At information session, Gainesville school to explain why it needs 75-cent levy increase
It's been 25 years since Gainesville R-V School District voters approved a levy increase. That 1993 increase, of about 30 cents per $100 assess valuation, was dedicated exclusively to fund the construction of the "new" elementary school. And when that facility was completely paid for in 2008, the tax was rolled back to the state minimum of $2.75, where it's remained despite the district's repeated efforts to persuade voters to raise its operating levy again.
Now it's trying again, and district superintendent Jeffrey Hyatt is doing everything he can to show voters how badly the levy increase is needed. He and the school board will host an informal information session at 7 p.m. Monday, July 16, in the high school library. "I hope lots of questions will be asked," he said. "And I'll do my best to answer."
The district is asking voters to approve a 75-cent levy increase in the upcoming Aug. 7 primary election. The increase would bring the school levy to $3.50 per $100 assessed property evaluation, meaning owners of houses assessed at $50,000 to $100,000 would pay about $73 to $143 more per year in school taxes. At $3.50, the new Gainesville levy would still be one of the lowest in the county. By comparison, Dora's total school levy, including debt service, stands at $3.61. Bakersfield’s school levy is at $4.56.
Among other things, the increased operating levy would allow the Gainesville district to make safety and security improvements throughout both schools, including new high-security classroom doors. At the elementary school, the levy increase would replace the current 25-year-old heating-and-cooling system and created a 3,500-square-foot addition that will be a “hardened” space that will serve as a storm shelter. It would also pay for roof repairs on the high school, and replace failing floor and ceiling tiles and lockers in the middle school and high school. A portion of the levee would also be dedicated in attracting new and qualified staff and keeping them, Hyatt said.
An overall renovation and update
"Basically, the middle school and high school building needs an overall renovation and update. With the improvements, it's going to be a new-interior building," Hyatt said, adding that "this 1963 building is just not going to last another 60 years unless we address several issues. And we need to fix those things before we can go forward with any building additions. You just can't maintain a school building on a $2.75 levy anymore. Gainesville has done a fantastic job of getting by and making do, but now it's time to reinvest in our school."
Hyatt said he has "talked with a lot of different people" about the proposed levy increase. One misconception he's heard is that the planned renovations at the high school will mean removing the library. "That's not the case at all," he said. "With the renovations, we're going to utilize the current library's square footage for a band room and additional classrooms. Then we'll create a new library/media center that will be part of the entrance area at the front of the school. It will be an updated-type library first of all, but it will also have a computer lab and have several different uses."
Spending down the 'balance'
Another issue Hyatt has addressed is the belief among some voters before previous levy-increase attempts that the school board was "sitting on" a large pool of savings without spending it appropriately on district needs and improvements.
The district started the year with about $3.1 million in savings. At that amount, the school had a 29-30 percent "balance" of its annual budget. The goal now is to maintain about a 20-22 percent balance – the percentage recommended by the state. "For us, that's somewhere around $1.8 to $2 million, enough to cover three or four months of bills and payroll," he said.
Several recent improvements, including a $100,000 roof repair at the elementary school, the outright purchase of a new school bus, and "a lot of general maintenance and upkeep" have drawn down the account to about $2.8 million, Hyatt said.
The district is also anticipating that funds will be needed for "matching" several grants it has applied for, many of which require the district to pay 25 to 50 percent of the cost while the grant provides the rest.
For instance, the school is hoping to hear soon that its application for a FEMA grant has been approved so it can build a new 7,800-square-foot storm shelter /entrance at the front of the school. In a March interview with the Times, Hyatt said the estimated cost of the FEMA building would be around $1.7 million to $2 million, with the district probably needing to provide $600,000 to $800,000 of that amount.
The district has also applied for a Community Development Block Grant through the Missouri Economic Development program that would help it build a new preschool building large enough to accommodate all students whose families want to participate. Currently, Gainesville's preschool program serves about 35 4-year-olds who attend classes two days a week. Because of limited space in the elementary school, the program can't always accept all the students who want to enroll each year. Hyatt hopes the new building, which would have two classrooms, restrooms and support space, would help the school "get to the point where we're not turning anyone away." He also hopes the program can expand to four or five days a week, he said.
Recently the high school was approved for a "vocational enhancement" grant from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to build a new greenhouse for the agriculture department. It's a $170,000 project with the district paying $43,000 of the cost. Ag teacher Jon Wilson said the new greenhouse will "allow students to work with up-to-date technologies while studying plant science and greenhouse operations and management."
The school is also applying for a matching grant to buy new classroom computers.
Showing the possibilities
And if those grants aren't approved, the district will keep applying as new rounds of grants become available, Hyatt said.
If the levy increase is approved, the district will use the funds as efficiently as possible, and if enough money is there when the renovations and repairs are completed, then a new high school gym will be considered.
Hyatt is eager to show the community the possibilities that lie ahead for the Gainesville School District if the levy increase is approved. He'll do that at Monday night's informational session.