Residents of two Warren County school districts are being asked to weigh the cost of new taxes against the potential economic benefits of education.
St. Charles Community College (SCC) has proposed to annex the Wright City R-II and Warren County R-III school districts into the community college’s taxing district. To become part of the district, voters would have to approve a real estate and personal property tax levy of 17.96 cents per $100 assessed valuation.
The tax increase for a $200,000 home would be about $68 per year.
The tax question will appear as Proposition J on local election ballots this April 2. If approved, SCC estimates the property taxes will raise $500,000 to $700,000 per year for local technical training programs.
This proposition is different from a decision by the two school boards last year to join SCC’s extended service area. That agreement opened the possibility of limited educational partnerships with SCC, but did not make local residents part of SCC’s actual district.
SCC offers tech school
SCC President Dr. Barbara Kavalier said if approved, the tax money from Prop J would stay in Warren County and be used to provide technical training programs and help fund a local technical college campus run by SCC.
“Technical” here doesn’t refer only to computers. In this context, SCC and supporters of Prop J are referring to training for skilled industrial labor in the realms of manufacturing, agriculture, machinery and logistics. Local business advocates say those skills are in short supply within the Warren County workforce.
“Our mission is specifically to meet the needs of the community,” said Kavalier. She said when students leave towns to further their education at large universities, they often don’t come back.
“More than 90 percent of community college graduates stay in their community. That’s important. We want to keep people here,” she commented.
Kavalier added that other educational opportunities would be available to Warren County residents if Prop J passes, including paying in-district tuition for classes at any SCC campus.
A committee of representatives from area businesses, school districts and local governments are the chief advocates for Prop J. The committee, organized by the Greater Warren County Economic Development Council, has been collaborating on plans for a technical college for more than a year.
Steve Etcher with the economic development council said a recent survey of Warren County’s top 12 manufacturers revealed a lack of workers who could operate and maintain complex manufacturing equipment, or who have other needed trade skills. Developing those skills locally, he said, could fill the holes as well as attract new employers.
“In industry today, the jobs are following the talent. (Companies) will find out where there’s a pipeline of talent that will help them be successful, and they will put their facilities in those communities. That is an incredible opportunity,” Etcher said.
No school in the nearby region provides the range of training manufacturers are looking for, Etcher added.
Leon Busdieker, co-chair of the exploratory committee helping develop plans for a tech school, said companies want even entry-level employees to understand basic safety and industrial skills.
In other communities with a nearby technical college, Busdieker said students are getting high-paying, in-demand jobs near home within two years of graduating high school.
Two other local business leaders who spoke to The Record had differing opinions of Prop J.
Warrenton Steel owner Gary Carter, a member of the economic development council, said having a locally trained workforce would benefit his business and others. Carter said competition for skilled workers is tight, and he sometimes has to look far outside the area for employees.
“I have several who drive 50-plus miles one way to get here,” Carter commented. “If we could attract local residents to go through the (technical training) program here and stay here, that would be a real plus for us.”
Carter said he currently has two newer employees receiving welding training through SCC in St. Charles County and bringing those skills back to Warrenton Steel.
In Wright City, EPC Vice President Rudy Jovanovic expressed reservations about the Prop J ballot proposal.
Jovanovic said he agrees with the need for a local tech school, but questions supporting Prop J because the ballot language only includes the tax, without any mention of the school.
“The loose terminology they’re using kind of scares me,” Jovanovic commented, wondering if the ballot leaves room for SCC to go back on the promise of a local campus once Prop J passes.
SCC officials said the SCC Board of Trustees intends to pass an official resolution, stating all funding from Prop J will be used to build and operate the tech school in Warren County. Only one regular meeting remains on March 25 for SCC’s Board of Trustees to pass such a resolution before the April election.
According to information provided by the Warren County Technical Institute Exploratory Committee, startup costs for the Warren County tech school facility would be around $5 million dollars to build a mix of classroom and working spaces. Plans would also include future expansion. The facility would be operated using the tax levy in Warren County.
Exactly where the facility would be built within the R-II or R-III school districts has not been determined. It’s a topic local planners and SCC officials have intentionally avoided until after Prop J passes.
Even before the Warren County campus is built, SCC announced it will begin offering local training programs in fall 2019 using rented space if Prop J passes.
Local school support
The school board presidents of both Warren County R-III and Wright City R-II school districts said the local boards of education do not have an official position on Prop J.
However, R-III board President John Clinger and R-II board President Austin Jones both expressed individual support for becoming part of SCC’s district. They said administrators from their school districts have provided input on plans for a local SCC campus.
Clinger said working with SCC to teach trade skills would close a gap in the current education system.
“A couple decades ago, from a state and national initiative, we went to the (policy) ... that we should prepare everybody to go to college,” Clinger explained. But he said time and research have shown the value of also offering students a pathway into the local workforce. “We’re missing a strong component in our education system in training people to work local manufacturing.”
Jones said the training offered at a tech school would further his district’s mission of making students ready to become productive members of the community.
“What we’re attempting to teach students is the ability to be flexible, lifelong learners,” which would include the lifelong skills taught at a tech school, he said.
Jones acknowledged that other recent tax proposals, including one for Wright City Fire Protection District this April, might lead to “tax fatigue” within the community. He said people he has talked to have generally been supportive.
It’s worth noting that Prop J can pass in one school district but not the other. The proposal needs a simple majority to pass in each district.
If only one district votes to join SCC, the college’s tax levy will only be assessed in that district, and plans for a local technical campus could be significantly hampered.
It’s also worth noting that southern Warren County residents who live within the Washington School District will not vote on or be at all affected by Prop J. Washington School District is already part of the taxing district of East Central College in Franklin County.
To pass Prop J, advocates will have to persuade a significant number of local residents who generally oppose new taxes. After previous reporting of this proposal, the Record received numerous comments via Facebook expressing opposition.
“When are they (going to) understand, we aren’t going to accept any more taxes for anything,” commented Facebook user Deric Bennett.
Barbara Wells on Facebook commented that she currently has a child enrolled at SCC, and she believes “(parents) should have to pay the out-of-district rate and not ask the whole community to carry that burden.”
Voters in the Warrenton and Wright City areas in recent years have voted down several other property tax levies, including for the fire protection districts serving both cities.
Etcher said he expects the benefits of economic development associated with Prop J to make up for the cost of the tax. Ultimately, Warren County voters will decide if they believe that’s true.
Anyone interested in finding out more about Proposition J can attend two public meetings at the end of March.
On March 27, supporters of Prop J will speak at the Wright City Meet the Candidates Night at 6 p.m. in the Heiliger Building at Diekroeger Park.
On March 28, there will be a forum in the Warrenton Scenic Regional Library at 7 p.m.
Correction: A previous version of this story included incorrect locations for public forums discussing Prop J.