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SJSD board candidates meet remotely for forum

Topics included a discussion on the district's hopes to have voters pass a $107 million bond issue in April.

Posted: Feb 23, 2021 11:28 PM
Updated: Feb 24, 2021 8:54 AM

(ST. JOSEPH, Mo.) -- Discussion over the St. Joseph School District's $107 bond proposal for voters dominated discussion at a virtual forum for candidates running for the board of education.

Eight candidates joined a moderator through Zoom for a more than one-hour discussion of issues facing the district.

The candidates include two men running for reelection, Larry Koch and Lute Atieh and also Rick Gehring, who was appointed to the board last year to fill the spot that opened up after board president Seth Wright resigned.

Also on the ballot will be David Jordan, David Foster, LaTonya Williams, Colby Oyerly, and Kenneth Reeder.

Not surprisingly, the three current board members are supportive of the bond, that would fund the development of a new high school while reconfiguring both Lafayette and Benton as middle schools. On Monday, the district announced its intentions to purchase the American Family campus in east St. Joseph as the location for the new school

"Not all of our students have equal access to academic opportunities," Koch said. "Kids at Central, because there are more students there, have more academic opportunities than kids at Benton or Lafayette."

Gehring agreed with Koch saying that evening the playing field among students in St. Joseph high schools is important.

"To be able to offer mirror images as far as the class offerings and opportunities is huge, if not my number one priority," Gehring said.

Atieh said that the bond is an important investment needed to put the district on the right track.

"I think we have to look at this as an investment of getting efficient, trying to attract teachers and moving forward with updating our model in our community as our populations continue to adjust," Atieh said.

Some of the others hoping to take a seat from an incumbent said they were supportive of the bond measure, however staying cautiously skeptical of some of the plans.

"The question's not about the bond issue itself but the plans that surround forthcoming plans," Jordan said. "There's been much discussion about the operational costs of our aging high schools. So why would they all remain operational given that the decision has been made to keep Benton and Lafayette operational."

Foster said that it is probably better to enact the district's plan sooner rather than later.

"It looks as if we're going to get the two high schools one way or another," he said. "For that, I would actually like to stay ahead of it rather than go to two high schools not by choice but because we have to."

Williams cited her own children's experience in the district as a reason to be hopeful the new plan will be successful.

"It would offer amazing opportunities to all of our children if everything went together as planned," she said. "If the two new schools offered equal opportunity to all of our children."

However, both Oyerly and Reeder said they would prefer the district keep its current three high school system.

"(The district) does need the funding. I think the upgrading of the schools and the facilities is a must. But I like the way it is now."

Reeder said budget numbers show him that it wouldn't be that much more expensive to keep all three current high schools in operation.

"They've said all kinds of figures but two million dollars more per year to have three high schools instead of going down to two. I'm sorry, but anybody in this town with a 145-160 million dollar budget, I'd vote to keep all three schools open," he said.

Voters go to the polls to decide both the bond issue and board elections on Tuesday, April 6.

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