County's smallest school faces closure unless tax levy increase passes soon
By: Darrell Todd Maurina
Swedeborg R-III School Board President Jaimie Alexander and District Administrator Joe Dunlop address residents at a public meeting.
SWEDEBORG, Mo. (April 13, 2010) — Just days after Swedeborg voters rejected a tax levy by a wide margin of 102 to 62, many of more than five dozen parents and residents who turned out for a special April 13 meeting asked voters to reconsider their decision and told board members that many who voted “no” didn’t realize rejecting the proposed tax increase would force closure of the Swedeborg R-III School District and merging with another district.
“We’re pulling every last straw we can. We’re grasping for everything we can to keep this school open and alive at this time,” said board president Jaimie Alexander. “It’s either ask you all for another levy, or close the doors the doors and annex. That’s it. It’s cut and dried … I’m getting kind of aggravated because I understand that it’s difficult for everybody, but we’ve got to pass a levy. If we don’t show the levy again, then there’s no way to keep the doors open to the school.”
The Swedeborg school has Pulaski County’s oldest building that’s still used for school purposes and it’s also the county’s last remaining K-8 district. Enrollment fluctuates but is usually around 50 students; after eighth grade, Swedeborg students can choose to attend any area school district but most decide to attend Richland High School and a few attend Crocker High School. Swedeborg then pays tuition to the district whose high school is attended by Swedeborg students.
Like most other districts in Pulaski County, Swedeborg currently charges only the state-mandated minimum property tax levy of $2.75 per $100 of assessed valuation. However, that means Swedeborg doesn’t get nearly $20,000 in state money that it would receive if it charged what Missouri education law considers to be an appropriate tax levy of $3.43; districts levying less than the recommended amount receive a penalty in state aid.
Voters rejected the school board’s recommendation to pass a $1 levy increase, so District Administrator Joe Dunlop asked those attending the public meeting if they’d be willing to consider a smaller increase to reach the $3.43 state-recommended amount.
“The reason that is a magic number is that is the new state minimum number that allows our foundation money — that is, the money we get from the state of Missouri — to be fully funded,” Dunlop said. “Now what that means is if your levy is set at that amount, then instead of getting 75 or 80 percent of the money that you’re entitled to, you get 100 percent. That doesn’t make as much difference in the total revenues of taxes that you bring in, but it does make a significant amount of difference.”
Two districts in Pulaski County, Crocker and Dixon, both charge a levy above the state-mandated minimum, and both districts do so because of construction projects. The highest current levy is $3.32 in Crocker, but even that levy doesn’t meet the state minimum for full funding without penalty.
However, Dunlop said he knows Richland is considering a levy increase and Laquey may be considering one as well.
“Waynesville, with impact aid from Department of Defense assistance, is the only district that’s not considering that now,” Dunlop said. “Since the foundation formula is being played with right now or being manipulated by the state legislature and they have already gone down for most districts 2 percent, it may go down as much as 5 percent next year, that fully funding amount is important to everybody.”
Steve Rees, a former school board member, received loud applause when he said there’s no good reason for Swedeborg residents to vote against a tax increase since refusing to pass a tax increase for Swedeborg means parents will be forced to pay taxes — likely higher taxes — to another nearby district once the Swedeborg school is forced to merge because it can’t pay its bills.
“We can sit and preach to the choir all night long. If we go to Crocker we’re going to pay more taxes. If we go to Richland, Richland has their kids in a house trailer. Now what are they going to do with our kids? We’re taking our kids from 8 or 9 in a class to 20 or 30,” Rees said. “We’re going to pay one way or another so why don’t we pay right here for our kids to get an education here?”
Several residents asked why the school board asked for a $1 tax increase when a smaller amount would have met the state minimum for full funding.
“What it’s going to affect by not going to $1, by going 67 cents, is it’ll take longer for us to recover. It’ll take four or five years for us to build the fund balances back, maybe longer if the state cuts more money. But 67 cents at that level will keep us alive,” Dunlop said.
“If we pass the tax levy which it looks like most of us want to do, what are you going to do to get us out of this mess?” asked resident Leisa Rees.
“If we can get this $3.43 voted in, now that’s not going to solve the problem but it’s going to help,” said resident Louise Zweerink. “What we need from you as the school board is to start watching your pennies and cutting corners when you can and try to get us out of this mess.”
That’s already happening, Dunlop said.
“Actually we started this year,” Dunlop said. “I’ll be honest with you. I never expected my first year to have a budget this tight, but that’s my problem.”
Cost-cutting measures include getting rid of a lease-purchase bus. Field trips are now done by fundraisers and preschool will be cut, but the teacher staff can’t legally be cut further, he said.
The district faced a crisis when it couldn’t make its tuition payments to Richland High School, Dunlop said.
“If we hadn’t had a concession from Richland this year and we had to pay all the tuition this year, we would probably have would up closing,” Dunlop said.
Steve Rees asked whether the Swedeborg district will have all its back bills to Richland paid this year. Dunlop said that will probably happen, but he wants to be sure before he makes that commitment and he’ll probably have to cash in the district’s last certificate of deposit worth $12,000 in its reserve fund.
Cost-cutting measures include eliminating the preschool program, Dunlop said, which will save $31,000 in money that can be redirected to Title I services for students who need additional help.
Some proposed cost-cutting measures aren’t possible, however. Dunlop said while years ago students may have had three grades to a class, Swedeborg’s current arrangement of grouping grades 1 and 2, grades 3 and 4, grades 5 and 6, and grades 7 and 8 is all that’s allowed. Kindergarten students must be in their own class, he said, and while it’s still legal to group first- and second-graders, state educators frown on that practice.
Several residents said they weren’t happy that they hadn’t received copies of a Swedeborg school newsletter.
Dunlop said the newsletter was sent to everyone in the school district who is a registered voter, but acknowledged that there may be problems with the voter registration lists.
“What we used to put out the mailing list for the newsletter was the registered voter list from Pulaski County for our district from Diana Linnenbringer, our county clerk,” Dunlop said. “Now the registered voter list, as you know or you might not be aware, is not always kept as up-to-date as it should. There are names of people who have moved. We have gone through that this year and straightened that out. That’s a fact of any voter list; they’re supposed to be absolutely accurate, but there are situations where they aren’t.”
“Anybody who’s left out we’ll add to the list,” Dunlop said, adding that he’s willing to provide copies of back issues of the school newsletter to people who come to the office though he said mailing costs would likely be prohibitive to re-send back issues.
Dunlop acknowledged that many of Swedeborg’s problems come from a succession of short-term administrators during the years since former teacher and longtime district administrator left for the superintendent post in the Laquey R-V School District.
“You’ve had some bad breaks over the last eight or 10 years. For whatever reason, you’ve had a lot of one-year-wonder administrators, maybe two years,” Dunlop said. “I committed to this district after this first year for an additional two years. And the reason I did it on my contract was because I was asked, ‘How long are you going to stay, buddy?’”
Dunlop reminded residents that although he’s new to the district administrator post, he has years of experience helping Swedeborg when he worked as the technology coordinator for the neighboring Richland R-IV School District, which is attended by many Swedeborg students once they graduate from eighth grade and decide whether to attend Richland High School or Crocker High School.
“There’s a path out of this and there’s potential,” Dunlop said. “I knew a lot of the people. So a part of my decision was the fact that I’ve known that this school has had potential for a long time. My eyes weren’t shut when I came in here; they were open. I made a decision based on the fact that I feel like this little school and a lot of little schools like it around the state of Missouri are worth having.”
Dunlop said it’s not easy to tell people they’re “almost broke,” but said he doesn’t think that has to remain a problem if Swedeborg takes immediate steps to fix its problems.
“I came here to this district after 13 years in Richland. I was tenured, I was director of technology, I was on an administrative-track contract, I was the A-plus coordinator, the money was good, and I felt like I did a lot of good, but I saw this as an opportunity to come here. I came here — not that I deserve any special commendation — after knowing what the budget problems were,” Dunlop said. “If you look back over the history of this district, and I’m talking about years and years, every time their backs were against the wall, the patrons of this district came through, and you’ve made sacrifices before.”
One resident asked why Dunlop hired several teacher aides when the district faced serious financial problems. Dunlop said federal Title I money can only be used in a limited number of reasons, all tied to improving student performance.
“Title I money is meant to help students who have reading problems or math problems that are keeping them below their grade level if they are struggling … I can’t use it to pay buses, I can’t use it to buy food, none of that stuff will work. If you try to do that you’re in violation of federal law and they’ll come after you like the IRS and demand the money back,” Dunlop said. “We have a lot of kids that need help with reading, math and getting ready for their MAP test … The reason I brought on a full-time and a quarter-time Title I aide, two people, is because I wanted to make sure every kid this year got individual help on getting ready for the MAP test because the MAP test tells us how well our kids are doing.”
Dunlop acknowledged that other districts may use Title I money to buy equipment rather than pay people, but said that isn’t a good idea.
“Instead of buying software or equipment or anything else that may not do the job, my own educational philosophy is the best thing you can do with a kid that’s struggling is set them down with a qualified teacher or a teacher’s aide and get them help,” Dunlop said.
Other residents asked why the school doesn’t have a school counselor.
Dunlop agreed that’s a problem that needs to be fixed, but board member Chris Black said there are reasons the position isn’t filled.
“That costs money. We are in trouble now because we have deficit-spent for two or three years and the reason we are out of compliance is because we had to find some area to cut expenses. A counselor is one; a health aide was another,” Black said.
Many of the school district’s problems are recent, Black said, and many of them are due to new state requirements.
“We weren’t in financial trouble five or six years ago. That happened for the most part in the last two years before this one and basically it’s because each year the state raises minimum salaries for teachers and they begin to put stipulations on the number of staff you have to have,” Black said. “Before we had that, we could manage money a lot more freely. When you are dictated what you have to pay a first-year teacher and what you have to pay a teacher with her masters, and that you have to have a quarter-time counselor, your health aide, your music, your art, each of your classroom teachers, when that stuff begins to be dictated to you, you run out of options for where you can cut money.”
However, Dunlop cautioned that having state-required standards isn’t a bad thing.
“The minimum standards set by the state are there so nobody has a crummy little school somewhere that doesn’t do its job,” Dunlop said.
After years of working to maintain older buses, several years ago Swedeborg purchased a new bus. That decision generated numerous questions.
“We had two buses that expenses were probably costing us $12,000 a year to maintain. Do you continue to pour $12,000 a year into a bus that’s 20 years old or do you eventually try to find something that is dependable and make a payment?” Black asked.
Responding to questions from one resident about whether it’s possible for a private resident to purchase and maintain his own school bus and then contract with the district, Dunlop said that’s legally allowed but probably would not be cost-effective.
“One thing we get right now is we get all our maintenance for nothing because Laquey district helps us out, one of your former superintendents,” Dunlop said, referring to Laquey R-V Superintendent Bob Boulware.
Several teachers spoke in strong support of the Swedeborg district.
“We have the luxury here of knowing which kids are coming in and who we will be working with,” said Adreanne Black. “A child this last week said, ‘They didn’t vote for the levy. I guess that means they don’t care about us.’… your kids know about it and know what is going on… your babies know what is going on and that should be the most important here.”
A Richland teacher, Becky Proctor, noted that the Swedeborg parents may not like the consequences of state officials stepping in and disbanding the Swedeborg district if they do nothing.
“A lot of you think you;ll be able to go to Richland. That isn’t necessarily true,” Proctor said, noting that at least part of the district might even be consolidated with Waynesville.
“I don’t care how good a teacher is, if she has 25 students she relinquishes control. If you have five, or seven kids, that’s a no-brainer. We need to keep the school open,” Black said.
“Are we going for another vote?” asked resident Kevin Bonebrake.
“If we don’t do this, then our fate is sealed. There’s no chance then,” said Dunlop.