Jackson Mayor Dwain Hahs and Jackson R-2 School Dist. Superintendent Dr. John Link discussed the condition of the City and School District as we head into 2020 during a Jackson Area Chamber of Commerce Business Leadership meeting Jan., 22 on the “State of Jackson.”
“2019 was a good year for the City of Jackson,” stated Hahs. Public safety is a No. 1 priority, he said. When the voters passed the 1/2-cent public safety sales tax in 2018, it made it possible for the City to begin construction in 2019 of a new police station. Once the police department moves to the new police station later this year, the fire department will expand to take over the entire fire station No. 1.
The sales tax allowed the City to hire five additional police officers, an additional school resource officer and a fire department trainer.
“Our most important job is infrastructure for the City, and providing that for our residents and our businesses, and I thought we made great progress there,” Hahs said. East Main street received a lot of attention. It received new traffic signals at Oak Hill Drive and work has begun on a new roundabout at Shawnee Boulevard. This will help traffic flow and assist in the development of businesses along east Main Street.
Business has grown in Jackson; new businesses have come to town and some businesses already here have expanded.
On the school side, Link commented on the athletic successes this past year. He also mentioned that work that was funded by Prop J was completed this past year. The crowning achievement of Prop J was building a new Freshman Center on the site of the old high school “A” Building. By moving all freshmen from the junior high to the high school, more space became available at lower levels. The junior high now handles grades 7-8 and the middle school has grades 5-6. The elementary schools now handle grades K-4.
All work was completed “on time and on budget.” Link reported. “We didn’t build a Taj Mahal; we built what we needed,” he said.
Safety is a top priority for the schools, and every building now requires that visitors be “buzzed” into the building by office personnel who can see visitors over security cameras.
The District is currently adding vestibules to all school buildings. Visitors who are allowed to enter the outside doors must wait in the vestibules before they can access the rest of the school.
The schools are continuing to push “service learning.” “We’re teaching our kiddos to give back to the community,” Link said.
Link said Jackson ranks in the top 20 of school districts in Missouri.
The City’s major challenge in 2019 was the failure of voters to pass a use tax. Sixty-five percent of the City’s revenue comes from sales tax, and sales tax has been flat because of Internet sales where no local sales tax is collected.
“We’re certainly in good financial shape right now,” Hahs said. But moving forward without a use tax and with sales tax not increasing, there are concerns about how the City will continue to fund services such as police, fire, parks and road system. (Utilities bring in their own revenue.)
A second challenge is the lack of an available work force. The unemployment rate in Jackson is only 2 percent, so there are not a lot of workers looking for work. That makes it a challenge to get companies to move here.
Link said it is a challenge keeping career students in the area. College students have lots of options available to them, but industrial tech students have limited options. To get a two-year associate’s degree in a trade, such as welding, requires that students leave Southeast Missouri and go to a trade school in another part of the state. Once those students leave, they seldom come back.
Other students who don’t want to leave the area often end up with lower paying jobs outside of their career choice.
Another challenge the schools face is finding quality substitute teachers. Currently Jackson R-2 has to use teacher aides on occasion, but that leaves teachers without their aides.
Jackson R-2 continues to grow in enrollment. There were 5,161 students enrolled in December K-12. After 40 seniors graduated in December, there were still 5,161 students enrolled. The number of new students entering the District equalled the number graduating.
A growing enrollment means that before long the District will “need more teachers and more room,” Link said.
Jackson R-2 may seek a tax increase. It now costs on average of $9,000 per student to educate them every year, but the revenue stream is only $8,000 per student. “We have to make up the difference with local funding,” Link said.
Looking ahead, Jacksonians will see the police station, and new courthouse and East Main Street roundabout completed, Hahs said. There will be a bond issue request to do water and sewer work and the City will continue to work with other entities to bring businesses here.
Link said there will be a focus in the schools on dealing with social, emotional and mental health issues.
There is a desire to reduce stress levels on teachers.
The middle school and junior high are getting full of students, with almost 900 students attending the two buildings. He asked at what point in time will Jackson need a second junior high or middle school?
Another challenge the schools are facing is keeping classified staff — people who handle maintenance, etc. The school district is continually hiring workers to replace those who quit for higher paying jobs elsewhere.