Dr. Lori VanLeer

Washington School District Superintendent Dr. Lori VanLeer

Less than one week from the election, Washington School District Superintendent Dr. Lori VanLeer said she’s cautiously optimistic Prop R, Right Now for Children, will be approved by voters.

“I truly hope we are in a position to move forward as a community,” VanLeer told The Missourian.

“I feel like we’ve done a good job of listening to the voters after last April’s failed election, made some adjustments and came back with a good plan to address our needs in smaller parts,” she said. “The focus groups, the citizens campaign committee and school officials have all worked very hard in developing this plan and communicating it to the community.

“Now it’s up to the voters, and we’re asking everyone to unite to provide 21st century learning spaces, tools and instructions for all students.”

Two Questions

VanLeer said the two-part ballot proposal will go a long way in shaping the district’s future.

The first question, a $9 million bond issue, is dedicated to projects that can be completed with no increase to the current debt service levy, she said.

VanLeer said approval of Question 1 will allow the district to modernize and upgrade to a wireless technology infrastructure for all buildings, and build an early childhood education center for comprehensive early learning services.

“One of the biggest issues facing the district is the inequitable access to technology, and wireless infrastructure will address that,” she said.

VanLeer said construction of a new early childhood center will enable the district to better serve incoming students through early intervention. The in-town preschools, early childhood special education and Parents as Teachers would all be under one roof which is a win-win for the families seeking services and staff who can better collaborate, she said.

The district also will be able to complete HVAC renovations at Augusta Elementary and make classroom additions at Marthasville Elementary as part of Question 1.

Question 2 seeks approval of a $40 million bond issue which requires a 25-cent increase to the existing debt service levy.

Approval of Question 2 will allow the district to build a new 6-8 grade middle school on property it owns off Highway 100 and renovate the current middle school into a K-5 elementary school, VanLeer said.

Currently, the middle school only serves seventh and eighth grades.

“A new middle school will create much-needed classroom space at all of our elementary schools,” VanLeer said. “This is the game changer in terms of space gained districtwide.”

Repurposing the middle school into an elementary school also will allow the district to retire two aging facilities — Fifth Street Elementary, which is in need of major repairs, and South Point Elementary, which is located in a floodplain.

“Educational space is limited, not just because of the current population of students, but also due to the space that is needed to deliver a quality education,” VanLeer said.

Passage of Question 2 also will improve student safety, she said, by discontinuing the use of modular trailers for classrooms.

Each question requires a 57 percent majority to pass.

Urge Yes Vote

The chairmen of the Citizens Committee for Great Schools urge residents to vote yes on Prop R next Tuesday.

“Whatever our occupations, whatever our differences, we all want the best for our children and our community,” said co-chairs Brad Mitchell and John Freitag.

Mitchell said it’s important that voters know they will be asked to vote on two separate questions, which each stand alone from a voting perspective.

“Voters do not have to choose which one to vote for, they are asked to answer each question marking yes or no,” he said.

“Of course, I certainly encourage the passage of both questions because it will allow us to relieve overcrowding, preserve programs, introduce 21st century technology, engage in early intervention in the most efficient way and improve student safety by discontinuing all modular trailer classrooms,” he said.

Freitag said he has enjoyed meeting with civic groups and other organizations about the ballot measure.

“We wanted everyone to know what has changed in the last year and how our kids and community can benefit from the passage of Prop R,” he said. “We have answered a number of great questions and the school district has made available an abundant amount of information on their website for those with further questions. We continue to urge people to seek out those resources if they are still undecided.”

Ideal Time

VanLeer said now is the time to act and construction costs will only continue to rise if projects are delayed.

“What would cost us $49 million today is projected to increase to $64 million in just seven years,” she said. “Interest rates are very low so it’s an ideal time to pursue construction.”

The superintendent also noted that the district’s debt service levy, which can only be used to finance bonds, is anywhere from 50 to 75 percent lower than almost all 523 public school districts in Missouri.

She said the district’s website — www.washington.k12.mo.us — features a tax levy calculator for residents to determine the financial impact of Question 2 on their household. For a $100,000 home (assessed market property value), the cost would be an additional $47.50 per year.

VanLeer said building a new middle school, rather than a new high school, which had previously been considered, is a better use of tax dollars.

The price tag for a new high school today is anywhere from $65 to $85 million, she noted, which would require more than double what the district is asking, and it wouldn’t address any of the space needs at the elementary levels, technology or other issues.

Converting the current high school into a middle school also isn’t an efficient use of space, VanLeer said, because there would be many vacant classrooms and unused areas, as well as safety concerns with a building of that size and the supervision needed for middle school students.

“We feel we have a very good plan, and we hope the voters think so too,” she said.