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Will new high school plan pass or fail?

Will new high school plan pass or fail?

Bond issue, levy increase face voters Tuesday

March 31st, 2013 in News

An artist's rendering shows the plans for a new Jefferson City High School. Voters will decide two ballot proposals Tuesday that could clear the way for the project to advance.

After years of preparing for this moment, school and community leaders by Tuesday night finally will have the answer to their $79 million question: Are voters in the mood to build a new high school?

It's unclear if they will be able to overcome the apprehension felt by some residents who believe a second high school - not a replacement model - is the right way to go.

Although no anti-tax group surfaced this campaign cycle, an opposition group called "Citizens for 2 Public High Schools" has railed against the Jefferson City Board of Education's plan to construct a large replacement high school east of Missouri 179.

Led by Dan Ortmeyer, the group erected numerous yard signs and created a presence on Facebook in hopes of persuading voters to hold out for a two-school deal.

Supporters of the plan also have been galvanized for this election.

In January, the "Excellence in Education" campaign - led by a quartet of community leaders including Brenda Hatfield, Jared Craighead, Debra Walker and Michelle Horn - was launched to share a positive message about the school board's proposal. In the past three months, the campaign received support from the business community and many teachers.

Two ballot proposals

On election day, voters who reside within the Jefferson City Public School district will see two questions.

They will be asked if they want to issue $79 million in general obligation bonds - thus raising their property taxes by 30 cents per $100 of assessed valuation - in order to build a new, replacement high school and a new elementary school on the city's east end.

They also will be asked if they want to increase the district's operating levy by 25 cents, funding that will be used to address the district's transportation, technology, staffing, security and professional-development needs.

Combined together, voters will be asked if they want to raise their total unadjusted tax rate 55 cents, added to the $3.6670 per $100 assessed valuation they currently pay.

On a $150,000 home, it is the equivalent of paying about $157 more per year.

Space race

Speaking to both the press and local civic groups, Walker has told listeners the district has a pressing need for more space. According to data shared by the school district, enrollment numbers have increased in the last five years. This year, the class sizes for kindergarten, first and second grades are 797, 693 and 784 students, respectively.

She is concerned the Simonsen 9th Grade Center is too small to house those students as they move through the system.

"Simonsen, which was built in 1914, was meant to house between 525 and 550 students," Hatfield said. "There's no way to get all of those kids into Simonsen and still have an environment that's conducive to learning. It's going to be a short eight years."

Horn worries that finding space on Simonsen's hilly site could prove challenging, if voters don't act. The only flat area is a nearby football field. "If that happens, there will be no athletic fields, no outdoor green space, at all," Horn said.

Supporters of the tax increases have other misgivings about Simonsen's educational value, such as small, musty classrooms with 7-foot ceilings and narrow halls. "If you are a 6-foot-tall teacher with 25 kids, it's really closed in," Hatfield said.

Other complaints are classes that can only be accessed by walking through neighboring teachers' rooms and a lack of ADA-accessibility. For example, a student on crutches must walk around the building's exterior, sometimes in the snow, to access rooms on a different floor.

"The building has served us well," Hatfield said, "But these are things I don't think the community realizes."

For the most part, opponents haven't denied that the facilities have issues. But they are hoping the school board's current proposal will fail so that a two-high-school proposal can advance.

"Our strategy is, we voiced our concerns to them. They essentially have continued down this track," Ortmeyer said. "Hopefully they'll have the leadership to come forward with a real-world, two-school proposal."

He added: "It's time for the people to send a message. They are going to have to answer to the people."

Is size a problem?

One of Ortmeyer's concerns is: If all Jefferson City high school students were combined on one campus, it would be the largest high school in the state, home to about 2,670 students.

If the city starts to grow again, he's concerned one high school wouldn't be able to handle the population explosion.

"What if we had 3,500 students in one building?" he asked. "We're not that far away from that. In 15 years, it's very doable. Will (the new school) be paid off? Would they want us to consider a second high school then?

"A second high school will absorb more kids, more easily."

Ortmeyer said the Blair Oaks School District is a good example of the kind of educational setting - traditional, rural - many parents want for their teens, which is why he feels families are moving that direction. "Ask yourself: Why is Blair Oaks growing so quickly? There's a reason for it."

Proponents argue that Jefferson City still has small class sizes, with smaller student-teacher ratios, than its southeastern neighbor.

Ortmeyer sees two quality high schools as an economic development incentive.

"If Jefferson City wants to retain people, we need to have a second high school," he suggested. "Two high schools are the best long-term investment for the community."

Jay Pride

Leaders with the Excellence in Education campaign have argued building one high school will prevent negative divisions from growing in the community - particularly along racial and socioeconomic lines - and will cement Jay Pride. They see a single high school as the most-affordable option offering the greatest opportunity for academic success.

"We've got a plan that's going to allow us to give a 21st century education to all of our kids," Walker said.

Craighead said two schools will mean two booster clubs for every athletic and extracurricular program. He's worried one wrestling program might be stellar, while the other struggles. "One school gets a good program while the other doesn't," he lamented. "The community's dollars don't (necessarily) double to support two programs."

The proponents also argued, when Rock Bridge High School was built in Columbia, it divided the community.

Ortmeyer, however, isn't buying their argument that two high schools necessarily mean arguments about inequality. He noted Columbia recently built its third high school.

"How many communities have more than one high school? You can't build new all the time. The world's not perfect, and people deal with it," he said. "I don't get the logic. We already have two middle schools. The lines are drawn," he said.

Are sports a factor, or not?

It's still unclear to what extent athletic success, or the lack thereof, plays in voters' minds.

Leaders on both sides of the equation vehemently deny sports are a factor.

"I've been working on this since August 2009," Hatfield said. "I spent six months doing all kinds of public forums. Sports was never the question from the parents. It shocks me when people say it's all about sports. It's the furthest thing from my mind."

Gateway to a great career

Conceptual drawings of the new high school - if voters approve the project - call for seven career academies. Each of these "small learning communities" would be dedicated to different professional areas, but housed under one roof.

Although the decision to create the seven academies isn't on Tuesday's ballot, the concept will have a significant effect on the shaping of the new high school, if it is built. Proponents believe those smaller learning communities will give students more of a sense of ownership in their school and will foster stronger, closer bonds between adults and teens in the building.

They are asking voters to envision a curriculum where a senior in the health sciences academy would be enrolled in classes such as: anatomy and physiology; sports medicine and leadership. Core subjects like English and algebra would be taught in a manner that's relevant and interesting, they say.

"Life takes you in different directions. But if we can expose our children to different opportunities, that's what makes us excited," Hatfield said.

How does JCPS tax rate compare?

What is the weight of the tax burden on patrons of the Jefferson City Public Schools?

Compared with other school districts in the state of Missouri, the Jefferson City School District's tax rate is ranked 188th out of 521 districts.

So, in Missouri, about 64 percent of school districts have higher tax rates than Jefferson City's and a little more than a third of those districts have lower tax rates.

Compared with school districts in central Missouri, Jefferson City's tax rate falls roughly in the middle of the crowd. The lowest local tax rate is South Callaway's at $2.7500 and the highest is Columbia's at $5.4019.

On Tuesday, Jefferson City voters will be asked if they want to raise their total unadjusted tax rate 55 cents, added to the $3.6670 per $100 assessed valuation they currently pay.

Area school districts:

School district / Current rate

South Callaway $2.7500

Camdenton $2.8700

St. Elizabeth R-4 $3.5086

Eldon $3.5403

Cole County R-5 (Eugene) $3.6500

Blair Oaks $3.6600

Jefferson City $3.6670

Jamestown $3.8172

Moniteau Co. R-1 (Calif.) $3.9641

Cole Co. R-I (Russellville) $4.1010

Fulton $4.1892

New Bloomfield $4.3448

Southern Boone County $4.9860

Columbia $5.4019

Among similarly sized cities:

City / Current rate / Population

Joplin $3.6600 50,150

Jefferson City $3.6670 43,079

Cape Girardeau $4.5167 37,941

Blue Springs $5.7562 52,575

Raytown $6.3200 29,526

Accompanying illustration: Artist rendering