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A Large Proposition: SPS’ $168M bond issue includes funding for 39 projects

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For the second time in two years, Springfield Public Schools is seeking voter support to fund facility improvements across the district.

If approved on April 2, Proposition S, a $167.7 million bond issue, would fund 39 projects for the school district, phasing in an 18-cent debt-service levy over two years. Projects include construction of new school buildings, renovations to existing facilities, the addition of secure entrances at 31 schools and expansion of early childhood education with additional classroom space, according to SPS officials.

Friends of SPS, a grassroots citizen advocacy group, has been running a “Yes on S” campaign since its formation earlier this year. Co-chair Alina Lehnert, who also is a Springfield school board member seeking re-election April 2, said as of March 24, the group has received more than $180,000 in donations among 150 donors. The money has funded efforts to support the measure – mailers, yard signs, and social media and television advertisements.

“We truly are grassroots, and talking to people and making sure they are informed of the needs,” Lehnert said, noting the issue has received numerous endorsements, including those from the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce, the Springfield chapter of the National Education Association and the Springfield Council of PTAs. “We’re doing everything we can to get out the vote.”

The proposed projects include:
• Phase I renovation of Hillcrest High School for $24.75 million, reducing its capacity to 1,200 students from 1,488 students, and connecting all campus buildings;
• construction of a new Jarrett Middle School at the current Portland Elementary School site for $41.54 million;
• new construction of Boyd Elementary School on a site with a larger footprint in the Midtown neighborhood for $20.34 million;
• renovation and expansion of Williams Elementary School to add a storm shelter/gymnasium and early childhood minihub for $17.97 million;
• renovation of Sunshine Elementary School to add classrooms and a storm shelter/gym for $13.89 million;
• new construction of Delaware Elementary School at its current site for $23.78 million;
• creation of an early childhood center for 250 preschool students, possibly on property near Carver Middle School for $12.69 million; and
• addition of secure entrances by remodeling 31 schools to have better access control points, for $7.8 million.

For a resident with a home valued at $100,000, the issue’s passage would equate to a property tax increase of $2.85 per month, or a total of $34.20 annually, after the tax is fully implemented in 2020. For commercial property, owners of buildings valued at $500,000 would be taxed an additional $288 annually in 2020.

Lessons learned
The April 2 election serves as another opportunity for SPS after voters turned down a 2017 proposal to issue $189 million in bonds. Previously, the school district had received voter support in five elections since 2000, totaling more than $270 million in bonds to fund facility improvements, according to the SPS website.

In Missouri, laws governing bond elections require 57.14 percent of the vote to pass, making a simple majority not enough for approval. The 2017 bond issue acquired just 51 percent of voters in favor of the proposal, according to Springfield Business Journal archives.

Stephen Hall, chief communications officer with SPS, said the district sought additional feedback from voters following the 2017 defeat.

“We learned the community wanted more stakeholders, more voices as part of the process in developing the project list,” he said, adding the school board approved the May 2018 creation of the Community Task Force on Facilities.

“That was a direct result from the feedback,” he said of the 30-person task force that was formed to identify facility needs of the district. The group met twice a month for five months, touring facilities and reviewing master plans before making its final recommendations report last October, Stephen Hall said.

Co-chair David Hall, who is director of safety at Missouri State University, said the task force considered why the last bond failed, while also systematically going through all projects to determine if renovation or new construction were better options. Security features and accessibility of facilities were areas of focus, he said.

Prioritizing projects was a challenge, David Hall said, with the task force identifying $450 million in capital improvement needs across 50-plus learning facilities in the district.

“That was the hard part, because there were so many needs,” he said. “But at the same time, you had to limit it. The leading cause that was identified last time was it was too expensive.”

Differing views
Retired SPS math teacher Carl Herd voted against the 2017 SPS bond issue and plans to do the same on April 2.

Herd said the issue is about more than buildings. He’s concerned about the leadership of the district, specifically criticizing the work of Superintendent John Jungmann. He said the district’s use of open classrooms in Fremont Elementary and other schools, an initiative of Jungmann’s, isn’t taking teaching in the right direction.

“It’s not that we couldn’t use some new buildings,” he said. “If they’re built with open classrooms, it’s not best for the students.”

Herd pointed to the district’s Missouri Assessment Program scores, particularly in math, which he noted was below the state average in 2018. According to Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education data, the state average for math proficiency was 42 percent last year, while SPS was at 35.3 percent.

“The task force did a good job. But the task force was limited to buildings only,” said Herd, who taught for 27 years at Pershing Middle School before retiring in 1993.

Stephen Hall said the facilities in the six major projects of the ballot issue have an average age of 86 years.

“We’re asking to take care of the most significant ones, but our recommendation is to look at more projects that ought to be brought forward at a future point in time,” David Hall said.

Lehnert said while no organized groups have come out in opposition of the issue, she acknowledged that some have spoken out against it at school board meetings.

David Hall said the task force recommended a series of three separate bond issues, with the projects identified as most pressing included in the Prop S proposal.

The task force recommendations are for future bond issuances in 2023 and 2026, but Stephen Hall said those would be reviewed by the school board down the road, pending the vote on Prop S.

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