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What will the JC school district need in 20 years?

A committee of community volunteers met for the first time en masse on Saturday to talk about the future of the Jefferson City Public Schools. 

Specifically these “stakeholders” have been asked by school administrators to create a long-range plan — 20 years out, although they hope it will be reviewed annually — to guide future facility-expansion decisions.

Lorelie Schwartz, a Jefferson City certified public accountant, and Bob Weber, JCPS director of facilities — have agreed to co-chair the effort. 

The committee will separate into two “fact finding” groups until the end of December. One will examine elementary and middle school issues; the other will look at high school concerns.

The group will be asked to weigh in on issues such as the raw square-footage the district needs to educate its pupils, the costs associated with providing that space and decisions about where that space should be renovated or newly constructed.

In one year school leaders want to be able to tell the community what the district’s space needs are, at what cost.

“I believe there is a strong interest and a strong need to map out a 20-year plan. There’s always something down the road that’s going to be needed ... to be able to outline what those needs are going to be, what those costs might be,” Superintendent Brian Mitchell said. 

During the meeting, members of the group said they need to gather as much demographic data as possible to guide their decisions. 

“We need to be able to make accurate projections,” said committee member Steve Bruce. “What is driving enrollment numbers?”

A new demography study is expected by mid-October. Facilitator Kenny Southwick, an educational planner with the Kansas City-based firm, ACI Boland Architects, said he’d like to wait until after that information is available to meet again. 

When asked what his firm was being paid to facilitate the meetings, Southwick indicated the school district and his firm hadn’t determined yet what those expenses will be.

On Saturday, the group broke into four teams to address three questions: What are they most proud of with the school district and community? What are the biggest challenges facing the school district and community? And, what are the barriers to accomplishing the task at hand?

The first question — which elicited a long list of varied responses — revealed the group prides itself on Jefferson City’s “tradition of wholesomeness,” “spirit of volunteerism,” “athletic and academic history” and the city’s “safe environment.” 

The second question showed that the stakeholders are concerned about attracting young professionals and they are worried about the economic impact of state budget shortfalls. The committee members also lamented that Jefferson Citians, in general, tend to be too accepting of the status quo, resistant to new ideas or change, slow to embrace outsiders and not always open to diversity.

Participants also noted more students now are eligible for reduced-price lunches and raised concerns about how that is affecting the schools.

“That is not just a local phenomenon,” Southwick said. “Those numbers have jumped many places around the state. They don’t always get the same experiences. We have to work harder to reach them.” 

The third question — about barriers to success — was more challenging for some members. Some talked about obstacles that might be in the way of finishing a long-range plan by June; others wondered what will it take to convince voters to trust their ideas for future facilities.

Some of the possible “barriers” the groups pitched included: emotional attachments to the current facilities, fighting the ‘no change’ mentality, obtaining the financial resources necessary, a dearth of school board candidates and the inability to communicating effectively. They also mentioned that focus groups are sometimes negatively perceived as a way for leaders to check a box, not as a mechanism for listening.

John Rodemann said knowing the ideal size of a school and future enrollment would be helpful to him. 

“What are our enrollment projections for the next five years? What is the best size for a school? What is the funding/tax tolerance? What is the message from the last vote? We don’t want to do the same wrong thing twice,” he said. “What’s the general public’s consensus?” 

Southwick suggested each of the stakeholders not only bring their own ideas, they also represent their likeminded peers in the community. He called them “servant-leaders” for their willingness to help.

“Will everyone get everything they want? No. Absolutely not,” he added. “We want to be able to say, ‘That’s the best compromise we can come up with.’”

He added: “We want to be transparent. Be open. And speak a common language.”

After the meeting, participants seemed pleased by their work. 

“I like what I’m seeing and I think the community will, too,” said Dan Ortmeyer.

The group plans to meet monthly for about two hours, in addition to organizing a series of more-public town hall meetings. In July, a plan will be presented to the Board of Education for its consideration.

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