By Sheryl Stanley
Harrisonville R-9 Superintendent Paul Mensching and his wife spent last Tuesday night glued to a computer screen in their home, watching the election returns on the Cass County Clerk’s website.
“We must have refreshed that screen about a million times Tuesday night,” Mensching said.
In other years, there might have been a watch party, but not in 2020 when people are still wary about gathering in large groups during the Coronavirus pandemic.
“A group of us were all following the returns and communicating with each other by text and Facebook.”
Was he surprised by the number of people who voted?
“The turnout was a lot higher than I expected. When we realized both measures were going to pass, I felt such relief and excitement. It was a crazy feel ing and it lasted all night.”
Mensching knows there are many people to thank for the victory.
“I appreciate the great community support we got. We worked with a great group on the campaign. Some were with us from the beginning and our support just grew and snowballed,” he said.
“I think the shutdown made people realize teachers are such a great asset for the community and it also made people realize that we were in dire need of an increase. I’m so proud of them.”
With the election over, it is on to finalizing the district’s budget for 2020-21 which must be adopted by June 30. The board, including newly-elected member Cameron Chenowith, will hold a work session at 7 p.m. June 16 to review that plan in its entirety.
Final approval is slated for the June 30 meeting. The next fiscal year starts July 1.
The newly approved property tax levy will be reflected in the tax bills sent out in December and the revenues will begin making their way to the district in January. Until that time, Mensching said, they will live according to the budget, spending as needed, even though it means depleting reserves.
Dipping into savings is not new, however. This spring, the Harrisonville School District lost more than $300,000 when the State of Missouri abruptly slashed its school funding in response to the economic shutdown.
Monies from the CARES Act will help offset the shortfall, Mensching said.
“The CARES Act is designed ‘to allow continuous employment,’ so we will use that to shore up salaries of support staff and faculty, probably at the high school.” The need to improve salaries for district staff was a centerpiece of the campaign. More than 20 positions have been eliminated during the past two years, Mensching said, and there is no plan to bring those back.
“It’s unfortunate, but the decrease in enrollment that we have experienced in recent years was driving us to make some staffing adjustments.”
Currently, he is working with business manager Kathy Van Gorkum and other senior staff to review and assess the district’s pay scales.
“We have to adjust pay scales, but we also have to allow for increases in benefits such as retirement and insurance.”
“Our hourly employees will definitely see increases. Para-professional and secretarial staff were dramatically under paid, so I’m glad they can get a meaningful increase.
“In some way, adjusting the pay scale for teachers will be easy because we will simply add to the base pay rate both for beginning teachers and for those who have a Master’s Degree”, he said.
Will the increases bring Harrisonville School District into line with neighboring schools?
“We should be above Pleasant Hill and equal to or slightly above Cass-Midway. We could still be below or possibly equal to Belton in the rate for beginning teachers. However, with the big bump for faculty with Master’s Degrees, we will definitely be above Belton as well,” Mensching said.
In the future, Mensching said the district must always be aware of enrollment numbers and keep pace with assessed valuation.
“We’re obligated to balance our staff- ing with our enrollment,” he said.
Mensching also said the district will issue the entire $22.7 million in bonds which voters approved Tuesday all at once. Currently, he is waiting to hear from Standard & Poor’s regarding the district’s new bond rating, but he said the market is competitive for municipal bonds.
He will also be meeting with Kansas City architects Hollis and Miller to go over details and scope of the projects.
“It will be up to the school board to decide whether to use a general contractor or a construction management firm for our improvements.”
However, Mensching hopes some elements, such as the tech improvements, can be handled in-house.
“That way, they are more likely to be completed or at least in process by the time school starts,” he said.
Once the budget is approved and improvements to the facilities are underway, Mensching will devote his full attention to gearing up for the 2020-21 school year.
“I’d like to revel in our victory, but we’re still beating our heads against this Covid
thing,” he said.
He has appointed a task force of faculty and staff to coordinate all details surrounding opening the buildings to students in August including cleaning, making provisions for social distancing and possible future shutdowns.
He expects schools to open on time this fall, but adds it is up to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to first allow all districts to reopen, a decision that should be made in July. He also hopes the Kansas City schools consortium, of which Harrisonville is a member, will determine it is safe for students to return to the classroom.