CARTHAGE, Mo. —
The Carthage School District has a budget surplus, and with it, the district has gone to the Missouri Legislature asking to use some of those funds to build storm shelters.
Sen. Ron Richard, R-Joplin, presented legislation last week that would allow the Carthage School District to transfer funds during the 2014-15 school year from its general fund to its capital projects fund to complete “student safety-related projects.” The transfer would leave the fund balance at no lower than 20 percent, well above the state’s recommendation of 16 percent.
“They only want to draw down enough money to cover the costs of the storm shelter,” he told the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday, before they passed out the bill with support from the entire committee. Companion legislation has been filed in the House by Rep. Tom Flanigan, R-Carthage.
Currently, the Carthage School District has $34 million extra in its general fund. Blaine Henningsen, superintendent of the Carthage School District, said the legislation, with the 20 percent minimum, would allow that fund to get as low as about $7.8 million.
The idea to build storm shelters at the district’s elementary schools came up when district officials surveyed the community as part of its Carthage 2020 program, which aims to improve the district by the year 2020.
The community came up with about $43 million in capital projects.
One project was the early childhood special education Parents as Teachers Center, for which the district broke ground on Thursday.
Other ideas included additional classroom space, an $18 million project the district hopes to fund with money from an issue on the April 8 ballot.
The district opted to move quickly on those two priorities, but last fall, polled the community on how voters would like to move forward on some other priorities. Chief among the priorities listed by the local community was the construction of storm shelters.
“The results that came back from the survey were very clear: The patrons just wanted to create some tornado safe areas at the elementary schools,” Henningsen said.
The problem is, with the other construction projects happening currently, the construction fund is now running low.
“We are approaching that maximum with the construction of this early childhood center. We don’t want to wait several years to do this tornado safe area projects,” he said. “We’ve approached Richard and Flanigan asking for some one-time legislative relief from that seven percent limit.”
Other area school districts — like Joplin, Neosho and Webb City — were able to use money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to fund their storm shelter construction projects, but that money has dried up. Carthage missed its opportunity to use that, Henningsen said, because FEMA required school districts to cover 25 percent of the construction, and the district didn’t have the money available so soon after constructing its new high school in 2009.
Sen. Ed Emery, R-Lamar, a member of the committee, ultimately voted in favor of the bill but questioned whether the bill was a “special law” — which he typically opposes. Richard said he is in favor of special laws in this case.
“If we have a tornado down there and we don’t have these storm shelters built, you can answer to them,” he said in response to Emery’s critique.
The bill gained support from the Missouri School Board Association as well as the Missouri Association of School Administrators. Mike Lodewegen, the director of legislative advocacy for MASA, said the school funding formula is drafted in such a way that money cannot be transferred from the general fund to the construction fund.
“This is drafted in a way that all special laws are drafted,” he said. “(Carthage’s) surveys continue to come back that parents and constituents in the districts continue to want to have safe storm shelter.”
DESPITE A SIGNIFICANT SURPLUS in the Carthage School District’s general fund, state law currently prohibits more than 7 percent of that money being used for construction projects.