To the editor of the Farmington Press,
As the superintendent of the Farmington R-7 School District, I am honored to lead efforts to improve services for our students. When misinformation is spread about the district’s tax rate and the integrity of our decision-making process comes under fire, I fully accept the obligation to stand up for the sake of our students.
As the Farmington R-7 School District helps students become college and career ready, safeguarding the funds taxpayers provide is an important priority. Ensuring that those funds are spent wisely to meet students’ needs is part of the equation. American schools exist to educate students. They are our customers, our products and our investments. As educators, we embrace the privilege of serving every student who walks through our doors.
In Farmington, students are the core of all of the decisions we make, whether it is about providing them with the teachers and resources they need to be ready for the real world when they graduate, or providing them with safe and secure schools. We realize that students spend the majority of their waking hours in our hallways, classrooms, and gymnasiums. They play on our playgrounds and ball fields, experiment in our labs and prepare for their future. We are not ashamed to say our kids come first, even though a local online columnist has questioned our claim that students are our #1 priority.
With the strong belief that every student deserves the best education possible, and at the recommendation of administrators, support staff and teacher leaders, the School Board decided to place Proposition KIDS (Keep Improving District Schools), a $17 million no-tax increase bond issue, on the April 3rd ballot. After researching the district’s needs and the current financial condition, each School Board member honored the oath they took when elected to “… faithfully and impartially discharge the duties of School Director in and for the Farmington R-7 School District …” Though we understand that our citizens are working hard to meet the needs of their own families, the Farmington School District has the responsibility of advocating for students and maintaining school buildings that are cornerstones within our community.
Is it unusual for a school district to set a debt service levy that is within the range of the state auditor’s recommendations? Yes, the Farmington R-7 School District has kept the debt service levy well below the ceiling recommended by the state in recent years because the economy was growing and generated enough money to cover our debt obligations. In August, our district raised the debt service levy to protect and preserve the district’s financial health. The established debt service levy of $0.90 was set so we could meet our debt obligations from past bond issues and allow the district to address current needs without pulling heavily from operating funds.
It is important to understand the truth about the district’s tax rate, especially the debt service portion that pays off bonds. After reviewing the recommendation from the state auditor, the district raised the debt service levy to 90 cents for each $100 of assessed value. The auditor’s calculations showed that the district could increase the debt service levy up to 92 cents, but the School Board decided that 90 cents would be enough to continue to pay down existing debt and be in a position to address urgent facility needs. It was the first time in 10 years that the district raised the debt service rate.
The operating tax rate, which pays for the day-to-day expenses such as salaries, utilities and instructional materials, remains the same as last year at $2.89. The total tax rate, which is the sum of both the debt service and operating rates, is $3.79 per $100 of assessed valuation, which is the same rate taxpayers paid in 2000. Even with the jump in the debt service portion, Farmington R-7 School District’s total tax rate is the lowest of all school districts in St. Francois County, and is the third lowest of all districts within St. Francois, Jefferson, Washington and Ste. Genevieve counties.
Despite the low tax rate, our district regularly has earned the state’s highest honors, Distinction in Performance. Individual schools in our district have been recognized with the Missouri Gold Star and National Blue Ribbon status. Those recognitions are no fluke. We have students who want to learn; teachers, administrators, support staff and School Board members who go above and beyond in their efforts to help students reach their potential; parents who are engaged in our schools and support their children; a community of business leaders and elected officials whose decisions help propel the Farmington area forward while also honoring its history.
Is it unusual for a school district to ask voters to consider a measure to improve facilities? Not really, especially if everyone has students at the heart that decision… The district, however, vetted the process before it made its decision to put a bond issue on the April 3rd ballot. For several months, we weighed information from a facilities study that identified critical repairs and upgrades needed to keep our buildings safe and secure, replace buses that have outlived their efficiency and provide additional space to accommodate curricular and extracurricular needs at the early childhood and high school levels. The administration and School Board then gathered valuable input from scores of staff members, parents and community members as they prioritized construction projects.
Is it unusual for a district to have significant facility needs? No, not when a district has aging schools with roofs, electrical systems and HVAC units that have outlived their lifespan; not when the number of high school science classrooms cannot accommodate the space and resources students need to be competitive; not when an early childhood building and high school gym can no longer safely accommodate the number of students they serve.
Is it unusual for a district to address safety and security needs? No, not when we have serious issues.
The fire alarm systems, currently in use, are not monitored 24 hours a day. Thirty year-old roofs leak and drainage issues in some of our schools have led to mold and other damage. If the district wanted to address all of the repairs and upgrades recommended in the facilities study with one bond issue, the projects would have totaled approximately $30 million and would have required an additional debt service increase (above the rate determined in August) to pay off the bonds. Instead, the list of repairs and upgrades was narrowed down to include the most critical needs that could be addressed without an additional tax rate increase.
Farmington R-7 students are, and will continue to be, the heart of the district, the heart of our decisions and the heart of our future. We expect great things from them, and they should expect the same from us.
Natalie Thomas, Ph.D.
Superintendent, Farmington R-7 School District