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Chamber hosts ‘State of Jackson’ leadership panel

Jackson R-2 School District Superintendent Scott Smith, left, and Jackson Mayor Dwain Hahs spoke about the current state of Jackson during a leadership panel hosted by the Jackson Area Chamber of Commerce on March 19. Photo by Jay Forness

The Jackson Area Chamber of Commerce brought together Jackson Mayor Dwain Hahs and Jackson R-2 School District Superintendent Scott Smith last month to speak about the present and future of Jackson.

Hahs said the city has worked to improve public safety, parks, transportation, regional partnerships and infrastructure.

“Infrastructure is important to us,” Hahs said. “We have our own electric company. We have our own water company. Sewer and trash – we all do that ourselves, and each one of those operations run by themselves and your utility rates pay for those expenses. We don’t have to take sales tax dollars or real estate dollars to run our utilities, which some cities do.”

The city passed a bond issue for wastewater plant improvements in 2022. Hahs said the city is currently preparing to go out for bids for that construction project. In addition, the city is building a new electric substation on Orchard Road to improve service to that area as it grows. The city has also recently finished a $10 million water line improvement project.

The city is working with the Missouri Department of Transportation to improve the major highways in the city. The U.S. Highway 61 project, where a new bridge and park entrance will be constructed, is expected to be completed in November.

Hahs said the city and MoDOT plan on adding a roundabout next year at the intersection of Highway 61and Deerwood Drive near the Jackson Civic Center, after the current Highway 61 construction is completed. “That will be a major cost share,” he said. “We’ll pay a million and MoDOT pays a million, but we’ll manage that project.”

Hahs said the city spends about a million dollars every year upgrading and maintaining the city’s roads.

Hahs said the city is currently in a “fix up phase” when it comes to the city’s parks – resurfacing courts, adding new bleachers at all of the sport fields and building new restroom facilities. He said around half of the city’s $3 million American Rescue Plan funding was used for the parks.

Hahs said the city has worked to make sure its police and fire departments remain fully staffed and is hoping to add additional police cars, so officers can take them home and be ready if they are called in.

“We hope by the end of the next year, every policeman that’s a patrolman will have a car that they can take home,” Hahs said. “It expands your presence rather than having nine police cars sitting at the police station doing nothing. We can get those in the community and it’s a big benefit for the policeman.”

The City of Jackson is also currently looking for a new city administrator, as longtime City Administrator Jim Roach is planning on retiring toward the end of this year. “City administrators run our city every day,” Hahs said. “Mayors and boards of aldermen are part-time jobs or board positions, so the city administrator is an important role.”

Hahs said one of the city’s overall goals is to review the city’s finances and making sure the city has the revenue sources to support the infrastructure of a growing city. He added that 70% of the city’s revenue comes from sales taxes, so it’s important for the city to grow retail-based business.

Hahs said the city is working to bring more businesses near I-55’s exit 102, as well as additional acres near exit 99 that was opened up after the diverging diamond project was completed. “They restructured that so we’ve got six acres that will be sold back to the public entities, and that’s an opportunity for project development at that exit,” he said.

The city has also started a new tourism initiative with the Jackson Area Chamber of Commerce, with a new tourism website for Jackson in development. Hahs added that the city is also looking into ways to increase public input and involvement.

“We have 125 employees and the city administrator to run the city every day, but we need a lot more input from the public,” Hahs said, adding that the city has multiple boards made up of volunteers who help decide the future of Jackson.

Smith said the Jackson R-2 School District has continued to see growth over the past several years, with students being successful in the district’s academics, sports, fine arts, agriculture program and more.

The school district has been focused on academic improvements, with the district receiving a 9.3% increase in its annual performance report from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“For the state of Missouri, most districts saw a decline where we saw an increase,” Smith said. “It shows that our staff is really doing the right things, as far as academics, and making sure our kids have these opportunities.”

Smith said the district is working on preparing students for life after graduation, including new partnerships with businesses to show students what jobs are available to graduates and growing the partnership with the Cape Girardeau Career and Technology Center.

“Students at the CTC are starting to receive industry-recognized credentials, so that when they do finish a course, they can go straight to work and already have some of the credentials that our employers need to put them to work,” Smith said. “We’ve grown that program, and we have 176 students that attend CTC this year – that’s up from about 140 last year.”

In addition, high school students can earn up to 42 hours of college credits. Smith said the majority of students receive between three and 36 college credits during their time at JHS. “We actually had 65% of our kids receive post-secondary credits while they’re in high school,” he said. “It’s really awesome for our students to have those opportunities.”

Smith said the district’s current goals have come from the strategic planning process which began three years ago. The number one goal from the strategic plan is to recruit and retain highly qualified staff members, followed by facility improvements and student success.

“Staffing is an area in education that is a struggle for a lot of districts, and we’re one of them,” Smith said. “We’ve been working on how to recruit and retain highly qualified faculty and staff because we want to be able to offer different programs and experiences for our students.”

Smith said it has become harder to find new teachers. “When I had an elementary position open, we used to have 40 to 60 applicants for an elementary teacher,” he said. “Now, I may have four or five. The sheer number of people going into education has dropped, so we have to be competitive in our salaries and benefits.”

The school district asked voters for a 47 cent tax increase on the April 2 municipal election ballot. If passed, the increased funding to the district’s operation fund would be used to give staff raises, stop program cuts and protect class sizes. Election results will be in next week’s issue of The Cash-Book Journal.

Smith also spoke about the space challenges across the 10 school buildings in the district. “As a growing district, we are short on space,” he said. “We’ve turned custodial closets into classrooms. We’re trying to use every square inch we have in the space throughout the district and make sure that we are good stewards as we move forward.”

The event was held on March 19 at the Hubble Creek Venue.

Jay Forness covers education, county government and community events for The Cash-Book Journal. He graduated from Southeast Missouri State University with a degree in multimedia journalism and has lived in Jackson for the past five years. He can be reached at cbjedit@socket.net.

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