakers such as Rooker think the state can and should increase education funding.

Other, more conservative and small-government-minded members say school districts have more than enough and should instead operate more efficiently.

Hinson hears those people. "I trust we're going to find efficiencies," he says. "For me, coming outside of the district, I can look at our budget from a different lens. Am I going to find enough [efficiencies] to appropriately fund education at the Shawnee Mission School District? Based on current state funding, the answer is no. To me, the answer is between the two."

Hinson's résumé suggests one path toward that answer. He was superintendent of the Independence district in 2007, when voters there and in Kansas City approved the annexation of seven low-performing Kansas City, Missouri, School District schools into the Independence district.

One of them was Van Horn High School, one of the worst in Missouri at the time of the annexation.

Since joining the Independence School District, the once seemingly hopeless school — it graduated only about a third of its students back then — now sends 90 percent of its senior classes along with a diploma.

Hinson's work in that transition has earned him plaudits in northeast Johnson County, and may provide some clues on how Hinson might work with schools in distress.

Once an established haven for blue-collar jobs, western Independence and Sugar Creek became a no man's land in the 1980s, abandoned by employers and homeowners.

The Ford Motor Co. Assembly Plant left western Independence for Claycomo. Standard Oil closed a refinery there. Retail and catalog operations for Sears and Montgomery Ward followed suit.

Left jobless, families departed for Blue Springs and Lee's Summit. Empty houses were scooped up by slumlords. Drug use and crime surged.

Residents who remained found their community's problems compounded by the Kansas City, Missouri, School District. The district was a defendant in the nation's longest-running desegregation lawsuit, a case that sought to reverse the racial divisions in the district but in many ways made the problem worse.

A ruling by federal Judge Russell Clark ordered the state to throw money at the school buildings themselves. Rebuilding schools with appealing amenities, the thinking went, would make the district attractive to the white population that had headed to the suburbs.

Clark's ruling funneled more than $2 billion into the KC district, which converted the properties into magnet-style schools. Paseo High School became a performing-arts school. Central High School catered to athletics and computer-based education.

Van Horn High School, in western Independence, was modeled as an engineering school, while nearby elementary schools such as Fairmount Elementary and Mt. Washington Elementary became foreign-language-immersion schools.

The busing program, designed to transport students from one side of the Kansas City district to another to reach the various specialized schools, steered kids in western Independence away from nearby Van Horn in favor of downtown KC. Longtime residents of western Independence say this siphoned off the community's connection to its local schools. Van Horn didn't host a homecoming for four decades.

Bob Spradling, the pastor at Maywood Baptist Church, near Van Horn High School, watched families leave his congregation if they could find a way out and move elsewhere in the metro.

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