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Jackson School Board considers tax levy to increase teacher salaries

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The Jackson R-2 School Board unanimously voted for the district to work on ballot language for another tax-increase ballot initiative, after two ballot initiatives from the district failed in April.

The board asked Superintendent Scott Smith to bring ballot language for a 47-cent tax levy to be considered for the general election ballot in April 2024. The board is expected to vote on the ballot initiative at the board’s regular January meeting.

The ballot initiative would be similar to the failed Proposition I, which would have also increased the district’s general operating tax rate by 47 cents. If passed, the additional cost of the tax increase for the average Jackson homeowner would be around $179 yearly or 50 cents per day.

Superintendent Scott Smith said the district is currently unable to compete with area school districts when it comes to wages, making it difficult to recruit and retain staff. The tax increase would allow the district to raise teacher and staff member wages by 10 percent over the next two years

“Just to get us back in the ballgame, we need to give our teachers 5% each year,” Smith said. “When we look at comps in our area, we are not in the ballgame. To start competing, this is what we need to look at.”

Assistant Superintendent Matt Lacy said Cape Girardeau Public Schools is one of the districts that have outpaced Jackson in salaries. “Over the last few years, Cape has given 4% more in wage increases than R-2,” Lacy said.

In addition, Jackson’s salary increases have also fallen behind the rate of inflation. Lacy estimated that since 2021, Jackson’s cost of living salary increases have been outpaced inflation by around 9%.

Lacy said other districts such as Cape Girardeau were able to fund higher wage increases due to receiving more federal and state funding due to having a higher rate of free and reduced lunch students.

Cape Girardeau’s school district received more than double the amount of COVID-relief funding from the federal government than Jackson, even as Jackson has more students.

Lacy said Jackson received $1,262 of federal COVID relief funding per student, compared to Cape Girardeau receiving $3,469 per student in federal COVID relief funding.

“Not only does Cape receive more federal dollars than we do, they have a higher tax levy,” Lacy said, adding that Cape also has more commercial property that is taxed at a higher rate than Jackson.

“We’re at a disadvantage in how much federal money we’re receiving and we’re getting outpaced at the local level,” Lacy said. “That’s an arms race we cannot win.”

Jackson High School social studies teacher Mike Tornetto spoke to the board about teacher’s concerns about the future of the district and asked school board members to increase teacher pay.

“We’re falling behind in our ability to recruit and retain quality teachers and staff and are now at a decisive fork in the road,” Tornetto said. “Sooner rather than later, the path we are on is going to result in only being able to hire and retain subpar teachers and staff.”

Tornetto said was torn recently when he received a letter from a former student who wants to be a teacher in Jackson. He said that while he was proud to play a role in recruiting another generation of highly skilled teachers, he was concerned that the former student wouldn’t find Jackson to be the best fit for her.

“Missouri as a state is at or near dead last in terms of teacher pay,” Tornetto said. “Last year, JR-2 paid the legal minimum for a starting teacher in Missouri and $6,000 below the Missouri state average for teacher pay.”

Tornetto said many of his colleagues are looking at other options, as neighboring districts pay more. “I try to dissuade them from leaving, but many are looking very closely at other opportunities – and trust me, these are not the teachers we want to see leave,” he said. “They are among the best of us, the most experienced of us, the most talented of us.”

Tornetto added that he personally looked at another opportunity outside of the region two years ago, but ultimately decided to stay at JHS. “Jackson did not pay what St. Louis schools did, but it paid the best in the region,” he said. “I still deliberated but decided to commit myself to this district.”

Board member Christine Warren said she was moved by what Tornetto said and asked Smith what would happen if this tax initiative doesn’t pass.

“It hurts to say,” Smith said, adding that severe cuts would have to be made if the operating levy isn’t increased. He said the district has already cut $500,000 from the budget and any “low hanging fruit” is already gone.

“You’re looking at probably cutting staff because 73% of our budget comes from staff,” Smith said. “That means you’re going to have large class sizes, and it means that we won’t be able to recruit or retain anybody because your teachers are going to disappear.”

Smith said the passage of a tax levy would not fix the district’s financial situation, but would allow the district to raise wages and start to compete with area districts.

“Even with the 47 cent increase, the district would still have to really be financially conservative,” Smith said. “We would really have to look very closely at all of our expenditures.”

“We know we need to take care of salaries now – this would allow us to do that,” Lacy added, saying the district may still need to look at a bond issue in a few years.

In Other Action:

• The board approved a $38,657 bid from St. Louis-based Professional Environmental Engineers to test water outlets throughout the district for lead. The project is required by the Missouri Get the Lead out of School Drinking Water Act that was passed and signed into law in 2022.

Assistant Superintendent Keenan Kinder said the district has until the first day of the 2024-2025 school year to do the testing. Throughout the district, 846 water outlets will be tested.

Professional Environmental Engineers submitted the lowest of two bids, with Poplar Bluff-based SEMO Compliance & Remediation also submitting a bid. The testing will be paid for through a $121,178 grant from the state, which can also pay for any mitigation measures needed including water fountain filters.

• The board approve building specs for a new roof at South Elementary School. Bids for the re-roofing project will be due by Jan. 8 and are expected to be discussed at next month’s regular school board meeting.

“South Elementary is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and their roof is the original roof.” Kinder said. “They have gotten their lifespan out of that roof, and the worst leaks that we have are at South Elementary right now.”

Kinder said the new roof has been designed by Incite Design Studio to allow for an even playing field between roofing companies. “Nobody can say the specs are designed specifically for a particular roofing company,” he said.

• The board approved going out for bid for bank depository services. The new bank depository services contract would begin July 1, 2024.

Assistant Superintendent Matt Lacy said the district is required to request bids for banking services every five years. The bids will be due on Feb. 1 and are expected to be discussed at the regular school board meeting in February.

Board member Brandon Pylate, who works at Montgomery Bank, said he expects the district to receive good proposals, as it was “the best time in recent history to have banks bidding against each other.”

• The results of a climate and culture survey about the district were presented to the board. The survey received 1,565 responses, with 220 teachers and staff members taking the survey, 731 parents and guardians taking the survey and 614 students from the high school and junior high taking the survey.

The district received favorable answers from all groups when asked if the district provides a high quality education, if the schools were safe, if the district has highly effective teachers and how they would describe the learning environment.

When asked if they would support a tax initiative in order to hire and retain highly qualified faculty and staff, 76.2% of parents and guardians who took the survey said yes and 92.3% of staff members who took the survey said yes.

Students at the high school and junior high gave mixed scores to if the school’s culture was positive and if student’s voices are heard and respected.

All public school districts in Missouri are now required to complete an annual climate and culture survey as part of the Missouri School Improvement Program (MSIP 6) accreditation process.

• The board set summer school dates for June 5-27, 2024. Summer school will be in session for 16 days, with summer school not being in session on June 19 due to the Juneteenth national holiday.

Associate Superintendent Janelle Pope said the summer school dates are later than usual to allow the district to transfer its student database before the beginning of summer school. Pope said the district will begin using the new student database during summer school to test out the system before the new school year begins.

Enrichment opportunities will be offered from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the majority of the district’s elementary schools – including East Elementary, West Lane Elementary, Orchard Drive Elementary and North Elementary. Summer school is not expected to be held at Millersville Elementary, Gordonville Elementary and South Elementary this year.

Enrichment opportunities and remediation/academic support summer school classes will be offered at Jackson Middle School from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and at the Jackson Junior High School from 8 a.m. to noon.

Jackson High School will offer multiple sessions of summer school, including a morning session from 8 a.m. to noon, an afternoon session from noon to 4 p.m. and virtual sessions. JHS students can earn 0.5 credits for taking a summer school class.

• The board tabled a decision to move forward in creating a Center for Advanced Professional Studies (CAPS) program, wanting more information on how the program would work at Jackson High School and the program’s needed budget.

The proposed program would have junior and senior students learn professional skills, shadow a variety of professionals in a certain business category and take part in internships to see if they enjoy that career path before leaving high school.

“What this program does is allow students the opportunity to invest time during their school day to learning about a particular career strand – including shadowing and internships,” Pope said.

Pope said the district would begin with a general business path and a medical path. “We have two large hospitals in our area that we think we can have support us through this process, in addition to a number of eye doctors, dentists and others,” she said.

The general business CAPS program would also include education for students interested in teaching.

If the district moves forward with the program, two CAPS coordinators would need to be hired to run the program. Smith said the district would like to do an internal search to not add to the number of full-time employees in the district.

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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