By Kelsey Ryan
JOPLIN, Mo. —
In a special session Monday morning, the Joplin Board of Education unanimously approved for the ballot what likely is the largest bond issue proposal in the history of the school district.
If endorsed by voters April 3, the posed $62 million bond issue would go toward rebuilding schools destroyed in the May 22 tornado, community storm shelters throughout the school district, and repairs and upgrades to undamaged elementary schools.
The bond issue has some Joplin taxpayers divided, given the current economic climate and the impact the storm had on residents. The district’s total levy now stands at $3.31 per $100 of assessed valuation. The total is composed of the $2.75 operating levy and a 56-cent levy for debt service.
If the bond issue is approved, the debt service levy would increase by 35 cents, making the total levy $3.66 per $100 assessed valuation. For purposes of example, that would cost the owner of a home with a market value of $100,000 about $695 in annual school taxes, an increase of about $65.
“Folks like me can’t afford that increase, but I know somebody’s got to pay it, and I can understand the costs,” said Joe Groce, of Joplin. “I probably won’t be voting in favor of it. I can see paying some, but not that much. Most Joplin residents can’t afford that.”
Some others see the proposal as more of a necessity.
“What the schools have gone through is horrific, and I can imagine there’s a huge need for additional funding,” said Steve Gaarder, of Joplin. “It’s something I’d be willing to pay for. Any tax increase is hard to swallow, but I will if it’s to pay for the purpose of educating kids.”
The school district’s bonding capacity is about $63 million. District officials say that if the bond issue is approved, they will still aggressively seek other means of funding, including grants, and state and federal aid.
“When there’s an opportunity to better a situation, you have to take advantage of that, and as long as the federal and state support and donations are coming in, we need to take advantage of those to offset the taxpayer burden long term,” Superintendent C.J. Huff said.
The district estimates that all the projects would cost about $185 million. It will receive about $85.9 million in total insurance proceeds from Travelers Insurance for schools that were destroyed in the tornado, a figure on which the board settled in closed session Monday. The district has yet to settle on the contents of the buildings, which is a separate claim.
Huff gave a presentation of his reasons for recommending the bond issue to the board before it voted. After the meeting, several board members declined interviews and referred questions to board President Ashley Micklethwaite. Board member Anne Sharp was not present for the meeting.
“I’m hoping that our community understands that our main goal is to get our kids back into permanent facilities, that we’re not planning to build something outrageous,” Micklethwaite said in an interview. “We just want safe schools for our kids.”
Huff said that if the bond issue does not pass, the district will not be able to afford its share of a funding match for community safe rooms. Board member Jeff Flowers expressed concerns during the meeting that residents believe the district is using safe rooms as a way to get the community to vote “yes” on the bond issue.
If the bond issue does not pass, the district still plans to complete East Middle School and the combined Duenweg-Duquesne Elementary School that will share a campus, and the new Irving Elementary, which will be a combination of the destroyed Irving and Emerson schools. The latter is to be located on donated land at the site of the destroyed St. John’s Regional Medical Center. Officials decided to make those schools the priority because their temporary locations are less desirable than the ones being used by the high school students, Huff said.
Failure of the bond issue could mean that Joplin High School students for several more years will continue to use the Memorial campus for freshman and sophomore classes, and the converted big-box store at Northpark Mall for junior and senior classes. The district estimates the cost for building a combined JHS and Franklin Technology Center at $104 million. It will receive about $54.8 million in insurance proceeds for those destroyed buildings.
JHS senior Tori Mitchell, who attends school at Northpark Mall, said she thinks the temporary buildings are great for their intended purpose, but she said students face several issues at the buildings.
“I think that passing the bond issue would help Joplin restore faster,” she said. “We do face a lot of difficulties in this facility. It’s hard to concentrate (with the noise) because the walls don’t hit the ceiling.”
Mitchell said the school’s performing arts groups do not have a big enough space for their needs, and athletes are scattered for sporting events. But beyond the logistical changes, she said, the temporary sites have a “completely different vibe” from the old high school.
“It’s taken a lot out of school pride because we don’t have an actual high school,” Mitchell said. “I think it’s bittersweet. We don’t have to deal with the maturity differences between classes, but it’s also different that as a senior, we don’t have ‘seniority.’”
The school district pays about $2 million per year for leasing the temporary buildings. If the bond issue doesn’t pass, the district would continue to pay leases on the temporary site for Franklin Technology Center, and for use of Memorial Hall and the Northpark Mall campus. For the FTC temporary site at Fourth Street and Grand Avenue, the district pays $35,000 a month. The district leases Memorial Hall from the city for use by high school students at $33,333 per month. The district pays two leases for the 11th- and 12th-grade center at the mall that total $94,521 per month.
Last week, the administration was going to recommend that the board also propose construction of two new elementary schools to replace Columbia and West Central, buildings that were not damaged by the tornado. That would have brought the funding gap to nearly $78 million instead of the $62 million. Huff decided to change his recommendation because the bonding capacity for the district was not that high. He said that if the district has extra funds, it should apply them to those buildings since they will be the oldest ones in the district.
Several Columbia parents said the building could benefit from updates or a new school altogether, but they said they could wait a few more years if necessary.
“I went to West Central,” said Michael Judd, who has a child who attends Columbia. “I would not mind seeing upgrades. Both are pretty old schools. If there’s money for it, they should use it.”
Trailer classrooms, which are present at several Joplin schools, also are a concern for some parents.
“I think this school (Columbia) is old and needs updating,” said Columbia parent Stephanie Green. “The kindergartners are still outside (in trailers), and they should get to be inside, especially since they’re so little.”