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Jackson R-2 Board of Education puts tax increase on April ballot

Jackson High School teacher Julie Rushing spoke in favor of the tax increase ballot initiative during the Jackson R-2 School Board meeting on Jan. 9. Photos by Jay Forness

The Jackson R-2 School Board voted to put a tax-increase proposition on the ballot this April during its regular board meeting on Jan. 9. If passed, voters would see a tax increase of 47 cents per $100 of real estate and personal property assessed valuation.

Proposition T, named after the district’s theme of “Team Jackson” this year, would increase staff salaries and protect existing programs and class sizes. Assistant Superintendent Matt Lacy said the tax increase would allow the district to provide certified staff members a 5% wage increase this year and an additional 5% raise next year.

“If other districts are more competitive with salaries, we’re going to ultimately struggle to retain staff and we’re going to struggle to recruit staff,” Lacy said. “Over the past three years, there’s a 9% gap between what we’ve provided in raises and the inflation rate.”

Superintendent Scott Smith said surrounding districts have provided bigger salary increases than Jackson over the past few years. He said the tax increase would allow the district to catch up and start competing again when recruiting teachers.

“Historically, Jackson has always been a leader,” Smith said. “It’s always been able to be one of the highest paying districts, with the best benefits and going after everything. We’re no longer in the game, so we have to get ourselves back in the game to be able to play.”

Proposition T mirrors last year’s Proposition I, which would have also increased the district’s operating tax levy by 47 cents. That proposition failed in April 2023 on a vote of 2,792 yes (47.03%) to 3,145 no (52.97%).

Proposition I was accompanied by Proposition N, which would have raised taxes by an additional 36 cents to fund $60 million worth of facility improvements in the district. Proposition N failed on a vote of 2,586 yes (43.5%) to 3,359 no (56.5%).

Smith said recruiting and retaining highly-qualified staff was the top priority that came out of the district’s last strategic planning process. “Ultimately, we are doing this for our students,” he said. “It’s for making sure we have great teachers in the classrooms and we’re able to offer programs that allows our students to succeed.”

Smith added that without the additional funding, the district would need to make large-scale cuts to the budget. “Even passing this, we know we’re still going to have to make cuts,” he said. “We’re still going to have to be very frugal. We said last year that we needed 91 cents and that’s what we truly need, but we know that a 47 cent increase would take care of our number one goal.”

Assistant Superintendent Matt Lacy said the district has already made a significant amount of cuts in the past year. In 2023, the district spent $9,876 per student – dropping from $10,972 per student in 2022.

“We are spending $1,000 less per student,” Lacy said “We want to continue to expand programing and support our teachers and students, and it’s hard to do that when you don’t have the horsepower and revenue compared to the people around us.”

Smith said the district’s tax rate currently ranks among the lowest in the region, despite being the 34th largest district in the state based on enrollment. If the proposition passed, Smith said the district’s tax rate would be between Sikeston and Cape Girardeau’s tax rates.

“Poplar Bluff is the only one with a lower tax rate, but they get so much more federal dollars, they don’t have to have as much local dollars to operate,” Smith said. Poplar Bluff received $24.4 million in federal COVID-relief funding from the federal government, while Jackson received $7.2 million despite having 500 more students.

“If you have a district with a higher poverty level, you’re going to receive more federal dollars,” Smith said. “Jackson does not have a high poverty rate, therefore, we have to be more reliant on local dollars.”

In addition, Smith said the district is disadvantaged financially on the local level by having less commercial property, which is taxed at a higher rate than residential property, compared to other local districts like Cape Girardeau.

“One thing I heard when I first came to town was that we did more with less,” Smith said. “We took pride in that, but we’ve now come to a point in time where that is not going to be able to sustain the district. We’re going to have to look at making some adjustments if we want to continue the great tradition we have here in Jackson.”

Jackson High School math teacher Julie Rushing spoke to the board before the vote to ask them to do everything they could to make sure Jackson has a strong foundation of great teachers, even as schools face a teacher shortage.

“The level of education that Jackson provides depends on us being able to recruit and retain high-quality teachers for our students,” Rushing said. “I don’t want Jackson School District to simply be a stepping stone for teachers to gain experience so they can move on to a higher-paying school district.”

Rushing was among a large group of district teachers who came to the board meeting to see the vote on the ballot initiative.

The tax increase was approved by a 6-1 vote, with board member Kristen Lewis opposing the proposition. Lewis said she believes the district already values its teachers by providing additional education steps on its salary schedule than Cape Girardeau, allowing teachers to increase their salary more often than Cape Girardeau teachers due to continuing education.

Lewis also said she voted no because, despite a decrease in commercial tax revenue, the district did see an additional $1 million in real estate tax revenue last year due to increases in the reassessed value of residential property.

For a Jackson homeowner with a house evaluated at $200,000, the tax increase would cost $178.60 more annually or $14.88 more per month.

In other action:

• The board approved the district calendar for the 2024-2025 school year. The calendar includes a week off for Thanksgiving, two weeks off for winter break and a week off in April for spring break.

Aug. 19 will be the first day of the school year, with the last day of classes scheduled for May 22, 2025. The JHS class of 2025 graduation ceremony is scheduled for 7 p.m. on May 16, 2025.

The 2024-2025 calendar includes 171 days that students attend school, which is the same number of days as the current school year. The full calendar is available on the district’s website.

• The district’s 2023 annual performance review was presented to the board. The district saw an increase of 9.3% compared to 2022, receiving a 85.8% score in 2023. The district received the highest APR score in the county.

Associate Superintendent Janelle Pope said the district is very proud of the change, but is looking at ways to further improve this year.

One of the areas where the district didn’t receive full points was in the category using high school senior’s scores on college and career readiness tests. The district received half the possible points in that category.

Pope said she had been in contact with the state and found out the state had not received the test scores from around 30 students and also included scores from some special needs students who shouldn’t have been counted in that category. “We’re working with the state now to try to figure out why that happened,” Pope said. “They receive the information directly from the testing company, so it wasn’t necessarily something that we reported wrong.”

Pope said the APR for 2023 would not be revised to correct the error, but it will be something the district will look to fixing by next year’s report.

Read more about the district APR.

• The district received a $300,000 safety grant from the state which will be used for creating holding tanks at several of the school entrances and installing additional video cameras. Assistant Superintendent Keenan Kinder said the district plans to install cameras on school bus stop arms, which will record stop arm violations.

In addition, the funding will cover building security system software, video management equipment and emergency communications equipment. The board approved a budget amendment to allow the district to spend $300,000 on the safety equipment, which will be reimbursed by the state.

• Kinder gave an update on South Elementary roofing project, which would replace the original roof for the 25-year-old building. Around 20 different roofing companies attended the pre-bid meeting on Jan. 4 for the project, and there were some addenda to the bid.

“Based on when the bids went out around the holiday, we believe that if we push the bid due date off for an additional month, we will get better prices,” Kinder said. The district hopes to present bids for the project during the February board meeting and replace the roof at South Elementary over the summer.

• The board approved an evaluation of the ALERT program, which provides enrichment opportunities for 239 gifted students from first through eighth grade. The ALERT program is coordinated by Erica Weadon and taught by Lauren Skelton, Staci Beussink and Denae LeDure.

At the elementary level, ALERT students participate in the program for a half day each week. At the middle school, ALERT is a quarter class where students can elect to take it for one to four quarters. At the junior high, ALERT is offered as a semester-long elective course.

ALERT started in 1995 as an after-school program in Jackson and has continued steadily over the years. The program teaches complex reasoning, creative thinking, affective reasoning, global mindedness, communicating effectively and executive functioning.

• Third grade students and teachers from South Elementary spoke about their project about various frogs. The project, which lasted several months, allowed the students to dig deeper into a specific topic.

Third graders Ethan Essner, Elise Nothdurft, Joel Wyss and Kyah Stockard shared their stories with the board and spoke about what they liked most about the project and how they overcame their biggest challenges during the project.

The students researched frogs, learned how frogs survive, wrote a story about their frog, wrote an informative essay about their frog, drew a cover for their story in their art class and created a academic trading card with key facts about their frog species. The students also edited their essays and provide feedback on their classmate’s essays.

• Board members Christine Warren and Brandon Pylate were awarded certificates during the meeting marking the completion of their board member training. Board President Brian Thompson congratulated the two for becoming certified board members by saying they both have been welcome additions to the board who are very good voices for teachers and students in the district.

Third grade students and teachers from South Elementary School presented on their project about various species of frogs.

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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