Improving Schools/Opposition to the 2019 “Pre-K for All” ballot initiative in Kansas City, Missouri

A press conference was held 2019-02-25 by opponents of the 3/8 cent sales tax initiative on the April 2 ballot in Kansas City, Missouri, to fund a universal preschool program called “Pre-K for All”. A video and a transcript of this press conference accompany this article. The following made statements:

Press conference 2019-02-25 by opponents of the universal preschool initiative on the 2019-04-02 ballot in Kansas City, Missouri
  • Rev. Dr. Rodney Williams, President of Kansas City, Missouri, NAACP
  • Dr. Dan Clemens, Superintendent, North Kansas City, Missouri, Schools

The press conference was held in Gracemor Elementary School, North Kansas City School District.

For further discussion of this and alternative views, see Improving schools/Pre-K for All in Kansas City, Missouri.


This transcript should not be considered authoritative; please consult the video in case of questions about what was actually said and correct any errors.
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Susan Hiland: [00:00:00] OK. I think we're going to start. Everyone's in place. Kicking things off is Dr. Mark Bedell, with Kansas City, Missouri Public Schools.

Mark Bedell: [00:00:09] Thank you. Let me start off by saying "Good Morning" to everyone that are here today, and we want to thank all of you for coming here today to discuss the future of education in Kansas City. I want to start off by thanking a few people before I get into my brief message. The superintendents that are here behind us on the podium. School board members that are represented from across the many traditional public school systems here within the Kansas City region. City council members, legislators and of course the many, many community advocacy groups and support organizations of which you will hear from in a few minutes that are representing us here in the Kansas City region. I'm not going to speak long because we have several school systems and organizations here today. And my position on the mayor's sales tax increase is well known. It's been very clear and concrete around the concerns that we've exhibited in display dating back to August 15, 2018.

Mark Bedell: [00:01:19] Kansas City public schools fully supports expanding pre-K to as many of our 3 and 4 year olds as possible. In fact it was KCPS with inside of our boundaries that started this conversation back in 2013 in a collaboration with The Early Learning Commission, the Chamber, and many other members within the community.

Mark Bedell: [00:01:43] But let me be clear: I am not in support of the mayor's sales tax increase, even though our school system would receive the majority of revenue created by the mayor's sales tax increase. I would caution everyone to be careful on how they present the mayor's sales tax increase. Some people suggest that this is about “Pre-K for all”, and we all know that that simply is not the case. The mayor's sales tax increase would only add a limited number of Pre-K seats for 4 year olds, and the money will not cover every student in Kansas City. Keep in mind that every single school district operates differently. Some offer full day programs. Some offer half day programs. Some only offer it to 4 year olds. Some actually offer a universal preschool within their respective school districts. KCPS serves 3 to 4 year olds. Again for that reason and many others I still do not support the mayor's sales tax increase. I strongly believe that the long term implications of the mayor's sales tax increase will be devastating to this entire community over the next several years. We will reiterate again our three main points on this issue and it remains the same for our school district in addition to the cooperating school district superintendents:

  1. The proposed governance structure fails to provide an adequate amount of authority to public school systems who are nominally responsible for the education of the students we serve.
  2. The proposed plan would violate Missouri's constitution by funneling public money to private and parochial providers.
  3. The revenue is generated with a regressive sales tax that will disproportionately impact the families that can least afford it.

And I think there was an editorial that came out about a month ago, where you heard the state of Kansas governor say they need to roll back on the regressive nature of sales tax, because it hurts those that can least afford to continuously pay on those taxes.

Mark Bedell: [00:03:45] We also know that it sets a precedent. We in the state of Missouri have an elected board that you all choose to elect to serve the constituents and to serve the children in their respective school districts. Inserting now the mayor's office and City Council into the affairs of a school district in my opinion sets a precedent that concerns me.

Mark Bedell: [00:04:09] During several conversations about the KCPS position on this issue, we have been asked to clarify our own plans for expanding access to Pre-K. Today is not the day to go into details on that specific plan, but what I will share with you is that we did propose a blueprint. In fact a lot of what's in that plan currently was what was presented to our board back in 2016. From the conversations that started in 2013 so many of the tenets within the current plan that the mayor is proposing were the tenets that were applicable to the Kansas City boundary. Given that we have charters and we have other private providers that we interface with, that plan actually was a plan very similar to what was proposed to our board back in 2016.

Mark Bedell: [00:04:58] However, the funding mechanism has changed, and it's turned into a sales tax increase utilizing economic development funds to fund early childhood. I have a problem with that. As you all know, our school district sees 33 to 35 million in tax incentives and breaks that we don't even get to touch.[1] And if we were to retrieve some of that money back, think about the wonders of what we could do for early childhood and our ability to expand early childhood.

Mark Bedell: [00:05:32] What I will say is that we are working on ways to continue to fund expansion of Pre-K for 3 and 4 year olds in KCPS using existing operational funds and the many grants that we continuously go after with our full time grant writer in addition to our foundation. We will do this as part of our overall process of enhancing the educational experience of our K-12 students in alignment with the district's five year strategic plan. Every single district has a strategic plan. And we have have our goals set out. And in agreement with our board and our local communities on what the priorities are. And at the end of the day we will continue to adhere to that plan, because it's part of the reason why you're seeing a lot of the school districts having the kind of success that we've been having here within this region.

Mark Bedell: [00:06:18] I'm going to leave you with this. I and my fellow superintendents are not politicians. Nor do we try. We are educators. Our job is to provide an equitable education for every single student that resides within our respective boundaries. The question that you really have to ask yourself in April is "Who do you trust to educate your students, the students of our respective districts? And do you want city government to add another sales tax so that they can control the outcomes of what happens with those resources?" I think as a community we should all take pause when the school board members that you've elected in each of the 14 school systems that serve Kansas City says this is not the way to educate our students. What I can also share you with all 14 superintendents within the boundaries that touch Kansas City boundaries agree as well.

Mark Bedell: [00:07:13] And one final thing, because I want to be very clear as I walk away from this podium: People are going to try to make this a fight between Mark Bedell and Sly James. This is not a Mark Bedell and this is not a Sly James issue. And I notice that that's how it constantly plays out on TV and in the newspaper. But in reality this is your fight on how you want your tax dollars utilize. Thank you.

Susan Stocking: [00:07:47] Good morning. My name is Susan Stocking, and I serve as the executive board chair for the Kansas City Public Schools District Advisory Committee. The KCPS District Advisory Committee executive board opposes Pre-K Sales Tax Question 1.

Susan Stocking: [00:08:03] The District Advisory Committee executive board is a team of parents and community members leading engagement efforts with KCPS parents, teachers, administrators, and community members. We believe that it is vital that parents and educators have a voice at the table when education decisions are being made in our community. Funds collected from this tax will be managed by a board with only one seat reserved for a member of the education community. That one seat would represent all 14 school districts, all charters, and all private and parochial preschools that could potentially benefit from the tax. All communities have different needs, and this blanket tax will not be able to appropriately address the varying needs of our many different communities.

Susan Stocking: [00:08:48] Further there are no guarantees that this tax will fund the expansion of early childhood classrooms in the areas of Kansas City that need it the most. We support early childhood education, but Pre-K programs must be held to high standards. This tax would fund private and parochial preschools with little accountability to state standards. In addition only a small percentage of the funds will go towards the Pre-K programs, while the majority of funds are earmarked for facilities, structures and renovations. Missouri public school districts are established qualified stewards of education in our communities, and should be responsible for the governance and programming of Pre-K classrooms funded by public tax dollars. Thank you very much.

Gwen Grant: [00:09:43] Good morning. My name is Gwen Grant, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City. Like Dr. Bedell and the 15 superintendents in the cooperating school districts, the NAACP, More Squared (MORE2), KCPS school board, North Kansas City School Board, Smithville School District, Grandview School District, The Committee to Abolish Poverty, Inc., the KCPS District Advisory Committee Executive Board, the Kansas City Federation of Teachers, the League of Women Voters, Freedom, Incorporated, Clay County EDC, and most of the people running for mayor and the City Council of Kansas City, Missouri, the Urban League of Greater Kansas City supports Pre-K for all children.

Gwen Grant: [00:10:27] But not this way. The funding mechanism is fundamentally flawed and sets the stage for long term negative impact on the very people it is intended to help. The sales tax is regressive. If passed it will have disproportionate negative impact on families living below the poverty line by taking a larger percentage of income from low income earners than from high income earners.

Gwen Grant: [00:10:50] With regard to statements that we do not have an alternative plan, the fact is that the current Pre-K expansion plan, as Dr. Bedell pointed out, is a plan that was developed by KCPS with the intent of pursuing a levy as a funding mechanism. School district, civic and community groups were unified in our desire to pursue a levy to fund Pre-K expansion for all children.

Gwen Grant: [00:11:14] However based on a poll that was taken nearly two years ago, the mayor decided to try to pass this tax on his popularity rather than continue working with all stakeholders, including his colleagues on the city council, to figure out how to pass a levy, the appropriate funding mechanism for education.

Gwen Grant: [00:11:35] The appropriate funding mechanism for Pre-K is a levy or state funded. While we understand that may be difficult to achieve, we have not tried. It is imperative that we have the opportunity to pursue a levy on behalf of KCPS, which especially has not passed a levy in more than 50 years, especially in the wake of KCPS's forward progress.

Gwen Grant: [00:11:58] Before imposing a negative, regressive economic development tax on the citizens of Kansas City, we, as a community collaborative, want to work together to support KCPS and the other school districts in the cooperating schools to find the best funding mechanism for Pre-K expansion.

Rodney Williams: [00:12:28] Good morning. I'm Reverend Dr. Williams, President of the Kansas City, Missouri, branch of the NAACP. And our executive committee has voted to stand against the mayor's 3/8 cent sales tax. We are for Pre-K, but we are not for this particular funding mechanism. There are several reasons as to why, but I would just list three.

  1. One, this tax places the burden on families of the KCPS that it serves. The sales taxes are regressive, and it places a harder burden on low income people.
  2. Secondly, this serves as a voucher system. We do not believe that public funds should go to parochial and private schools, especially in school systems that are underfunded. It is another way of extracting wealth from those who need it the most.
  3. Thirdly, we believe that the superintendents of our area are capable and qualified to lead our children in the direction concerning education. So we support our superintendents. We stand with them. We stand behind them, because we believe that superintendents can do a better job at education than city council members.

T.J. Berry: [00:13:54] Good morning. My name is T.J. Berry. I'm with the Clay County Economic Development Commission. Let's be clear. The 3/8 cents sales tax is not about economic development.

T.J. Berry: [00:14:07] What is it? It is a political experiment that ranks up there with the Missouri lottery in terms of creating a false sense of financial security and educational outcomes. It is a tax promising universal educational benefits with only 30 cents on the dollar actually being spent on educating children. It spends those tax dollars duplicating things that school districts already do. New buildings, more administrative staff duplication. It is an experiment where 13 years will pass and 390 million dollars will be spent before the community can measure that outcome. So we need to get it right by working with our educators to ensure we have the greatest impact on the most children.

T.J. Berry: [00:15:02] Thirteen years from now the politicians working on this today will be long gone. If this proposal passes the community will be left with a cumbersome unelected bureaucracy that will drain resources from the professionals who know the most about educating children.

T.J. Berry: [00:15:23] Please take the time to become educated on the 3/8 cent sales tax. Thank you.

Dan Clemens: [00:15:36] Well, good morning. I'm Danny Clemens, superintendent of schools, North Kansas City School District. I'd like to thank our Board of Education, Principal Verduzco, I see him out in the hallway there, Assistant Principal Helwig for allowing us to use their building today. On behalf of our 20,000 students and over 3,100 employees we welcome you to North Kansas City Schools.

Dan Clemens: [00:15:59] The goal of today is to present some facts about the plan that we find troubling. Gracemor is a lot like most schools in Kansas City. Gracemor serves 739 students. Seventy of those are in Pre-K programs. It's interesting that we serve kids from five different municipalities right here at Gracemor Elementary School. But let's think about this for a second. The mayor's plan will only allow students with Kansas City residency to be able to get Pre-K services. So there are four other municipalities that will not have the opportunity to access these dollars.

Dan Clemens: [00:16:37] North Kansas City as a whole has 14 different municipalities. Again causing huge concern for our board of education and our community that only one of our 14 municipalities would be eligible for Resources within the mayor's plan. The mayor has made comment. Well, just readjust and spend some of your existing money in other places. You can't do that in public education. Many of these funds are provided to us from Title 1, which are in place to serve our most needy students or are provided for special education programs.

Dan Clemens: [00:17:10] We've shared this concern with the mayor, and he doesn't have an answer.

Dan Clemens: [00:17:15] Years one through three of the 28 million dollars that will be generated through the 3/8 cent sales tax, only twenty five percent of the resources go to tuition discounts. So the 28 million dollars, that means about 7 million of it will go to tuition discounts. So let's do a quick math problem since we're here in an elementary school. All right. The mayor's plan says it's about twelve thousand dollars to educate an early childhood student. Let's not get too difficult with our math, and let's move down to ten thousand dollars, because not everybody will be eligible for the full discount. If you have 7 million dollars, and it costs ten thousand dollars to educate a student, this plan is not universal Pre-K. This is not Pre-K for all. This is Pre-K for about 700 students. The mayor's plan indicates there are six thousand seven hundred fifty students in KCMO. And so this being sold as universal preschool or preschool for all just isn't correct.

Dan Clemens: [00:18:17] We are continually faced with the mayor in our community telling people that we have no plan. So if I could just take a couple of minutes and explain what North Kansas City is doing with Pre-K, I believe it's extremely valuable. North Kansas City serves students in Pre-K in several different programs. Community Education has Pre-K. Title one has Pre-K. Pleasant valley early childhood center has Pre-K. Oak Park High School has a lab.

Dan Clemens: [00:18:42] And we service 903 preschool students, and I think that deserves a round of applause. Again we said the mayor's plan will probably serve around 700 students, and we currently serve 903.

Dan Clemens: [00:18:59] Without good planning from our Board of Education, this wouldn't be happening. In 2014 we served 614 Pre-K students. We have a good plan. We've grown our Pre-K by a third. And I think that that's something that should be celebrated.

Dan Clemens: [00:19:16] The second thing that we have to continue to look at with the Board of Education is we're a fast growing district in North Kansas City. Three hundred and eighty-two new students arrived to our district this year. Our Board of Education has the challenge of making sure that we have the capacity for K-12 students along with growing our Pre-K program.

Dan Clemens: [00:19:37] The last piece that I'll share with you today is that we certainly have some unresolved issues around constitutionality. So I'm going to reach just a touch here to make sure you understand why we are troubled by the constitutionality of this plan. The mayor's current tax proposal would provide funding for private and parochial schools in direct conflict with Article 9 of the Missouri Constitution, which specifically restricts public funding for any institution of learning controlled by a religious creed, church or sectarian denomination.

Dan Clemens: [00:20:11] Obviously, I think we all see an issue with that. And when we responded to the mayor, he said that would have to be settled in court. So I have a question for you guys. Do you want your money spent through the state level to support our students in all 14 municipalities? Or do we want to spend some of our tax dollars settling this issue in court? You look behind us. And one of the things that we're continually beat up about, and I'm sure you've heard as well, is that this is an adult issue. This is a superintendent issue. That we're the ones wanting to make a money grab. Certainly if you look at the display over here and you look at the people behind me this is a much bigger issue than just superintendents and the 14 school district that provide support for North Kansas City schools. So I'd just like to say thank you and appreciate you very much.


  1. This refers to money the school district "would receive were it not for TIFs and other abatements authorized by the various city and county boards with such authority," according to a private email from Linda Quinley, Chief Finance and Operations Office, Kansas City Public Schools, stamped 2019-03-11 8:45 AM Central time. Quinley said that Dr. Bedell had asked her to respond to an email on this. She continued, "Annually, we would receive over $30 million in additional resources if the various commercial property owners with tax abatements and incentives paid their appropriate tax based on their assessed valuation." Presumably the public officials who voted for those "TIFs and other abatements" would disagree, arguing that the local economy would not be as robust, which would reduce property values, and those reductions would presumably also lower property taxes by more than the 30 "to 35 million in tax incentives and breaks" mentioned by Dr. Bedell. We need more research to clarify who benefits by how much from those "TIFs and other abatements".