Letter to the Editor

Superintendent explains R-1 ballot issue

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Superintendent explains R-1 ballot issue

Dear Editor:

I have been overwhelmed by the support of the community in reference to our proposed new school project. Even the few who have admitted that they will probably vote against the issue have expressed their understanding of our severe need and wish us well regardless of the election outcome.

In a meeting Jan. 3, a crowd of more than 130 people attended to hear our information. Numerous patrons of the community voiced their support of the levy increase to me and board members at the conclusion of the meeting. Most said that the construction was long overdue and that the community should foot the bill in order to keep our kids in a safe, modern and local educational setting. I believe the community is ready to control its own progress rather than let a minority group with no "personal investment" hold them back.

From the beginning, the board has recognized that the increase is indeed substantial, and it was the board's hope that the community would see the need for a centralized site to serve current and future generations of our kids instead of the mighty dollar sign.

This is where I have been overwhelmed by the response of the community. Many of our patrons have spoken and agree that our kids are worth the cost. Several parents have approached me in support of the issue even though their children have long since graduated. They all profess the same theme. Someone helped fund their kids and they are prepared to help the next generations.

One gentleman told me that his neighbor felt the schools were good enough for his grandparents, so they should be good enough still today. Ironically, the neighbor man drove a late-model pickup truck with a hay bale stinger, carried a cell phone on his belt, and enjoyed his fleet of modern tractors. If Grandpa's school building is good enough for today's students, then shouldn't his horse and team of mules still be good enough today for his farm? Numerous comments and rumors have surfaced about the election results. The most common myth is: "If the election fails, half of the students will go to El Dorado Springs and the other half will go to Nevada." This is simply not true. If the election fails, the Northeast Vernon County R-I school will continue to operate.

One of the most important roles of the school board is to maintain fiscal responsibility and stability for the district. This is certainly a tall order for any type of organization given the current economic issues around the country and the world. For this reason, the board has sought advice from several sources, including Dr. Howard Neeley, former superintendent of schools of the Republic R-III school district.

Dr. Neeley has since retired from public education and specializes in public financing. His expertise has been very beneficial to our district. Dr. Neeley's résumé reveals a long list of successful school finance campaigns and building projects. It was his team of financial experts who helped the district formulate the plan to accommodate the building of our new school.

From the architectural end, detailed blueprints are not an option until the district receives the support of the public in the form of a "Yes" vote on April 8. Because these plans are quite costly and labor intensive, it would certainly not be financially responsible of the board to spend such money without first obtaining the community's commitment.

The next best thing to detailed blueprints is a "space plan" which outlines the square footage for the school's many areas. This gives the architect and the district a baseline for calculating estimated costs. Obviously, there is no way to arrive at a precise cost for building such a comprehensive building at this point. The district also plans to use programs and loans such as those made available by the Department of Natural Resources. These programs offer extremely low-interest loans to organizations that can show energy savings. The district has a space plan and a floor plan available for public viewing. It is the board's hope that the community will entrust them to create the new building with the kids' best interests and in the most economically feasible manner. I believe the board has already proven their financial integrity by keeping the current operating levy below $3.50 for the last several years when it could have been in excess of $4.

This venture is not one without risk. There are many factors which contribute to a school's financial status -- many out of the local school's control. The board knew from the beginning that such a project would bring inherent risks to the table. The ballot issue will authorize the board to adjust the operating levy if needed to help fund a new building. If economic conditions worsen, or if construction costs escalate and make the construction not feasible, then the board will have no reason to impose the higher tax levy. This fail-safe enables the board to proceed with the construction if financing is appropriate or delay the levy increase until conditions are conducive to build. The district will not engage in a project of this magnitude without firm financial contracts and timelines in place.

The flip side of not building a new school would mean that the district would continue to fund mushrooming expenses of repairing and renovating the old buildings. Thus, when the year 2030 comes, our kids will either be housed in one school that is about 20 years old, or they will still be in TWO buildings which have seen their 100th birthday come and go.

Common sense certainly seems to say that is would be fiscally irresponsible to continue pouring money into aging facilities rather than on more important issues -- our kids.

The Northeast Vernon County R-1 school district's status is currently "Accredited." In the 2005-'06 school year, the district received the honor of being "Distinguished in Performance" for its improvement. During the 2005-'06 year, the district received a 100 (out of 100) on the Annual Performance Report. Accreditation is chiefly based on student achievement. For the top performing schools around the state, the periodic reviews will not focus on square footage, the number of library books or the physical placing of fire extinguishers. Instead these schools are only required to submit a list of documents to the state supervisor every five years.

For schools that are not performing at the top, this review process is more involved. The state will send a team to observe and inspect the school's processes to help determine underlying causes of the school's deficiencies. Obviously this process is much more involved and complicated for schools to endure. It is during such visits that physical observations may be made. For example, the team may note that some classrooms have poor lighting, poor ventilation, inconsistent heating or cooling, poor acoustics or other physical conditions which may distract from proper teaching and learning. While buildings may not be "the" crucial element for a school's accreditation status, who can argue that students are most likely to learn better when they are in a clean, safe, well-lighted, comfortable room? In addition to the obvious savings in energy by converting two historical buildings into a modern, centralized school, the faculty and staff are eager to reunite into one unit again. The district's enrollment has grown 6 percent since 2003. Area schools surrounding the NEVC district are certainly willing to accept new students -- they are PUBLIC schools! That is, they are mandated by law to accept all eligible students.

There are many pros and cons in support of the "small school." Most of those who have openly opposed the levy increase choose to send their students to other (larger) school districts for various reasons. There is no argument that a student wanting to be on a tennis team or golf team will be disappointed in our district. However, students wishing to be involved with academic bowl, baseball, basketball, cheerleading, softball or volleyball, can be on the team without the worry of "cutting" due to large numbers of players.

While the number of course offerings is reduced, so is the teacher to student ratio, ensuring that the faculty and staff know the students on a much more personal level than in a larger school population. Many members of the faculty and staff spend their own money to help students who are disadvantaged for various reasons and unable to obtain basic needs. While these acts are not public and do not appear on any evaluation form, they are clearly the result of professionals who are also big-hearted, generous and seeking the best interest for our kids.

Not only have many students excelled in our district academically, our students have demonstrated their ability to compete both in higher education and the work force. We are proud of those who attend college, enlist in the military, support the local economy through employment or choose to simply raise a family in our community.

During recent school years, we have enjoyed the honors of having Sherry (Hancock) Thomas compete in the national bridge building contest in Chicago and Baltimore three times. Matt Thomas also competed once in Chicago. Nona Salsbury won first place at the Joplin Regional Spelling Bee which included all large schools in a wide area around Joplin. Chase Thompson competed in the national FBLA contest in Chicago last year. And most recently, Hannah Ahrens was selected to sing the National Anthem at the opening ceremony of the state FBLA convention. There are numerous other success stories as well.

For about 80 percent of the properties in the NEVC R-I voting precincts, the daily tax increase will be less than 50 cents. Only 15 total properties assess at or above $50,000. Of these 15 properties, eight are hog, chicken, or dairy farms, four are commercial properties, one is a church (tax-exempt) and two are residential. These properties account for less than 0.8 percent (eight out of 1,000) of all properties in our voting area. Two of these individuals have contacted me personally in favor of the increase.

On Saturday, April 5, the NEVC Board of Education will have a special meeting on the district's property where the new school would be built. This meeting, at 6 p.m., will give patrons a chance to ask any questions about the new school proposal or the associated taxes, see floor plans, meet other candidates running for election and buy flowers and plants from the NEVC FFA chapter. Food and drink will be available.

Directions from El Dorado Springs: Highway, AA north to Highway Y, left (west) about four miles, north side of blacktop (look for signs).

From Nevada: Highway 54 east to Highway C, left (north) approximately 10 miles to Highway, Y, right (east) approximately 1/2 mile, north side (look for signs).

In the event of rain, the meeting will be held at the Schell City school.

Charles E. Naas, superintendent

Northeast Vernon County School District