Cape Girardeau School District's yearlong journey on bond issue comes to end next week

Sunday, March 28, 2010
A new classroom wing and a football stadium are among the items Cape Girardeau Central High School would receive if the bond issue passes. (Fred Lynch)

When the Cape Girardeau School District went to the public with its facilities planning in spring 2009, many issues were on the table.

District officials considered reconfiguring grades, shifting school boundaries and building a new elementary school east of Interstate 55, ideas that gained little traction. During three forums, the community sent strong signals in other areas like projects at the high school and maintaining a neighborhood school with Franklin Elementary.

The district will reach the end of a yearlong journey with the decision on a $40 million bond proposal in the April 6 election.

Throughout the past 14 months, district officials unveiled and honed a plan to overhaul district buildings by bouncing ideas off a steering committee that included representation from parents, administrators and the city. District officials started with an evaluation of each of the district's 10 buildings and met with teachers to determine programming needs.

"I feel good about the process we've gone through," superintendent Dr. Jim Welker said.

The plan to be considered by voters includes a variety of projects addressing deferred maintenance, overcrowding and safety. While the proposal contains a new elementary school and an auditorium and event complex at the high school, other projects range from supporting the sinking corner of Jefferson Elementary's gym to installing security cameras at six schools.

According to a survey conducted by the Missouri School Boards' Association, 41 districts will go to voters with bond issues next week. Statewide, bond proposals average more than $11 million. Cape Girardeau is proposing one of the bigger issues in the state and the biggest in district history without increasing the tax rate.

The Columbia School District, which is has 13,000 more students than Cape Girardeau schools, is attempting the biggest in state history, said Mike Parnell, director of education funding for the association. Voters there will decide a $120 million bond issue to build a new high school, elementary school and two gymnasiums, among other projects.

Conditions are favorable for bond proposals, including low interest rates and incentives through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, Parnell said.

"If there's things they really need to do, now is the time to strike," he said.

Despite the incentives, districts are cautious about incurring larger operational costs. He compared the current conditions to purchasing items on sale.

"You only want to buy them because you need them, not because they're on sale," he said.

The local tax rate that will not change is 69 cents per $100 assessed valuation levied to pay district debt. By law, the money cannot be used for other purposes, including teacher salaries and district operations. The rate is calculated according to the amount of district debt and assessed valuation, Welker said. The district has $17.39 million in debt from past projects. Debt is set to expire in stages in 2011, 2014, 2015 and 2020, at which point the tax could disappear.

"It's really not reasonable to say that the tax won't be needed in the future," he said. The tax is the primary mechanism available to districts to build and maintain its infrastructure, Welker said.

If passed, debt from the current proposal would be combined with past debt. While the rate would not increase, the length of time it would take to pay off the debt would be extended by 10 years, Welker said.

Welker said the district could also take advantage of qualified school construction bonds, interest-free bonds available through the stimulus package.

The bonds have been a selling point for some districts, said Roger Dorson, coordinator of school administrator services for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. He said $146 million in bonds are available statewide and will be mostly split between successful bond proposals from November through the upcoming April election. He said $141 million in the bonds were distributed last year.

"Last year, everyone who applied got something, and it can make a sizable difference," he said.

Opponents' questions

Despite what has been referred to as the perfect storm for such a project, the $40 million plan has encountered opponents who question the scope, finances and other decisions regarding the project.

The plan was endorsed earlier this month by the Cape Girardeau Area Chamber of Commerce. However, weeks before the vote, opposition surfaced from outside and within the ranks of district leadership.

A school board member who voted to put the issue on the ballot but also questioned the proposal's effect on the operating budget spoke out against the measure. Paul Nenninger, a board member facing re-election, questioned the scope of the project in a Southeast Missourian candidate questionnaire, calling it "a pork barrel with something for everyone."

Before the proposal received board approval, Nenninger advocated completing it incrementally to make sure it did not affect the district's already strained operating budget.

The district's team of engineers, architects and construction managers conducted an analysis of the proposal's effect on district operations. The plan would add $28,542 to the district's $42.9 million budget, according to the analysis.

District officials contend that addressing maintenance issues with the bond proposal will free up operating funds and put the district in better shape to deal with possible cuts from the state. Some maintenance issues will need addressed regardless of the election's outcome, Welker said.

"We have a constant battle with keeping Clippard's roof from leaking," he said.

Other opposition includes the Cape Girardeau County Libertarian Party, which has raised questions about the need to extend the district's debt. The Cape Girardeau Historic Preservation Commission questioned the need to demolish Franklin Elementary in a letter to Welker and the school board. While the commission did not take a stance on the overall proposal, it advocated saving Franklin Elementary.

Built in 1928, Franklin is the oldest building in the district. In the end, district officials decided to stay in the neighborhood to keep in step with community feedback. They decided to build a new building because cost estimates to renovate reached $1.8 million more.

Franklin principal Rhonda Dunham said there has been concern among parents.

"They've come to me and said, 'Tell me what's going to happen,'" she said.

Students would attend the current building while a new school would be constructed nearby, eliminating the need to find a place for 260 students during the renovation.

As principal, Dunham oversees the school she attended as a child. While she maintains sentimental ties to the building, she said, reality sets in when its shortcomings become apparent.

"Sometimes you have to let the emotions go," she said.

Breakdown of spending on the Cape schools bond issue

Alma Schrader Elementary

Northwest corner addition: $890,937

Entry and music room addition: $869,822

Detention basin improvements: $79,479

Mechanical work: $280,324

Electrical upgrades: $109,274

Classroom door replacement: $81,350

Roof replacement: $729,550

Security cameras: $35,024

Exterior door security: $30,967

Total: $3,106,727

Additional square feet: 5,639

Blanchard Elementary

Security cameras: $35,024

Exterior door security: $30,410

Total: $65,434

Clippard Elementary

Classroom addition: $2,196,950

Library/ computer room addition: $ 1,301,835

Detention basin improvements: $79,479

Remodel classrooms and work areas: $485,864

Restroom renovations: $39,420

Mechanical work: $339,106

Electrical upgrades: $122,512

Classroom door replacement: $60,865

Roof replacement: $516,089

Security cameras: $35,024

Exterior door security: $31,858

Total: $5,209,002

Additional square feet: 14,396

Franklin Elementary

New 50,000-square-foot school: $10,018,647

Jefferson Elementary

Entry and music room addition: $853,213

Gym floor repair: $51,350

Mechanical work: $1,355,953

Electrical upgrades: $423,103

Classroom door replacement: $81,350

Roof replacement: $455,293

Security cameras: $35,024

Exterior door security: $32,304

Total: $3,287,590

Additional square feet: 2,479

Central Middle School

Addition at breezeway: $582,695

Railing replacement at main stairs: $57,651

Mechanical work-temperature controls and boiler replacement: $204,559

Additional parking: $173,868

Fire alarm work: $61,138

Security cameras: $38,915

Exterior door security: $30,410

Total: $1,149,236

Additional square feet: 2,310

Central Junior High School

Library addition: $2,132,622

Detention basin improvements: $79,479

Fire alarm work: $115,427

Security cameras: $77,831

Exterior door security: $66,170

Total: $2,471,529

Additional square feet: 7,930

Central High School

750-seat auditorium: $7,275,584

16-classroom wing: $4,311,233

Stadium complex: $2,441,578

Stadium restroom and concession stands: $543,237

Total: $14,571,632

Additional square feet: 43,424

Energy savings districtwide: $20,488

Increase in operational costs: $28,542

Total cost: $39,879,797


Pertinent address:

301 N. Clark Ave., Cape Girardeau, MO

215 N. Louisiana Ave., Cape Girardeau, MO

1000 S. Silver Springs Road, Road Cape Girardeau, MO

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