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Voters Said “Yes” to Zoo, “No” to Schools, But Why?

Art Credit: KC Education Enterprise Logo Credit: Liberty School District

By now you’ve heard the news. Last week voters in Jackson and Clay counties went to the polls to say “Yes” to a sales tax for the Kansas City Zoo and “No” to a tax levy for the Liberty Public School District.

While zoo supporters celebrated their victory, Liberty Superintendent Mike Brewer told supporters he thought the district had asked too much of taxpayers in a difficult economy.

“There is little doubt that the slow economy was the main factor in the levy’s defeat,” Brewer told district staff in an e-mail the day after the election.

If it is true that citizens are unwilling to approve new taxes during this recession, then why did they say “Yes” to the zoo?

Several things could be going on here.

First, the proposed Liberty School District tax levy meant higher taxes only for property owners. These may have been the citizens who were more likely to vote. Perhaps the extra $163 a year the district was asking of the average homeowner seemed like too much for them to pay.

In contrast, the zoo sales tax will be paid by everyone spending money in Jackson and Clay counties. Perhaps it seemed like a good deal to pay only one cent extra for every $8 in purchases in order to see penguins and to lower zoo admission fees.

Citizens in Clay County — where the Liberty School District is located — did seem to be less inclined to spend money than voters in Jackson County. Only slightly more than 50 percent of Clay Countians voted for the zoo sales tax, which was approved by 70 percent of Jackson Countians.

The fact that Jackson Countians were voting for an amenity in their own governmental jurisdiction might have played a role in the popularity of the zoo vote there, as well.

Another factor In the Liberty School District vote was funding for the stadium, which may have been a distraction. At first glance, spending $4.2 million in public funds on sounded like a boondoggle. Supporters had some convincing arguments. In the end, though, the stadium probably led to some negative votes for some who might otherwise have voted for a new elementary school and expanded classroom space at the high schools to ease overcrowding.

There was also a difference in tone between the two campaigns, and this was important. Yes, there were other counties that blocked a vote on zoo funding. Of the two where the vote took place, however, there was more dissension about spending in Clay County, and the dissension was almost entirely related to school district issues.

First someone leaked a letter from Mayor Greg Canuteson to Superintendent Brewer filled with criticism of the district’s fiscal responsibility. Then there was the high school coach who told his freshman football players to hand out campaign literature in favor of the tax levy, an ethical violation on the part of the coach, who shouldn’t have involved the students in a partisan political campaign. In addition, there was the rift between voters on the east side and the west side of the district.

While all this was going on, I was reading Harvard Professor Ross Greene’s book Lost at School; Why Our Kids With Behavioral Challenges are Falling Through the Cracks and How We Can Help Them. Toward the end of this book, the author describes how adults and schools can have lagging skills just like some students with behavior disorders, and I found myself thinking of the Liberty School District.

Although Greene is a psychiatrist, he doesn’t get bogged down in diagnosing disorders. He advises simply looking at which behaviors are functional and which are not. His prescription is an approach he describes as Collaborative Problem Solving. Greene’s assumptions are that everyone does well if they can, and that if they are not doing well, then there are lagging skills that need to be learned.

I’m wondering if the problem with the Liberty School District vote was perhaps a problem with lagging skills. In order to address such a problem, Dr. Greene first recommends empathy. Real empathy, not just a perfunctory “I feel your pain.”

In the case the school district vote, perhaps it would have been best if Mayor Canuteson had not been publicly critical of district administration. And perhaps it would have been best if district administrators had not been so stoically silent in response.

After expressing empathy, Greene next recommends defining the problem. He recommends that everyone involved take a turn in describing the issue needing to be resolved. In the case of the city, the primary problem seemed to be financial irresponsibility. In the case of the district, the primary problem seemed to be overcrowding in the schools. Both sides voiced their opinions, but — because the empathy step was missing — there wasn’t any real communication that might have led to a real conversation and to mutual understanding.

After defining the problem, Greene recommends an invitation for everyone involved to offer ideas about how to resolve the problem. Regarding school overcrowding, Mayor Canuteson’s idea was that it was possible to answer all of the school district’s needs with better management of existing funds. Superintendent Brewer thought more money was needed to build an elementary school and to add on to the high schools. Again, because the empathy step was missing, there was never a real invitation to collaborate in solving a mutual problem.

And it is a mutual problem. The mayor needs the district functioning at a high level in order to maintain property values in the city. Likewise, the superintendent needs the support of a city that is attracting more residents and expecting the schools to be able to meet the expanding demand for high-quality education.

Without empathy, the two sides were unable to collaborate in solving the very real growing problems of the Liberty School District. But all is not lost. According to Dr. Greene, it is not uncommon for educators and other adults to have trouble with the first attempt at Collaborative Problem Solving.

Everyone just needs to go back to the empathy step and try again.

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About jwmartinez

JoLynne is a journalist and educator. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and a Master of Arts in Teaching from Park University and is certified to teach high school journalism and English. Former employment includes work for Cable News Network and the University of Missouri-Kansas City in addition to freelancing for clients such as the Kansas City Star and The Pitch.


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