Q&A with Superintendent Jim Hinson, Independence School District

Editor’s Note: As part of a year-long project, ASBJ and the National School Boards Association’s National Affiliate program are examining the effects of school consolidation. The following Q&A, which appeared in the November 2008 issue of ASBJ, has a slightly different twist: What happens when voters opt to secede from one district and join another?

Parents in western Independence and Sugar Creek, Mo., have been upset for decades that seven schools in their communities were in the Kansas City district. In a rare dual November 2007 referendum, 84 percent of Independence voters approved the move, along with 66 percent of the Kansas City voters who also had to cast ballots.

The support from both communities was required for the referendum to pass; a previous vote, in 1974, had failed.

Once voters agreed to turn over the schools, however, the Kansas City district fought the switch in court. It wasn’t until July that a judge ruled in favor of Independence, giving the district possession of the schools and another school building that had closed. That gave Independence only five weeks to clean, landscape, and renovate before classes began in mid-August.

Thanks largely to a district-led initiative called “Extreme School Makeover,” which brought in more than 2,500 volunteers in one weekend, six of the schools were renovated and open on time.  (The other two will not be reopened.)

Jim Hinson, Independence’s superintendent since 2002, says his district was “in uncharted territory” with the takeover of a neighboring district’s schools.

“This is my third school district as superintendent, and I never had an experience like this,” Hinson said in an interview with Editor-in-Chief Glenn Cook. “I couldn’t find anyone who had an experience like it either.”

Why did parents want to leave the Kansas City district and come into Independence?
There were two communities in this, part of the city of Independence and part of the city of Sugar Creek. Decades ago they were one-room schoolhouses that were merged into the Kansas City district as the area grew.  And as long as anyone can remember, having those schools in Kansas City was a big issue for the people in that area. … There was dissatisfaction with the lack of academic achievement among students, and over time, people became very disenfranchised with what was happening in the Kansas City schools.

Why do you think Kansas City fought the transfer in court?
One, it’s a pride issue. A part of the district wanted to leave and they didn’t want it to happen. The second issue, I think, is there was a concern that if we were successful that this could happen to other portions of their school district.

The “Extreme School Makeover” was a brilliant idea that, given the timing, could seem borne of desperation. Who came up with the idea and why do you think it worked so well?
I have a group I meet with, the Citizens Advisory Committee, that consists of about 80 civic, community, and business leaders. Last spring, I was talking about what we are facing, the type of time frame we were going to have, and how some basic things needed to happen. One of our community members just said, “Why don’t you let us help?” They were the ones who took it over. They started working with us and came up with the “Extreme School Makeover” idea.

There was a level of passion from the people of Independence who wanted this to happen that was extremely high. They knew that people needed to have a voice in their child’s education, and the level of disdain they felt for the other school district appears to be pretty high. The message we tried to give people was, “This is what we do for kids. We are in it for the kids.”

Were you surprised by the response?
It was really phenomenal. I always thought we would have a good response. I was hoping to see 1,000 people show up to work on the six schools, but we had over 2,500 who signed in to help. That far exceeded anything I could have imagined.

What has been the biggest challenge, other than the time factor, that have you had in integrating the new schools into the district?
After we got through the litigation process, other than that, everything else has been minimal. The exception was the number of certified and support staff who were interested in employment far exceeded our expectations. We put a team of folks together in human resources who were retired from other districts throughout the area. We knew they would be needed, but we didn’t know how much.

When it all came to pass, more than 3,000 people applied for slightly under 300 positions, which made the whole screening and interview process very intense. It allowed us to be very selective in the staff we chose, however.

What was so great about this is that these teachers – and this community – want to be part of this challenge where you have kids who have been underserved. They want to go in and make a difference in these children’s lives. That says a tremendous amount about our staff; they have a true heart for kids.

What other challenges has the district faced?
We had a number of our teachers in the Independence school district who, prior to annexation, requested volunteer transfers to the new buildings. These employees were already familiar with our curriculum and our best practices, and we installed teaching and learning coaches in each of the schools who have been with us previously as well. The new buildings adopted everything of the Independence School District, and really that whole transition has gone very, very well.

The biggest challenge, and it’s an ongoing one, is enrollment. We had 350 students who were not enrolled show up during the first two days of school, and we are continuing to see new children enrolling on a weekly basis. What we found that a lot of parents had been sending their children to private and parochial schools because they did not want to go to Kansas City. And even though we mailed and sent out fliers, they were not engaged in the enrollment process.

Now, people are buying and moving into rental property where they had not done so previously because of the schools their children would be attending. For example, we have an elementary school that had two kindergarten classes with over 30 students, so we had to put another kindergarten class inplace four weeks into the school year, and I think we’re going to see that continue for a number of months.

That’s an exciting challenge, but it’s a really good sign of the trust people have in our school district.