Education

Jackson schools to host public forums on April ballot measures

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The Jackson R-2 School District will hold two informational public forums on March 16 and March 28 related to Propositions I and N, which will be on the ballot during the upcoming April 4 municipal election. Both meetings will be held in the Jackson High School auditorium at 6:30 p.m.

The two propositions would increase the Jackson school district’s tax rate by 91 cents. Superintendent Scott Smith told The Cash-Book Journal that both propositions are needed to continue school operations.

“If you look at our long-term capital projects plan and the needs of the district, we are going to need to spend an additional $3.5 million each year for the next three to five years just to maintain what we have,” Smith said.

Smith said the district is running buses for over 20 years, with a new school bus costing around $150,000 each. In addition, several of the school roofs are currently in need of being replaced. “Roofs are very expensive for a school district,” Smith said, “They run anywhere from $400,000 to $1.5 million.”

If passed, Proposition I would raise the district’s operating tax levy by 47 cents. The increased operating fund would go toward raising teacher salaries and benefits, as well as allow the district to keep class sizes down and continue offering school bus transportation for all students in the district.

Smith said that compared to similarly sized districts including Festus, Fox, Ste. Genevieve, Farmington, Sikeston, Poplar Bluff, Kennett, Perryville, Dexter and Cape Central, Jackson R-2 ranks the lowest for staff members’ earning potential.

“Our staff is seeing that and starting to leave,” Smith said. A salary freeze and insurance caps would be necessary if the propositions fail, he said. In addition, if Proposition I fails, the district would have to look at increasing class sizes more and only picking up students who live more than two miles away from school.

“If a student lives with three miles of their school, we don’t have to transport them,” Smith said. “We do it currently because it is safer and we don’t have sidewalks and crosswalks everywhere. Not all of our stoplights have the ability to let someone cross, so it’s a huge safety issue. It’s not something we want to do, but it’s definitely something we may have to look at very closely.”

Proposition N would fund $60 million in building improvements through a bond issue that would increase taxes by 44 cents. The proposition would fund a classroom addition and a new gymnasium at North Elementary School, a classroom addition and a performing arts center at the high school, new roofs and other safety projects throughout the district and refinancing the district’s current lease-purchase debt to open up more operating funds for the district.

Smith said these building projects are necessary because of the enrollment growth seen in Jackson. The district estimates that the freshman class at the high school next year could be the first class with more than 500 students.

“We have to plan for the future,” Smith said. “One thing that we have to realize is with building projects, if its approved in April, the first building projects that you are going to see will be two to three years away. It takes time to do architectural work, meet with the constituents that are going to utilize the facility, make sure it’s designed appropriately, going out for bids and everything in the actual construction.”

Smith said both propositions go hand in hand in solving issues related to growth in the district – with the bond issue allowing for classroom additions and the operating tax increase allowing for additional staff members to keep class sizes down despite the growth.

“We’ve had all these additional students coming in, which has required us to hire additional staff,” Smith said. “With all of that, we have not increased our revenue coming in, so we have really been spending from our reserves to be able to offer the programs that we’ve come accustomed to Jackson, as well as take care of our staff the best that we could.”

The district has added 185 new staff member positions (103 of which were teachers) to the district over the past 10 years to account for the nearly 1,000 additional students in Jackson schools.

In addition to staffing, which accounts for almost three-fourths of the district’s operating budget, Smith said other expenses have grown exponentially in the district, without the assessed valuation in the district growing at an equal pace.

“The assessed valuation for the district has not kept up with the property values,” Smith said, adding that state funding has also not kept up with additional costs – growing 4.2 percent over the past 14 years. “It is putting more of a burden on your local taxpayers to pay for your schools – as we’re seeing this enrollment come in as expenses are going up,” he said.

The district’s electrical costs grew from $351,100 during the 2004-2005 school year to $1.1 million last year. Smith said some of that is due to building additions, but in buildings that have stayed the same during that time, such as South Elementary School, the electrical costs have more than doubled.

“Honestly, we’ve already been making a lot of cuts in the budget,” Smith said. “Starting last year, we made cuts just to make sure we don’t run out of reserve funds.”

The district’s tax rate hasn’t changed in 17 years, remaining at $3.80 since 2005. If both propositions pass, the district’s tax rate would be $4.71. Smith said the increase would put make the district’s tax rate around the average compared to the 50 largest and fastest-growing districts in the state.

The additional cost of the two tax increases for the average Jackson homeowner would be around $345 yearly or 96 cents per day.

Proposition I (the general operating tax levy increase) requires a simple majority to pass, and Proposition N (the bond issue) requires four-sevenths of the vote (57.14%) to pass.

If one or both propositions fail, Smith said the district would need to look at additional cost-cutting measures such as adding more schools to a delayed bus schedule, selling farm land that was purchased for a future building, reducing technology and equipment purchases and closing Millersville and Gordonville Elementary Schools.

Smith said neither proposition would work exactly as needed if the other proposition fails.

“If Proposition I were to pass but Proposition N does not pass, a large majority of the money generated from Proposition I would need to be used to take care of the facilities we already have. That would not help us in recruiting and retaining our high-quality staff, which is our number one goal.”

Conversely, if the bond issue passes without the general operating tax increase, Smith said the issue of offering competitive teacher salaries would still be an issue for the district. “We would have the money to build the facilities, but we won’t have the money to staff them,” he said.

“I think long-term, both propositions passing is what it’s going to take for the Jackson School District moving forward,” Smith said, adding that the tax increase would allow the district to continue producing graduates who are valuable to the local workforce and keep property values high due to the district’s quality.

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