Voters will be asked to determine the fate of a $220 million bond issue for Springfield Public Schools in the April 4 election.
If the measure is approved, general obligation bonds will be issued to fund school improvements that have been prioritized by a 32-member citizen task force. The district’s debt service property tax levy would remain at 73 cents per $100 of assessed property valuation, as it is now, but the levy, which has 16 years remaining, would be extended to cover the cost of the new bond, according to Travis Shaw, incoming deputy superintendent of operations for SPS.
The bond would pay for safety and security upgrades at all school facilities. Two middle schools, Pipkin and Reed, would be replaced with new buildings, and Pershing, a K-8 building, would be renovated. Additionally, storm shelters would be constructed at Cowden, Holland, Mann, Pittman, Watkins and Wilder elementaries.
The measure is titled Proposition S. If that sounds familiar to voters, it’s because a $168 million bond proposal with the same name was approved by 61% of voters in April 2019.
Shaw said the district hopes to accomplish all of its bond projects within five years.
“Then we would be looking to deploy Phase III at that point in time, which would be just five years later,” he said. “That’s the way in which we need to continue moving forward if we want to continue to provide quality learning environments for our kids.”
He said with the 2019 bond, the district was able to accomplish almost $193 million worth of projects in under four years, and a 2023 bond issuance would keep the improvements going.
“The plan all along was to run one in 2019 and then have another one ready for 2023,” he said. “A school district of our size and of our magnitude, of 4.5 million square feet under roof, we cannot be complacent when it comes to utilizing our debt service levy to be able to upgrade and improve our facilities.”
Shaw noted families look at the quality of schools when choosing a community to live in, and prospective teachers also pay close attention to their potential working environments. SPS is the largest school district in Missouri, with 23,435 students enrolled in 2021-22 and 1,859 teachers, according to district data.
“The school district is the hub – it’s the heart of the community,” he said. “We need to be able to absolutely provide the best education we possibly can for kids, and part of that is being able to provide a safe and quality learning environment for those students and the staff that work there.”
Proposition S designates $70 million for specific safety and security measures, Shaw said. All lower-level windows in the district would have protective, shatter-resistant glass film added to them to make the building more difficult for someone from the outside to breach.
“Essentially, it buys valuable time,” Shaw said. “A bullet will go through it, but a bullet will not shatter it. In fact, our team put over 30 rounds through glass that had this film on it and it never once broke. They hit it with sledgehammers, they hit it with cinderblocks, they hit it with shotguns; at no time did it ever shatter.”
SPS Police Chief Jim Farrell said if someone were to try to break a window to gain entrance to a building, area police would have time to mobilize.
“Fortunately, in Springfield, Missouri, we have a lot of law enforcement – the Springfield Police, the Greene County Sheriff. All of those people are so close to our schools at any given moment, it’s not going to give people a lot of time to start shooting,” he said.
As a potential trespasser tries to breach the shatterproof glass, students and school personnel have time to move to a safer location, he said, adding that the window treatment also can stop run-of-the-mill break-ins and attempted burglaries.
Farrell was a member of the task force that helped set bond money priorities. He said the safety needs in the district’s older schools are readily apparent.
“Honestly, I would make the argument that anybody that visits any of those schools would immediately know and see some of the safety issues,” he said.
While Farrell’s police force is the main line of defense against intruders, some dangers lurk in the school buildings themselves.
“The buildings were built to specs and to code 100 years ago, and obviously things have changed, and some things have had to be patchworked in that time,” he said.
The district’s older buildings have narrow hallways and overcrowded classrooms.
“It’s a chore to get through,” he said. “It’s like trying to get through a crowd exiting a Chiefs game.”
The bond issue also would provide some schools with security cameras to replace existing ones that are over a decade old – a lifetime in technology, Farrell said. The new cameras’ feeds can be accessed from a central location, and they are simple for officers to operate. Some buildings also will get access-control doors that can be operated from a central location.
Farrell said he has now sat on both of the community task forces on school facilities, and he fully supports Proposition S and its projects.
“I don’t take that lightly,” he said. “I’m fairly reserved with funding and spending, but I think this is an absolute need – not a want.”
The district recently offered guided tours of the three school buildings that will be replaced or renovated if Proposition S passes. Duane Cox, principal of Pipkin Middle School, led a small crowd through his building on March 6.
Cox pointed out some of the trouble spots in Pipkin, for which construction started 100 years ago in 1923. Cox said Pipkin, Reed and Jarrett are sometimes called the triplets because they were built at the same time with nearly identical floor plans. A new school to replace Jarrett was part of Proposition S in 2019, and that building is almost finished. A 2023 bond passage could lead the way for three new middle schools to be triplets once again.
Cox led the crowd up and down stairs, while noting there is a small elevator for accessibility. Even so, some rooms, like the band room and the girls locker room, are not accessible for people using mobility devices, and some classrooms that are reachable in a wheelchair are obstructed by raised thresholds. He said he is dedicated to accessibility, and if a student in a wheelchair wanted to be in band, he would make sure that happened by moving band class to an accessible location.
He also showed the crowd the gym, which is too small for the bleachers to open without taking up a portion of the basketball floor, and the cafeteria, where lunch takes place over two staggered hours with cafeteria items stored in hallways outside the doors.
In the basement, Cox offered a look at the steam boilers that heat the building, and a floor covered in water from leaks. Two weeks ago, a break in a steam pipe over a technology closet cut phone and internet service to Pipkin and to two or three different elementaries served by the tech.
“It did a significant amount of damage,” he said.
Pittman Elementary Principal Melissa Agnew’s school is in line to get a new storm shelter if Proposition S passes.
Currently, Pittman students gather in central bathrooms – two or three classes per room – and in a couple of small office-sized spaces when there is a storm warning. A storm shelter would improve that situation, she said.
Proposed shelters also would be used as gymnasiums, which means it would no longer be necessary for gyms and cafeterias to share a space. It has been a challenge to figure out how to get all PE classes in with those two hours unavailable, and some PE classes have to end early for lunch setup.
The new gym also would provide performance space, and right now, there is no space sufficient to fit in kids, parents and grandparents for a program or to fit all classes for an assembly. Agnew added the shelter also would add a music classroom, opening up more instructional opportunities.
“It would definitely change life at Pittman,” she said.
Proposition S is endorsed by the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, Friends of SPS, the Springfield NAACP, the Springfield National Education Association, the Springfield Council of PTAs, the Greater Springfield Board of Realtors, the Home Builders Association of Greater Springfield and the Southern Missouri Professional Firefighters Union.
Springfield Business Journal’s 2023 Trusted Advisers event honors 20 businesspeople.