With Local Elections Delayed By COVID-19, Missouri Schools' Plans To Upgrade Buildings Put On Hold
Missouri has postponed April municipal elections until June, a decision that could have a long-term impact on metro school districts asking voters to approve bonds for construction projects.
North Kansas City Schools, the state’s third largest school district, needs to replace two elementary schools, build an early childhood center and add on to Staley High School. There’s also a backlog of deferred maintenance at the district’s oldest school buildings.
There isn’t any organized opposition to the bond, and it won’t increase taxes, so the district still thinks voters are likely to approve it, even with the two-month delay. But it’ll be too late to start most of the construction projects planned for this summer, said Jeff Vandel, North Kansas City’s Director of Facilities.
“We could still get some playgrounds in,” Vandel said, “but restroom remodels, floor tile replacements, fire alarm upgrades are just going to take longer than we’ll have in June, July and the first part of August.”
So those bigger projects will have to be pushed back to summer 2021, creating further complications.
“Well, next summer we already have a list of projects we want to do. If we try to do all of this summer’s deferred maintenance projects and next summer’s deferred maintenance projects, that’s going to be problematic when it comes to summer school [because many buildings will be closed],” Vandel said.
North Kansas City isn’t the only district grappling with these questions.
Around St. Louis, for instance, the Ritenour school district has a $19.5 million maintenance backlog. And Wentzville keeps building new schools to keep up with explosive growth.
Closer to Kansas City, Lee’s Summit wants to remodel its oldest high school and reconfigure middle schools.
“Because the majority of our proposed projects are scheduled to be in design development through the summer or fall, we do not believe that this postponement will have a significant impact on our estimated timeline at this time,” Katy Bergen, the spokeswoman for the Lee’s Summit R-7 School District, wrote in an email.
But even in districts where postponing the election won’t necessarily delay construction, the world looks a lot different than it did when school boards put those questions on the ballot.
“It’ll be interesting to see if there are still lingering virus fears when you open the polls in June,” said Shiloh Dutton, the speech and debate coach at Staley. He’s not part of North Kansas City’s bond election team, but a few years ago, he wrote his dissertation on Missouri school referenda.
The older, retired voters who routinely vote in municipal elections “might choose not to go and stand in line and, you know, violate social distancing,” Dutton said. “So there might be a demographic impact on who actually goes to the polls in June on top of a lower voter turnout.”
On the other hand, school districts are doing a lot of communicating with parents right now, which could help districts at the polls, Dutton said.
“There’s a lot of engagement. I think that by the time June rolls around, it could be a positive thing for school districts because they've been in constant contact with folks that are likely to vote,” he said.
There’s no telling when exactly school buildings will reopen. Missouri Gov. Mike Parson hasn’t issued a statewide “stay at home” order like Kansas City or several counties around the metro. But schools in both Kansas City and St. Louis will be closed for at least a month, and epidemiologists have warned that containment of COVID-19 could take much longer, with a vaccine at least a year off.
That means the economy is likely to be on voters’ minds in June and beyond.
“If it looks like there's a recession and we're in it for the long haul, I think that school districts might see a bit of a negative impact when you ask voters to extend or increase taxes,” Dutton said.
Paul Harrell, the vice president of the North Kansas City school board, sees it differently. He pointed out that school construction projects might actually stimulate the economy.
“In order to get the economy going, I expect interest rates to fall, and it would probably be a very good time for us to issue debt. It’s a good value for voters,” Harrell said.
Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.