JOPLIN — Connie Nance is well aware of the damage caused by the deadly Joplin tornado 10 months ago — "It was right outside my back door," she said.
The 66-year-old grandmother also lives on a fixed income, surviving on just over $10,000 a year from Social Security and her share of an ex-husband's retirement plan. So when it comes time to vote early next month on a $62 million bond issue the Joplin school system is seeking to rebuild or repair the 10 public schools damaged or destroyed in May 2011, count Nance as a decisive "no."
"By the time I pay my homeowners' insurance, my car insurance, my property taxes and my electric bill there's nothing left," she said, listing her monthly expenses. "We just can't do it."
Tax hikes of any kind are rarely popular with voters. That's especially the case in conservative southwest Missouri. Throw in a stagnant economy, rising gas prices and the struggles of countless families still recovering from one of the deadliest single tornadoes in the country's history, and Joplin civic leaders are noticeably worried about the April 3 bond vote, which is dubbed Operation Rising Eagle for Joplin High School's mascot.
"Certainly we're nervous because there's a lot at stake," Superintendent C.J. Huff said. "You just never know until Election Day what the outcome is going to be."
The tornado killed 161 people, including seven Joplin students and one employee, and damaged or destroyed hundreds of buildings.
The Joplin schools expect to receive nearly $86 million in insurance, and another $35.4 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency or its state counterpart. Another $1.7 million in donations have been set aside for rebuilding. But that still leaves a sizable gap voters will be asked to help finance.
The bond issue would add $65 to the annual school district property tax on a $100,000 home. By law, it must pass with slightly more than 57 percent of the vote.
Five years ago, voters in the Joplin R-8 School District narrowly approved a $57.3 million bond issue to renovate or build three middle schools with a 59.4 percent majority. But voters rejected a similar bond measure in 2005.
"It's the Show-Me State, Huff said. "Until their questions are answered, for some we won't get their votes."
Huff and other school boosters hope to turn tragedy into opportunity, by not just replacing what was lost but using the new physical spaces to embrace innovative educational approaches.
Plans include building a combined high school and vocational school near the former site of both schools, which were among six completely destroyed by the tornado. A new elementary school would be built on donated land near the former site of a hospital destroyed by the storm.
"This is a tremendous opportunity for us as a district," he said. "You just don't get the opportunity to recreate a vision for teaching and learning like we have now and build projects around it."
Joplin High School seniors and juniors are temporarily taking classes in a converted big-box store at the city's only shopping mall, while freshmen and sophomores are in a building across town.
Students at East Middle School attend class in an industrial park. The high school's wrestling team practices in a warehouse rented from Jake's Fireworks. Over three years, the district expects to pay $40 million for its rented space, $6 million of which won't be reimbursed by federal or state disaster relief.
Along with rebuilding its schools, the district wants to build 20 to 25 community storm shelters that also would serve school functions, with use as gymnasiums, classrooms or kitchens. At least one would go in each school at a cost of $15 million, with $5.6 million of that amount derived from the new bonds.
To bolster its case, the Joplin district notes that its tax rate ranks second from the bottom among 13 southwest Missouri school districts, with an annual levy of $3.31 per $100,000 assessed value. Even with an increase, Joplin's rate would still be only the seventh highest in that peer group.
Should the bond vote fall short, the school district would shift its focus to ensuring its youngest students have permanent classrooms but postpone its plans for a new high school and neighborhood safe rooms. Huff said the district would return to voters with a similar request in August if needed.