Park Hill hosts second forum on Last KC Forest

The crowd of more than 100 people with questions about the Line Creek forest and the school construction projects in it came away from a public meeting last week mostly disappointed.

The Park Hill School District hosted an informational meeting Tuesday, Aug. 7 at Plaza Middle School, stating it was to address public concerns about the preservation of woodland in the path of development. Much of the one and one-half hour long meeting was taken up by a lengthy presentation on the process and plans for construction of Hopewell Elementary School and the future LEAD Innovation Center on the eastern edge of the district, with only about 10-15 minutes allotted for answering questions from the audience.

Hopewell is currently under construction, slated to open in fall 2019, but the LEAD center, an alternative high school program, could later be expanded into a full high school should enrollment continue to rise. District officials said they may not know for up to 10 years if that expansion is needed.

Members of the community have expressed concerns about the placement of LEAD further back into the forest and the subsequent destruction of the tree canopy. Also, since LEAD could be expanded into a third district high school, additional deforestation could be on the horizon. The approximately 100 acres currently not slated for development could be set aside for conservation, community members say.

The district accepted written questions and addressed only a few at the meeting, stating answers to the most common queries would be posted on the district web site. As of press time about a week later, these answers have not yet been posted.

“While Park Hill excels at educating our kids, they are falling miserably short when it comes to addressing community concern about their proposed construction projects in the old and healthy Line Creek forest,” said Julie Stutterheim, organizer of the Last KC Forest website and petition drive, which has now collected more than 12,000 signatures. “Last night’s meeting was no exception — not a good use of our taxpayer dollars. They should either offer a proper public forum or engage an independent facilitator for these meetings, so that we can have a productive dialogue — one that actually results in the community being heard.”

At the meeting, district superintendent Dr. Jeanette Cowherd, along with assistant superintendent Dr. Paul Kelly, presented a slide show walking attendees through the district’s long-range facilities planning process, which was approved in 2015. Several members of the board of education were present, but did not speak during the presentation.

Due to increasing population, specifically in the more developed areas of the district, new facilities are needed now and in the future, Cowherd said.

“We just have a lot of kids and it’s a wonderful problem to have, because otherwise you have declining enrollment,” Cowherd said, noting many rural districts are facing this situation, with diminished population bases and resources.

District administrators spent much of the time describing the process taken to arrive at the board’s conclusions to purchase land and build new facilities. While land has also been purchased near Houston Lake for a middle school — already under construction — and KCI for a support services facility, it’s the 272 acres at the intersection of Northwest 68th Street and Waukomis Drive — located near the Line Creek Trail — that have attracted the most attention.

The three parcels Park Hill purchased spent more than 50 years in the hands of the Erickson family, who district officials say had made various development plans of their own over the years, but had not yet made a move. During much of the land purchase negotiations, the family wasn’t even aware it was selling its land to the school district.

State statute permits certain legal transactions — such as land purchases — to remain confidential until the final vote of the board of education is recorded.

One of the many criticisms of the conservationists working to preserve part of the forest was that the district and board of education have been less than transparent during the process, which Cowherd refuted several times at the meeting, citing the Sunshine Law exemption.

“The board is not trying to hide anything from you,” Cowherd said of the land purchase process. “They are trying to get the best deal with your tax dollars.”

Officials also took time to clarify the separation of the district’s development plans and the City of Kansas City’s master plan. Kansas City’s Major Street Plan, which was updated last year, indicates that at some point the city intends to connect Waukomis Drive to Barry Road, creating a two-lane parkway-style street with a center turning lane.

“I don’t care who owns this land, the city still has the parkway on its master plan and our board has no power to change that,” Cowherd said. “A lot of people say they will never build it, but a lot of people said we’d never have more than 10,000 students in Park Hill. I can’t tell the future, I don’t have a crystal ball.”

Attendees were critical of the meeting format, stating the presentation took too long and attendees had difficulty seeing and hearing the sideshow presentation – which was posted online as well. The Save the Last KC Forest Facebook page was filled with lively discussion of the meeting.

“I was very disappointed and frustrated with the format of the meeting,” Amy Schaefer said on Facebook. “No new info was presented and the ‘little white card’ system for questions was an empty gesture. There was no discussion, no acknowledgment of potential compromises. We were lectured to. Very unfortunate that they are not even showing interest in open dialogue.”

This frustration was echoed by several people on the page and at the meeting, with Stutterheim asking Cowherd how these community concerns were being recorded for the future. While the board of education has publicly stated it doesn’t wish to commit to a forest conservation plan that could tie the hands of future boards, Stutterheim questioned how future boards would even know that conservation was a concern.

She said when petition signatures were delivered to the district several months ago, the administration refused to sign a document acknowledging it had received the information. Over the past months, she said concerns have only increased and the two public meetings held on the subject have attracted hundreds of community members.

Cowherd said the public comments have been recorded, and comments made at board of education meetings are part of the official public record of those meetings.

Stutterheim said this is not enough and community concern has not been properly documented. None of the meetings are recorded in audio or visual format and sign-in sheets were not provided at the public forum for the district to know who was in attendance.

“How are future leaders supposed to make the right decisions for our community without this valuable insight?” Stutterheim told The Citizen. “The current board and administration are the ones who made the decisions about purchasing the forest and the designs for the buildings, as well as the expansion plan for the future. It should be their responsibility as well to adequately respond to the community concern.”