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Web site critiques performance vs. expenses

by PJ Rooks
Landmark reporter

Kirby Holden, a Platte County school district father of two, is taking aim at district expenditures, financial management and test scores.

On his website, plattecountyr3facts.com, Holden presents his own research with links to sources, and states his opinion that the district's efforts to present a positive public image may be interfering with the clarity of parents' understandings of district performance.

In a letter to the school board dated May 16, Holden wrote: “Many people make financial decisions based off of the information listed by district websites and mailers. Right now someone could be trying to decide if they should move into the Park Hill District or Platte R-3 due to the education they want their kids to have… From the information put out by the Platte R3 district, you would think that we are financially in better shape than almost all districts, have academic test scores in line with all of the best schools and have received many coveted awards for this.”

Holden says that is not an accurate portrayal.

The goal of the website, Holden said, has been to try to get people to pay attention.

“I was hoping parents would get involved but it's been a tough row to hoe so far,” he said.

The website addresses several concerns, including the district's public presentation of its awards, accolades and student satisfaction survey results, as well as its tax levy and debt load, among others. Holden said his main objective, though, has been to address teacher salaries and other district expenditures in relation to standardized measures of student performance such as the ACT and MAP tests and that he has been “very surprised at how poorly we do compared to the Kansas schools.”

On his plattecountyr3facts/testfacts.com webpage, Holden references an Aug. 22 Kansas City Star article by Joe Robertson and Dawn Borman comparing ACT scores in school districts on both sides of the state line (www.kansascity.com/2012/08/21/3772904/act-is-sobering-news-on-school.html).

The article shows Kansas average ACT scores at 21.9 while the Missouri state average follows closely behind at 21.6 in 2012. The 2012 average for the United States was 21.1. In this list, Shawnee Mission East had the high score at 25.5. All Shawnee Mission high schools schools scored over 22.0 and all Blue Valley high schools scored over 24 while Kansas City Missouri East and Central schools tied for the lowest score of 14.4.

The score for Platte County R-3 was 22.0. By comparison, other local scores included in the list were Liberty (23.3), Park Hill (22.9), Park Hill South (23.8), North Platte (20.7) and West Platte (22.7).

On his website, Holden writes: “Remember our kids are competing with these kids for jobs, scholarships and college admissions, so I think it is fair to look at them and is needed. The ACT is the only test that is given at both Missouri and Kansas schools so it is the point of reference for the article.”

Holden's website presents a comparison of average ACT scores for 2011/12 along with three, five and seven year averages, teacher pay and the percentage of students taking the test. According to this report, 78.76% of eligible Platte County R-3 students took the ACT test (average composite score 22.0), along with 80.83% of eligible Kearney students (average composite score 22.2) and 77.24% of eligible Lee's Summit students (average composite score 23.1). These three schools led ACT participation for the districts compared in the chart. Statewide average participation rates for Kansas were 81.0% and for Missouri were 66.94%.

Platte County R-3 Superintendent Mike Reik said that he, too, would like to see these scores improve and explained that several district factors can influence ACT scores.

Large suburban districts typically perform better, he said, because they tend to have more robust assessment departments. The percentage of students on free and reduced lunch programs (which are often treated as a measure of district socioeconomic status) is another factor influencing district ACT averages, Reik said, and he pointed out that students in higher socioeconomic circumstances have also historically done better due to access to outside resources in preparing for the test.

The percentage of students taking the test is another, he said. Reik noted that student participation in ACT tests is not mandated by the state and as such, there can be variation across districts in terms of which students actually do participate.

“Our counseling strategy has been to support students taking the test,” Reik said, pointing out (as Holden's information supports) that participation is a little higher at Platte County R-3. But, he added, “Let's just say that we had a targeted strategy to reduce that number by four percent. It would still put us in the targeted range (but) we could make a big difference in our overall composite score.”

In other words, district averages could be increased through the preventive exclusion of low-scorers.

“That hasn't been our strategy,” Reik said. “Our strategy has been to support parents and students to take the ACT test and score as high as they possibly can.”

Holden points also to teacher salaries in the Platte County R-3 district, listed by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) as $51,235 in 2011. He said he feels the salaries are not justified by the district's performance. From data available on the Missouri DESE website, The Landmark produced the following comparison of selected average teacher salaries by district:

Park Hill $57,293.
Grandview C-4 $54,371
Platte County R-3 $51,235
Kansas City $51,002.
Lee’s Summit $50,969
North Kansas City $50,555.
Independence $48,601
Raytown C-2 $46,912
Liberty $46,804
Belton $46,078
Grain Valley $45,475
Hickman Mills $45,150
Smithville $44,474
St. Joseph $42,723
West Platte $42,106
North Platte $41,843.

Salaries shown are regular average salaries and do not include extra duty pay.

Commenting on Reik's stated commitment to “invest in people,” Holden said, “I've got no problem with that as long as you get a return on your investment.”

Right now, he said, the test scores have not shown marked improvements and some maintenance on buildings has been suspended.

“And yet they've kept investing in our people but we have not had any increase in our investment on our people,” he said.

“The fact is if we had run like several other districts in the area the past 10 years we would have enough to build the new school we need,” wrote Holden on his plattecountyr3facts.com/facts.html webpage.