Ozarks-area school district struggles as Doe Run fights its property tax bill
A school district in the northeastern Missouri Ozarks that’s relied on property taxes from nearby lead mining for years is struggling to make do with significantly less funding. And it’s starting to show.
The classroom walls and hallways of the Bunker School District could all use a new coat of paint, yet Bunker only has enough money to paint five rooms over the summer break.
“We would love to do everything all at once but it’s been several years since all that’s been done. So we do a little bit at a time,” said Superintendent Melissa Nash.
Nash pokes her head into a middle school classroom empty except for a ladder and a bucket of turquoise-blue paint. She ticks off a list of other desired renovations, including new lights and windows; and she’s concerned the bleachers in the gymnasium are unsafe without new railings.
“No matter what, we can’t afford to do that,” said Nash, who is about to start her second year as superintendent after four years as a principal.
She worries that postponing repairs and upgrades will just make maintenance more expensive in the future. Money for anything more than basic needs has been hard to come by.
Bunker’s district of about 240 students is in the southern end of Missouri’s lead belt. Three mines within its boundaries extract lead from the ground and employ hundreds of residents. Doe Run, the owner of those mines, and the Reynolds County assessor have been locked in a legal battle over the worth of the land for seven years.
When the price of lead was rebounding after the recession in 2011, Reynolds County increased the value of Doe Run’s property by 30 percent. The company disputed the valuation and the matter went to the Missouri State Tax Commission and then into the court system, where the two sides have swapped victories in deciding if Doe Run’s worth is $220 million, $60 million or somewhere in between.
The county’s last chance at getting the money now is pending before the Missouri Supreme Court.
While the two sides duke it out in court, millions of dollars of Doe Run’s taxes are locked away in an escrow account. Bunker had to cut nearly a million dollars from its budget, which at the time was $3.6 million, to match the decline in revenue.
“You can’t cut a million dollars and not affect kids,” Nash said. “And it has done that, but we’ve tried to find the areas that have the least amount of impact but a million dollars is a million dollars.”
The district has cut a quarter of its staff through leaving vacancies unfilled and lay-offs. The course catalog for high school students is thinner; gone is fall baseball, cheerleading and math club; the preschool building has been closed and there’s one fewer bus route.
“When you look at the actual numbers in black and white, you can’t deny what it’s done to us,” she said referring to the numbers.
The remaining student groups hold bake sales and other fundraisers to pay for travel and uniforms. The Parent-Teacher Organization is paying for more and more classroom supplies and student activities.
What’s good enough?
Jenna Barton returned to Bunker three years ago to become the school counselor. She graduated from Bunker high school in 2003 and said it was heartbreaking to discover that current students don’t have the same opportunities she did.
And it’s personal. She and other staff members have spouses who work for the mine. A lot of students’ parents do too.
“We’re good enough to work at Doe Run, but we’re not good enough to give money to,” Barton said.
The water tower looming tall over Bunker is painted dark green and reads “home of the Eagles” on one side for the school’s mascot. Yet, while the school is central to the town, Doe Run mining is a big part of this community too. With so many families dependent on the mines for jobs, residents are hesitant to speak too ill of Doe Run.
Treasurer of the Bunker school board, Matt Skaggs, said the fight isn’t with the local workers but with the corporate owners. He says it’s not fair for Doe Run to do well while his town suffers.
“Essentially, we’re living in an area where we’re pulling millions of dollars out of the ground, [a] very profitable deal, but yet [our] school’s going to struggle to make ends meet,” he said.
A Doe Run spokeswoman said because the matter is still in the courts the company wouldn’t do an interview. But she pointed out that the company has given to area schools, universities and for student scholarships — about $591,000 in the past three years.
She said in a statement that Doe Run is “anxious” for the issue to be resolved and is “committed to paying at least our fair share in taxes.”
Doe Run’s attorneys have argued in court documents that the county assessor’s method of appraising its properties is flawed.
Not the first time
At the county offices in Centerville, Assessor Rick Parker reflects on having what feels like the same argument with Doe Run every other year when he reassesses them.
“After 20 years, you get tired of this kind of thing,” he said.
But he says the county and district need to pursue the case to its end, despite the heavy toll on funding and high legal fees for the Bunker district. Without a resolution, Parker said Doe Run will be able to keep disputing its tax bills.
“We’re no closer to a method as when we started,” he said.
Bunker’s school board in 2011 gave Parker permission to move forward with a legal fight, but he didn’t anticipate it would take this long.
“We gotta come out of this with a method that is legal and backed up by the State Tax Commission and the state of Missouri,” Parker said. “If they’re not going to be willing to give us that, then we’ve basically wasted our money.”
Parents and school staff are also frustrated the case is still grinding on.
Amanda Gordon was behind the counter at one of Bunker’s two restaurants on a recent afternoon. Her son and niece played games in the back room. Gordon, 45, graduated from Bunker.
“I wish Doe Run wouldn’t protest their taxes. It would be better for the schools, it’d be better for the schools to be able to plan their budgets,” Gordon said while taking a break.
But since disputing property taxes is something Doe Run has for done decades, Gordon said the school should have been more prepared.
“They should make sure that these safety nets are in place and they’re not spending more, that they have the reserves to run the next year in case Doe Roe disputes,” she said.
The state Supreme Court is expected to decide whether or not to hear the case within the next few weeks. Doe Run has continued to pay its taxes into an escrow account.
A judge has let Bunker withdraw about $1.5 million of the $7 million in the account. If the county wins, it’ll unlock the rest of the millions Bunker has gone without. If not, that withdrawal — along with the rest of the account — will need to go back to Doe Run.
Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney