Wednesday, November 25, 2015

C. J. Huff: We'll twist FEMA's arm and they'll give us what we need

How did the Joplin R-8 School District reach the point where it is relying on the federal government to cover the massive overspending that took place during the construction of Joplin High School and East Middle School?

The attitude was already in place months before district voters, by a 45-vote margin, approved a $62 million bond issue, the largest in district history.

Huff explained his plans to East Middle School faculty and staff during a meeting in March 2012 in the library at the temporary warehouse school. The meeting (and I have a recording of it), is featured in a chapter of my book, Silver Lining in a Funnel Cloud: Greed, Corruption, and the Joplin Tornado. A portion is reprinted below:

As the date for the bond issue election neared, C. J. Huff had his technology department set up Skype meetings with the faculties at each of the district’s schools. Those meetings were designed not only to keep the staff informed about the issue, but also to make sure everyone knew the talking points.

The East Middle School faculty gathered in the library following school on a day in late March and waited for Huff’s presentation to begin.

He began by showing charts which broke down the bond issue, then explained, “The perception we’ve had to fight is that we have more money than we know what to do with and tens of millions of dollars in donations.”

Huff continued, “They’re asking, ‘Where’s the money?’ And as I explained to somebody today, I have no desire to go to jail, so I can promise you all of these funds are being spent where they are meant to be spent.”

Of the donations, Huff said, $1.7 million have been specifically earmarked for rebuilding.

The one thing he could not bring himself to do, he said, was to make the project smaller than it needed to be. “If I were to do anything other than bring forth the projects we’re proposing, I’d be doing a disservice to the kids and this community.”

The most important project was the rebuilding of Joplin High School, Huff said. “It is the crown jewel of the district. The last thing I want to do is to cut a ribbon in 2014 on a high school that is too small.”

Though the push was on to pass the entire $62 million package, Huff told the East staff what would happen if the bond issue failed. “All we would have left is $85.9 million from insurance. We couldn’t build back Joplin High School and Franklin Technical Center. If it failed, three of the four projects, the middle school and the elementary schools we could do. Joplin High School would have to be put on the back burner.”

I asked Huff what was being done to sell the issue to the voters. As a newspaper reporter in the 1970s through 1990s, I had covered successful bond issues which were nearly always driven by parent volunteers. As a teacher, I had even worked as publicity chairman for a successful bond issue drive for a new high school in nearby Diamond where I taught from 1999 to 2003.

That was being handled, Huff said. By this time, the committee, which was now headed by Lynda Banwart and businessman Logan Stanley, had been renamed the Vote Hope Committee, conjuring one of the most iconic photos of the post-tornado days when someone had seen the only letters left from the word “Joplin” in the sign in front of what was left of Joplin High School were “op” That person added the letters “H” and “E” and turned it into Hope High School. The name went viral almost immediately.

Huff made it clear he expected East Middle School staff to get the parents in line. “I’m a little concerned about the East Middle School parents.” Since the high school was the crown jewel of the building project and many of them would not have children attending the high school for two or even three years, they might not see the importance of the project, Huff said, especially since the insurance proceeds would allow a new East to be built anyway.

One question that was on the minds of East faculty was why the new East had to cost so much more than the old one. The East that had been torn down following the tornado had only been in service for two years and had some empty rooms because it had been designed to be ready for any increase in student population. It was a state-of-the-art building when it opened and surely things had not changed that much in so short a time.

Huff anticipated the question. “East will be bigger because we’re smarter now than we were a couple of years ago. There’s no shame in that.”

Much of the cost would be borne by FEMA, but some of the things Huff’s team had planned would cost more than FEMA was prepared to pay.

“We’ll do some arm twisting” Huff said, “and they just might pay for what we need.”

Huff is no longer superintendent, but the arm twisting will take place a week from today when district officials meet with FEMA.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This man's ego will be felt in Joplin for decades. And he stays here and pretends he is wanted. He is not and we wish he would move away and take his greedy, corrupt administration and friends with him. Always trying to cover his tracks, I guess. Can't leave until he knows it's all covered up. I hope he goes to prison where he belongs for misappropriation of funds and stealing donations. Angie took off with enough evidence to cover her ass and send him there. I guess her job bought her silence for awhile. I expect she'll turn soon enough.