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Vote over, but debate on schools isn't

Vote over, but debate on schools isn't

Both sides agree something must be done, but what?

April 7th, 2013 in News

The votes have been cast, and the ballots have been counted. But it's not yet clear how school leaders will interpret the results of Tuesday's election, when patrons of the Jefferson City School District declined to approve funding for a new high school or a host of other needs.

Moreover, it doesn't seem as if the election settled the debate over whether the community needs a replacement high school or a second senior high.

Dan Ortmeyer, a key supporter of the two-schools movement, hopes the district will bring another proposal forward. He noted it's been years since voters last gave the district more money. (The last voter-approved increase was in 2002 to raise teacher salaries.)

"Moving forward, there's still a need in the district to do something. We need to get the entire community engaged. We need to establish a new committee, with new people," Ortmeyer said.

What did voters really say?

On Tuesday, 8,517 - 67.5 percent of those who cast ballots - voted against allowing the school district to incur debt by issuing $79 million in general obligation bonds, money that would have been used to build a new senior high school and elementary school. Voters also opposed a 25-cent increase in the district's operating tax levy, money that would have paid for security improvements, teacher professional development, staffing, computers and transportation.

But among those "no" voters, it's unclear how many are never in the mood to raise taxes; how many would give the district money, but can't afford it; and how many just didn't like the district's plan for a large high school with seven career academies.

Ortmeyer said he believes voters are willing to support the local schools, but didn't care for the district's approach.

"I think the people are willing to pay for a tax increase, if it's the right plan - a second, modest high school," Ortmeyer said.

He thinks it's possible two high schools in town could share Adkins Stadium.

He also said he, and his supporters, are sincere in their belief that building a second public high school is the best way to address the school district's real needs. He was indignant at the implication his group is a disingenuous cover for people who resent paying taxes.

Joy Sweeney, president of the Jefferson City Board of Education, said: "The next step is to make sure we do what's best for our kids and be fiscally responsible to our community."

On election eve, Sweeney was encouraged by the support voters showed toward incumbent candidates Doug Whitehead and Dennis Nickelson. Both men supported passage of the two school-related questions on Tuesday's ballot.

She suggested it might be possible - with more public education and outreach - to change voters' minds. "Maybe they need some more information," Sweeney said. As the election results became more clear Tuesday evening, Sweeney said she believed the Board of Education would still need to seek solutions to the district's challenges. "The lack of space for students needs to be addressed," she said. "That's an immediate concern."

What's next?

In a letter posted online Wednesday to parents and the community, Superintendent Brian Mitchell wrote: "Ultimately, Tuesday's losses hurt. My first concern is how will the losses negatively impact students. The limited space issue that we face is very real. It must be addressed. The major components of the levy issue must be studied."

In an interview Thursday, Mitchell said the Board of Education and members of the Citizens for Excellence in Education campaign committee met numerous times with parents, civic groups and church groups to explain the district's needs for more space and resources for students.

"We spent three and a half years studying this, trying in a lot of different ways to engage the community in conversation by sharing information and getting feedback. I feel good about the process we went through. I'm proud of our community members and staff who spent time doing that research," he said. "The intent was to help us be better ... and to do it in a way that would be beneficial to the community at large."

While he was "pleased" with all the work that went into the campaign, he added: "Obviously ... the election results indicate we didn't do enough of something."

He said his group's next step will be to pose some rigorous questions to the school district's patrons and gather their thoughts on what ought to be done.

Mitchell said: "I don't believe our community doesn't care about education or kids. I don't believe they aren't willing to support these issues. I hope they believe we work hard every day" to do what's best for children.

"Hopefully, we'll have a better idea of what our patrons didn't feel was good enough to support, and we'll see what adjustments we can make."

On election night, he said school leaders and campaign supporters have not yet discussed the second school option.

"At this point, we're going to spend a little time finding out as much as we can about what voters didn't like about this plan," he said. "We're not going to rush back and try something the same, or different."

Mitchell said it's likely the district will conduct another survey to suss out voters' thoughts and emotions. He said the election revealed "results," but not the "rationale behind the results."

David Luther, assistant to the superintendent, said, going forward, district administrators are going to be listening to individuals and groups. "We're open to plenty of discussion, and we're happy to initiate those talks. But if others want to invite us, we'll be there, too."

Work on academies under way

Regardless of how facilities for senior high students are handled down the road, both men said the district is committed to pursuing academies. Under the academies approach, the high school would be arranged into seven "career academies," each devoted to a different field of study. All students will still receive a general education. But in the Health Sciences academy, students probably would take anatomy and physiology, and in the Industrial Engineering academy, they likely would take physics.

"We're committed to the academies," Luther said. "We'll be spending time helping families understand how the model works."

School administrators have about a year and a half of planning in front of them before implementation, Mitchell said. "We are in the process of identifying what spaces in our existing buildings will be dedicated to the career academies. And our planning committees are looking at the process for student selection," he added.

A pocketbook issue?

Whitehead said he was proud of the hard work both the Excellence in Education campaign committee and the board put into trying to get the initiatives to pass.

"The complexity of it is, we have a good plan that could be great. The plan was affordable, yet it offered the opportunity for a world-class education," he said.

Whitehead said he fears the next proposal - if it involves a new state-of-the-art senior high and an extensive renovation at the existing campus - realistically cannot be done for less than the 55-cent increase voters soundly rejected Tuesday.

"If our next step is two schools, we're going to be at a higher number ... higher than we're asking tonight," he said the night of the election.

Whitehead said board members knew, as they crafted their plan, tax increases are a pocketbook issue for many people who can't afford to pay more property taxes.

"We tried to keep it the lowest cost possible and still try to deliver a world-class education," he said.

Marc Backes, a supporter of the Excellence in Education campaign, said the district still faces very real problems that will have to be addressed.

"These are not the supporters' kids. These are not the opponents' kids. These are our kids. Our energy is best spent toward finding a constructive solution - together," he said.