Mixed emotions on SJSD plan to transform Benton and Lafayette High Schools

“At some point, we’ve got to look at this as one city. It’s not southside, not northside, not midtown, it’s St. Joe,” said Jeremy Hoffman.

Posted: Jan 22, 2021 7:59 AM
Updated: Jan 22, 2021 9:57 AM

(ST. JOSEPH, Mo.) Tuesday, the St. Joseph School District announced a potential plan that would shake up the town's traditions.

The new proposal from a district facilities committee would transform Benton and Lafayette High Schools into middle schools, keep Central High School intact and build a second new high school. After the news broke, word spread fast and so did sides on the issue. 

“If you want to lose population in St. Joseph, close Benton High School or turn it into a middle school,” said John Hoffman, retired Benton High School teacher. 

John Hoffman taught at Benton High School for 30 years and said to have contributed $65,000 to the school over the past eight years. He said the district doesn't need a new school. 

“If this building is good enough for our middle school youngsters, it’s good enough to be a high school," said John Hoffman. 

On the other side of the issue is President of the Lafayette Alumni Association, Jeremy Hoffman. As a member of Lafayette's graduating class of 1996, he said the town needs a revamp. 

“As sad as it may be to those of us who grew up in the neighborhood and been northsiders our whole life, the realization is that we’re behind the times,” said Jeremy Hoffman. 

For some southsiders, they said this new plan is a conversation about identity and pride. Lifelong residents don't want to lose a piece of themselves or the community's history. 

J.L. Robertson has worked and owned Rupp Funeral Home in the southside for 30 years, a family business aging back 82 years to 1939. He said removing a high school from the southside will devastate the town's small businesses, community atmosphere and the bond simply won't pass without promise of a high school down south. 

“That high school is the center of our community and I’m not going to say that there shouldn’t be a Benton High School, what I'm saying is we need a high school located in the confines of the southside, south of 36 Highway," said J.L. Robertson. 

Generations of families have walked the same halls at both high schools, wore the same uniforms and graduation cap. 

“My grandmother went there. She graduated in 1921, my dad graduated in 1950,” said Ron Hook, a 3rd generation Benton Cardinal, “Myself graduated in 79,’ my sister in 77' and my son graduated in 2006.”

It's not just the southside with a long-standing family history of attending the same high school. Up north, the fighting Irish have the same traditions. 

“My grandmother was a homecoming queen,” said Jeremy Hoffman. 

But not all residents believe family tradition should be a part of the conversation. Rather, some said the district should focus on saving money and resources. 

“It really has nothing to do with tradition. ‘My mom and dad went here, my grandmother went here,’ no! I’m thinking about now. This is the time we need to have fiscal responsibility,” said John Hoffman, “You have people in St. Joseph, Missouri right now that are going hungry because of the pandemic, the economy, job loss and you’re going to ask them to float a bond and then eventually a tax increase?”

A $100 million price tag is standing in the way of the school district switch, hinging on the mercy of voters and taxpayers. 

“Consolidating from 3 to 2 would be a good economic avenue to go down,” said Hook. 

No matter what side you're on, the north or the south, everyone has one thing in common: they care about the St. Joseph School District and it's future. 

“At some point, we’ve got to look at this as one city. It’s not southside, not northside, not midtown, it’s St. Joe,” said Jeremy Hoffman.

The plan will be presented to the board for consideration on Monday. If the plan is approved by the board, voters would get the final say on a tax increase in April.

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