You can do things the easy way or you can do them the hard way. With the St. Joseph School District, why does everything have to be so difficult?
We’re not talking about getting voter approval to go down to two public high schools. That was always going to be a tough sell. But every school district has to make basic building improvements, including air conditioning in this part of the country. It should be a no-brainer for the public, especially when the money is coming from the federal government.
But this is St. Joseph, where the availability of COVID relief money put the district in the position of moving quickly on $30 million in much-needed HVAC improvements at the three high schools, plus the Hillyard Technical Center.
But the federal government and the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education don’t make things easy, either. There are three different allocations of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief — ESSER I, ESSER II and ESSER III — totaling $39 million in COVID relief for the district. Because the contractor wants payment in advance, but DESE prefers to allocate ESSER funds as a project is completed, it becomes necessary to secure financing — in this case, lease certificates at rates as low as 0.35%.
It’s a similar concept when the bank pays the contractor for your new deck and you pay the bank.
The district’s AC work gets complicated because there are multiple ESSER allocations, including $9.6 million that initially will be used to provide cooling to large spaces like gyms, followed by future allotments that will bring air conditioning to the remainder of the buildings, including classrooms.
Some critics would say that the district shouldn’t use this finance tool, even at a ridiculously low rate. We would suggest that paying for the improvements out of a fund balance would jeopardize the ability to cover monthly expenses, like payroll for teachers. Others believe the district shouldn’t move on improvements that voters rejected in April, but a reasonable reading of the election results is that voters were more skeptical of two high schools than upgrades to existing facilities.
These lease certificates are reasonable and prudent, something that schools in other locations would be able to accomplish without a great deal of controversy. So why the skepticism?
Well, another thing schools do all the time is hire superintendents and extend their contracts. Whether you think Doug Van Zyl should be extended is immaterial. Someone needs to run the district and deal with things like old buildings with a lack of air conditioning.
The stumble in telling the public about his extension is one of those small things that makes the big things just a little harder to sell down the road.