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Jackson school board votes to close Millersville, Gordonville schools

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The Jackson R-2 School Board unanimously voted to close Millersville Elementary School and Gordonville Elementary School during its April 9 board meeting. The closures were among $2 million of proposed cuts to next year’s budget.

The two schools currently serve an average of 39 kindergarten through second grade students each. Starting in the 2024-2025 school year, students that attend Millersville Elementary will attend West Lane Elementary School and students that attend Gordonville Elementary will attend South Elementary School.

Along with the closures, the board voted to reduce the number of certified and support staff positions, including administrators, through attrition. Current employees who work at Gordonville and Millersville will not be laid off and will be used to fill current vacancies in the district.

“We would not be firing or cutting any of those teachers,” Superintendent Scott Smith said. “As we’ve gone through the year, we’ve gotten resignations, retirees and people leaving the district. We have not filled a lot of those positions.”

Smith said the district will work with the six classroom teachers at Millersville and Gordonville, as well as the other employees in those buildings, to reassign them roles within the district. Open houses and back to school events will be held at West Lane and South for students and families affected by the closures.

Running Millersville Elementary cost $509,304 last year and Gordonville Elementary cost $443,797. In addition, the district will cut approximately $500,000 from the budget through eliminated certified staff positions and $175,000 through eliminated support staff positions.

“We have to make cuts because we have to survive, but it’s easy for the community to say cut $2 million,” Associate Superintendent Jessica Maxwell said. “But we are right here looking at these faces and they’re people that we love. This isn’t just $2 million – these are our family, these are our friends, and that’s what hurts that the community doesn’t see.”

The district is anticipating a loss of around $2 million in revenue next year, primarily due to the end of COVID relief funding at the end of this school year. Assistant Superintendent and Chief Financial Officer Matt Lacy said the district will need to replace the $2.4 million of COVID relief the district received this year from the federal government.

“Our fear is if you don’t give some sort of raise, we won’t be able to retain and recruit staff,” Lacy said. “We’re already behind on salary schedules, but a three percent raise at least helps us keep up with cost of living and inflation.”

The board also voted to reduce next year’s school calendar by five days, saving $81,399 in transportation costs. The district and Jackson’s Community Teacher Association will work on a new 2024-2025 calendar to present to the board next month.

Smith said staff salaries would not be adjusted for the reduction of days, but the district would likely save money in other areas with the reduced calendar. Support staff would have the option of working on professional development days or choosing to take those days off unpaid.

The board voted to reduce professional development spending to the minimum amount required by the state, reducing the professional development budget by $75,000. Smith said the majority of the cuts to professional development would be for new teacher training.

“A few years ago, we were losing a lot of new teachers who were recent graduates coming to the district and who really needed a lot of extra support,” Smith said. “We started a new teacher program that’s seen a lot of success where we were retaining those teachers, especially at the elementary level – but that is something that we would need to absorb in the district. We will take it back to more in-house training and that’s something we can do to save quite a bit of money.”

The board directed the district administration to cut technology licenses by $50,000. Smith said they would prioritize eliminating licenses that won’t hinder curriculum and are utilized less frequently.

The board voted to move forward and receive more information about other potential cuts. Cuts to athletic programs discussed were to consolidate grade levels such as freshman and junior varsity teams, hold off on any uniform replacements and reduce the travel radius for sports teams excluding district and state playoff games.

The board also discussed eliminating or reducing the gifted ALERT program. The program currently includes 233 students from first through eighth grade. The program’s total cost to the district is $146,321, with some of the funding for the program coming from the state.

Smith said the program is currently run by two full-time teachers and one retired teacher who is working part time. One of the two full-time teachers is retiring at the end of the year and the district has not yet received any qualified applications for the role.

The board could reduce the program to just elementary students, which is currently taught by the remaining full time teacher.

While the board was not receptive to cutting school resource officer positions, they did ask the district to provide options to reduce overtime for the positions. School resource officers currently receive overtime pay to be at after-school events in the district.

“Safety has always been one of our top priorities,” Smith said. “We’ve prided ourselves on this, but we’re at a time we’ve got to throw everything out and really think about some things.”

Smith said they could reduce the number of events school resource officers attend, with the district calling the police like any other organization if they need assistance at an event without an officer.

The board also discussed limiting the number of high school students who go to the Cape Girardeau Career and Technology Center. The district pays $2,700 on average for each student to take classes at the CTC. Enrollment has grown, with 176 Jackson High School students attending CTC this year, compared to 144 the previous year.

The board wanted more information about how many students have signed up to take CTC courses next year, with board member Greg Farrow asking the district to look into local business scholarships for CTC students.

The board also discussed contracting transportation services for the district, but estimates from student transportation providers were higher than the district’s current transportation costs. Contracted services outside the district are estimated to cost $4 million, compared to the $2.8 million currently spent by the district on transportation.

“We cut the fat out of this district,” Superintendent Scott Smith said. “We’ve made changes in our budget to sustain us to where we prolong the cliff. We made over half a million in cuts last year. We’ve cut programs, we’ve cut teaching positions that we felt were hard on some, but overall were things we could accomplish. But now, as a board, we’re going to make some tough calls.”

Smith said the district will continue to look at smaller possible cuts to make to next year’s budget.

As part of the district’s strategic plan, the district established a minimum fund balance of 20%. The district is expected to end this school year with a 29.7% fund balance and around $19.1 million in its general operating fund.

With $2 million in cuts and a three percent raise, the district is expected to have a neutral budget next year with a 28.2% fund balance and around $18.4 million in the district’s operating fund at the end of the school year.

Without additional cuts during next year’s budgeting process, Lacy projected that the district would end the 2025-2026 school year with a 20% fund balance and $13.8 million in its operating fund. “Our margin for error, not next year but the year after, is very small,” Lacy said. “There’s a lot of variables for revenue that we just can’t predict yet.”

Board Member Brandon Pylate, who became the board’s vice president during the meeting, added that the district looked at other school districts when establishing the 20% minimum fund balance, and most school districts in the state were much higher. “They were almost all higher than ours for a number of reasons out of our control – a lot of which were they got more federal money.”

According to the most recent data from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the district currently is below the state average in expenditures per student, average teacher salary, administrator salary and average years of experience for professional staff.

In addition, the district has a higher ratio of students to classroom teachers at 19:1 compared to the state average of 16:1 and a higher ratio of students to administrators at 181:1 compared to the state average of 148:1.

“We have two levers to pull – one is more revenue and one is less expenditures,” Lacy said. “We tried to pull the revenue one and came up short. We are going to pull the expenditure one and it’s going to come out well next year, but beyond that, if something doesn’t change, all you have left is to reduce expenditures.”

The board discussed ways to get to a four percent raise for staff members, including additional cuts and reducing the amount of operating funds transferred for capital projects. Smith said every percentage raise adds $425,000 to the budget every year moving forward.

“When you give a raise it’s a continuum,” Smith said. “Once you give it, it’s every year,” Smith said “I would love to give more. I cannot in good conscience – I’m nervous about three and sustaining it. I would certainly hate to go above that without knowing we have additional revenue coming in.”

Smith said an additional percent raise is roughly equivalent to cutting 10 teaching positions. “We are down to bone and muscle,” he said. “That’s going to mean you’re gonna have larger class sizes than what you already have, and I think it’s going to be harder on those classroom teachers.”

Maxwell estimated that cutting an additional 10 certified staff positions would push class sizes at the elementary level to around 27-29 students per class.

“What if five buses go out?” Board President Brian Thompson said. “The unknown is what scares me. I know it’s hard for the teachers and it’s hard on us looking at them, but the unknown is what scares me the most.”

In other action:

• The election results were accepted by the board, with Todd Rushing and Sheila King winning seats on the board. The board also appointed Bradley Walters, who received the third highest number of votes, to finish the final year of Kristen Lewis’ term. Lewis resigned from the board last month due to moving out of the district.

Brian Thompson was reelected as board president and Brandon Pylate was elected as vice president. Greg Farrow, who previously held the vice president position, was elected as the board’s Missouri School Board Association delegate. Assistant Superintendent Matt Lacy was reelected as board treasurer and Sara Cook was reelected as board secretary. All votes were for the board reorganization were unanimous.

• The board approved a memorandum of understanding with the City of Jackson about a grant application with the Missouri Department of Transportation’s Transportation Alternative Program. If approved, the grant would cover 80% of the costs to add new crosswalks and sidewalks near Jackson Middle School. Currently, students cross Route D/Independence Street without a crosswalk.

The project is estimated to cost a total of $500,000. If the city received the MoDOT TAP grant, the city will cover $50,000 of the project and the school district will cover the remaining $50,000. Assistant Superintendent Keenan Kinder said the project has been in the works for years and the district would not be responsible for the maintenance of the crosswalks or sidewalks.

• The board approved a new health insurance plan, joining the Ozark School Benefits Association. The organization is made up of around 100 schools in the state and has $28.7 million in reserves.

The board paid plan, the 2500/3000 Choice PPO through Blue Cross, will cost the district $604 per employee per month. Smith said it is a better plan than what is currently offered at a minimal increase. The current plan which costs the district $598 per employee per month. The new plan will carry over deductibles from the current plan.

• The board adjusted the 2023-2024 budget to purchase elementary textbooks and Chomebooks early for the 2024-2025 school year. Lacy said the supplies are unlikely to arrive in time for school to start in August if the district waits to order until July. The district will spend $165,000 on elementary textbooks and $450,000 for Chromebooks.

• The board approved a resolution to participate in the Success-Ready Students Network’s system design zone demonstration project. The project seeks to receive waivers for state assessments, to be replaced with assessments throughout the school year.

• The district received one bid from Premium Mechanical and Automation, Inc. to replace the HVAC system at East Elementary School. The bid was for $630,937. The board tabled further discussion on the project to allow district staff to review the bid.

• The board approved a request for proposals to receive bids for auditing services. Bids will be due on May 3, with the board expected to take action on the bids at next month’s meeting.

• Jackson High School all-state band students were recognized by the board, and Orchard Drive Elementary students presented about their upcoming art show.

• The board voted to move school board meetings to the second Thursday of the month. The open meetings will remain at 7 p.m. at the Ignite Center at the high school, unless otherwise announced.

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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