Vacant schools and teachers salaries will get an upgrade
By Max Goodwin
A bond issue to renovate vacant school buildings and a levy increase to fund an increase in teachers’ salaries in the Hickman Mills School District were both approved by voters on August 2. In the final results, the bond issue gained approval from 76 percent of voters and 66 percent of voters approved the tax levy.
“This is a significant step for Hickman Mills, in terms of our maturation to where we want to be as a school district and as a community,” Superintendent of Hickman Mills Yaw Obeng said the morning after the election.
“I think the voters said on Tuesday that they wanted to invest in themselves,” said DaRon McGee, president of the Hickman Mills Board of Education.
The district can now begin the work of implementing its plan to put $20 million of funding from the bond issue to work in renovating two vacant buildings and demolishing another..
Johnson, Symington, and the former Smith-Hale school buildings have been vandalized while they’ve sat vacant for years. Fires set by intruders have been an ongoing concern at the properties.
The Hickman Mills Board of Education is establishing a plan for the bond funding that calls for Symington Elementary to be renovated and used as a school site and Johnson Elementary to undergo renovations to be used for community purposes, like neighborhood meetings, for example.
The most pressing need for the district is to ease the overcrowding in its middle school.
Last year, all of the 1,200 middle school students in the Hickman Mills School District were in the same building at Smith-Hale Middle School. The long-term plan with the use of the bond funding approved on Tuesday, will be to renovate and use the former Symington Elementary building as the district’s second middle school.
As a temporary solution for this school year, the district will have its sixth-graders in a separate building, at Burke Academy, to start this upcoming school year.
“That gives us an opportunity to start looking at the structures we want for our middle learners, as we develop the plan for middle schools in Hickman Mills,” Obeng said.
The district also approved the bond funds to be used for demolition, security priorities, and district warehouse and school storage space.
The tax levy increase of $1.35 per $100 will fund a raise in staff pay to a level that the district says it anticipates being the highest in the Kansas City metro area. Staff at Hickman Mills Schools will see that raise in the coming school year, McGee said.
The approval of funding comes at a pivotal moment for the district. Hickman Mills appears to be on track to eventually regain full state accreditation. This will help Hickman Mills fix its surrounding neighborhoods by removing blighted buildings and allow the district to retain and recruit staff during a challenging time with an ongoing national shortage of teachers.
“That’s the only way that we’re going to lead ourselves to full accreditation by having staff that want to stay here and making this a destination for all teachers and staff,” McGee said.
Hickman Mills has struggled to recruit and retain the teachers it needs as one of the lowest-paying districts in the metro. One trend the district has seen is teachers starting their careers in Hickman Mills and then leaving for neighboring districts that offer higher pay in a new district.
“There’s a national shortage right now in terms of staff in all sectors and we’re feeling it as well in the region. Districts are competing for staff, and we’re paying for the same individuals,” Obeng said.
With this step, Obeng says Hickman Mills will be able to compete at a higher level to be the school district of choice for staff in the Kansas City area.
“This says Hickman Mills is open for business,” Obeng said. “We’re striving to be at the top and the community is behind us.”
Obeng and McGee both see the approval of the bond and levy issues as needed momentum to the district as it seeks full accreditation.
The tax levy increase would raise the annual property tax of a home worth $100,000 by an estimated $256.50.