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Campaign over new high school heats up, but spending hasn't

Campaign over new high school heats up, but spending hasn't

Both sides of ballot issue file finance reports

March 10th, 2013 in News

The campaign to pass a bond issue to build a new high school is heating up in Jefferson City, but the two groups involved in the contest have adopted different strategies for winning voters' hearts and minds.

Citizens for Excellence in Education - the group that is supporting the Jefferson City School Board's plan to build a new high school east of Highway 179 - has raised $26,025, according to a campaign report submitted to the Cole County Clerk's Office 40 days prior to the election.

The group opposing the Jefferson City School Board's action - Citizens for 2 Public High Schools - has raised $1,625 during the same reporting period. Dan Ortmeyer, the group's lead organizer, contributed $500.

The bulk of funding donated to Citizens for Excellence in Education - $20,000 - was contributed by the Civic Progress, 47 firms and businesses affiliated with the Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce.

Randy Allen, President and CEO of the chamber, said the group of business leaders sees the opportunities a new high school represents. He noted the seven career academies - each would enroll between 300 and 500 teens and focus on a different career path for those students - would be a "huge economic benefit to the community."

Jefferson City's business community has been instrumental in partnering with the school district to launch the seven academies.

"One of the things we've learned is that the education of our future workforce is the most important thing," he said. "The communities that do a better job at both public education and higher education will be ahead of the game."

Allen said it's become increasing challenging for local economic developers to devise successful strategies to grow the economy. "It is so much more difficult now to attract businesses and people from other places," Allen lamented. "We have to create an educated workforce ourselves."

He said that people may argue about how to achieve that goal, but he said there's "no doubt" that the academies approach and the creation of smaller learning communities "is extremely valuable."

Allen also noted that, although the chamber's Transform Jefferson City initiative was not successful, one of its ideas was to expand the presence of Lincoln University and Linn State Technical College within Jefferson City. (Under that plan, the two higher education institutions would have moved into the soon-to-be-vacated St. Mary's Health Center.)

Under the Jefferson City School District's current proposal, Lincoln University and Linn Tech would assume ownership of the high school campus at 609 Union St., if the new high school is constructed.

"This proposal will allow Lincoln University and Linn Tech to expand in Jefferson City. That's huge for us," he said. "It makes a lot of sense. This is a very sound proposal, and it is worth the business community's support," said Allen.

Although Citizens for 2 Public Schools has raised far less money - only $1,626 - the group may have raised it from more individual givers. According to the two groups' campaign reports, the two-schools group gathered almost $700 from "persons giving $100 or less," while the pro-one-school group had not raised any funds in that category.

As for expenses, the pro one-school group spent $14,900 on a survey, $1,650 to contact voters and $362 to print copies.

Four community leaders - Brenda Hatfield, Debra Walker, Jared Craighead and Michelle Horn - have stepped forward to help the Citizens for Excellence in Education campaign.

Craighead said the group would not release the results of the survey, but noted it was done to make sure the group was sharing information that voters are interested in and raising the level of awareness - and the accuracy of awareness - about campaign issues.

So far, the group hasn't distributed yard signs or invested in an advertising campaign, although they haven't ruled out the latter idea.

"We have had dozens of people making thousands of phone calls," Craighead said. "Once people have access to information, more people are telling us they are supportive than they are telling us they are opposed."

Walker said the team is depending on a grassroots effort to get the word out. They've also held coffees klatches and met with parent-teacher organizations.

The team hopes to send a direct mailer to voters and would like to do more advertising. "It's a matter of raising money. It's not easy," said Hatfield.

Although some observers have said the group's efforts to identify and target persuadable voters a new approach, Hatfield said it's actually an old one. "It's something that might have been done 50 years ago," she said.

Their opposition - Citizens for 2 Public Schools - has spent $538.70 for newspaper advertising and $450 at Party Graphics.

On Thursday night, Ortmeyer was out late pounding poles for yard signs. He, too, is hoping word-of-mouth and a grassroots movement will carry the day for his cause.

"We know there's no way we can compete with those guys," he said, acknowledging the $20,000 contribution from the business community.

"Our strategy is: We voiced our concerns to the school board. They essentially have continued down the same track."

Ortmeyer is hoping, if the bond issue and operating levy increase fails in April, school leaders will try again with a different plan.

"Hopefully, they'll have the leadership to come forward with a real world, two-school proposal," he said.

Ortmeyer is worried in a few years, the one "mega school," as he terms it, could also be faced with overpopulation problems. "Will that school be paid off? Will they want us to consider building a second high school then?" he asked. "A second high school would absorb more kids, more easily. Two school are the best, long-term investment in the community."

He also asked voters to consider why Blair Oaks is growing at such a fast clip. He believes it's because that school district offers something parents desire: a traditional, smallschool experience for their teenagers.

"If Jefferson City wants to retain people, we need to have a second high school," he suggested.