Friday, March 18, 2016

Joplin R-8 and the ticking FEMA time bomb

A few months ago, Joplin R-8 CFO Paul Barr startled district patrons by revealing that not only was the district not in imminent financial danger, but it had miraculously built a 26 percent reserve fund.

That seemed hard to believe, considering that less than a year earlier we learned that the reserve fund was in danger of dipping to single digits. Now with no sudden windfall and no gigantic budget cuts, the district was back on solid financial footing.

What Paul Barr never mentioned was that the 26 percent reserve was built on a foundation of money that the district did not yet have- and had no guarantee of ever receiving.

The money in question was FEMA reimbursements for construction of Joplin High School, as well as the other building projects necessitated by the tornado.

That money included millions of dollars in what was termed "errors and omissions," supposedly mistakes that the government made when telling the district what costs would be reimbursable.

Several months have passed. Barr has reported that the information has been sent to SEMA and FEMA, so it should not be long before we find out if we have emerged from the costliest building project in Joplin R-8 history in good shape or if our reserves are going to be back to single digit territory.

The FEMA decisions will also tell another story. Will R-8 taxpayers have to foot the bill for the millions in wasteful spending that went into the construction projects, or will that cost be shared with taxpayers from Webb City, Carl Junction, Carthage, and every other community in the United States?

Taxpayers are going to pay for frills and extras that the C. J. Huff Administration added to Joplin High School, East Middle School, Soaring Heights Elementary, and Irving Elementary. If FEMA agrees with Barr's assessments of what should be rightly considered as "errors and omissions," then for the most part, Joplin taxpayers are off the hook, except, of course, for the much smaller portion they will have to pay since the federal government will pick up the tab and heaven help us, we do have to pay federal taxes.

The type of thinking that went into the construction projects was best explained by Barr himself when he explained the concept of "might-as-well" spending to the board in May 2014. Huff approved spending $8 million of "might-as-well" spending, spending that was needed in his estimation to add things that "might as well" be done to keep from having to do them later.

Those things included the following:

-Lights at multiple athletic fields and practice athletic fields
-artificial turf at athletic fields and practice athletic fields
-expanded tennis courts from four to eight
--a track at the high school, so athletes would not have to go to Junge Field and practice with middle school students.

The "might-as-well" spending forced the district to borrow $8 million, part of approximately $74 million it ended up borrowing over the next several months to cover the cost of the building project.

And while Barr maintained a calm exterior as he detailed the various short-term and long-term loans the district needed, a comment made by former Board President Anne Sharp offers ample evidence that she and the other board members were fully aware that their spending was out of control.

The following passage comes from the July 22, 2014 Turner Report:

The newest member of the Board of Education attending the meeting, Debbie Fort, had to bring up the tennis courts, hinted at the other athletic items and asked, "Did we think that we had the money to pay for that?" she said, referring to those who were on the board at the time the decisions were made. "Did we know we were going to have to borrow money?"

That ticked off board member Dawn Sticklen. "Why do you want to know that?" she snapped.

Huff stepped in and noted that Barr had come up with a funding mechanism to take care of the $8 million in debt, or as Barr referred to it, in another comment that will probably send him to the woodshed, "Eight million dollars or whatever the amount of the debt is."

Paul, you just never learn.

Huff added, "We have new facilities everywhere. We have some great facilities."

Sticklen, still bristling over Fort's tennis court remark, said, "You can't have a tennis match with four courts. Why have four courts that aren't going to be used?" That would be silly, she added. "It is an additional expense, but it is an investment."

Board member Randy Steele added. "And we didn't have a track and we didn't have turf."

Board President Annie Sharp agreed, "Yes, it's very expensive. It was over budget, but we got a big bang for our bucks."

She added, "I hope our community backs us in our financial dilemma."

And maybe FEMA.


Anonymous said...

Only one of my 2 kids plays any sport. But the fields at the high school will save money in the long run. Less buses, less mowing, less water, and more time for kids to get home. Let it go, its not the athletes fault. Every aspect of that school is top notch, not just what the athletes use. Band, theatre, film, auto shop, etc.

Anonymous said...

I don't think anyone is disputing that every aspect of these schools are top notch. I think us taxpayers are questioning how necessary top notch was if there wasn't money to cover it. Sometimes us mere working folks can't have everything we want when the mood strikes us - sometimes we have to set priorities and wait and save up to get those little extras.

And...if we have to borrow money to pay for those little extras - it will be quite a long time before any money will be saved....

But probably what bothers me the most is what it teaches the kids. This 'if you want it you should have it' mentality is not going to make for healthy adults. Somewhere along the way those pesky little details about money will get in the way. Their entire mindset will have to change or they will self-destruct. And until we stop making life "all about the children" our young adults will continue to struggle when they hit the real world and realize they are indeed just average and the world doesn't revolve around them...

Anonymous said...

Absolutely the most hideous high school campus I have ever seen.

Anonymous said...

Need some entertainment?

Can the letters in Joplin R-8 be rearranged to spell ENRON?
Can the letters be rearranged to spell WorldCom?

Really? said...

Just remember...there is no problem that can't be solved with our brains and your money....

Anonymous said...

12:14, True, but all we ever hear about is the athletic fields. It needs to stop, these kids that play sports are being placed in a bad light, while all the other groups are never mentioned. Adults caused this, not any group of kids. And as I have said, of all the over expenditures, the athletic fields are the only one that will show savings over the long run.

Randy said...

I can't see anything that has placed student athletes in a bad light. The reason that the spotlight has been focused on athletics is because every item Paul Barr mentioned when he spoke of "might-as-well" spending was unnecessary spending on athletics. It has not been the student athletes that have come under criticism, but the administration and the rubber stamp board of education that made the decisions to allocate the money.

Anonymous said...

Have u seen the high school just to the east of tell me it doesn't look like a prison. BTW they are now building on to it because it was built to small.......

Anonymous said...

The problem is a mindset predicated upon money. Nobody in their right mind expects Joplin to produce a bunch of players for the NFL or NBA, but, high school athletics bring in a lot of money to a school district. How many folks would pay money to attend a Friday Night Concert or a Friday Night Debate? Our priorities are skewed and have been for the last hundred years.