New Scott County Central superintendent facing big decisions with little funds

Friday, October 27, 2017
New Scott County Central superintendent Dr. Howard Benyon looks over documents at his desk Monday, Oct. 23, 2017, at Scott County Central High School. (Chris Pobst/Standard Democrat)

SIKESTON -- Out with the old, in with the new.

That's been the common theme surrounding new Scott County Central superintendent Dr. Howard Benyon since joining the school in early July.

He was hit with new building renovations and education initiatives from day one, handing the first-time superintendent big-time decisions with little funds to do it from the start.

"The big thing is to become financially stable. That's really the focus," Benyon said. "I'd also like, through the use of new technology, to get that in their hands. There's some long-term planning that we have to do in the next 3-5 years and I'm working with the board on doing that. We're at the stage now where we can work on long-range plans with our facilities, but there's going to be some big costs that are going to be coming up in the next 3-5 years."

Replacing former superintendent Al McFerren, Benyon has spent 14 years as a principal with his previous stop at Woodland High School in Marble Hill, Mo., where he served as the elementary principal and curriculum director for seven years.

His first and most important undertaking is getting the district financially stable, which is a battle for most small schools in the area.

The district needed a no-tax increase $1.75-million bond issue that was passed during the April 4 election to repair and restore classrooms from mold, which was discovered during the 2015-16 school year. Funds were also needed to complete lighting and heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system upgrades throughout the school.

"My main focus is trying to get our finances stable so we can still continue to do some of the projects that need to be done," Benyon said. "The facilities are a big concern for me, because it's where our kids learn and teachers work every day. I want to make sure that it's in good shape. That's the goal for me."

Phase one of the new construction work to take care of their mold problem was completed over the summer. New duct work and new DOAS units were installed, which helps with energy savings and keeping the mold and moisture regulated in the future.

Construction crews were also tasked with grinding out and replacing old mortar in both the elementary and high school parts of the joined building.

They've also replaced around 40 air conditioning units with about 25 more to go, but additional funding is needed to complete the task.

"You can tell in the buildings the smell is different, the feel is different, just from those new systems," said Benyon. "We're writing grants, which went along with another project that we're doing to help with the costs."

The school will also receive new LED lighting as part of a low-interest loan through the Missouri Department of Energy, which is expected to take place in November. The loan will be paid back through energy savings over the next eight and half years.

"Roughly, after changing all of our lights, outside and inside, to LED's, we'll save around $30,000 every year," Benyon said.

Making the switch to LED lighting also gives the district the opportunity to apply for a grant rebate from Ameren, which will give the school an estimated $43,000. That money will be used to replace PTAC (air conditioning) units.

"Those are all 10-15 years old so they all need to be replaced," Benyon said. "We'll set ourselves up for the future."

Benyon also pointed to the air conditioning units on the roof, which are 20-30 years old, as well as the roof itself as the next repairs that need to be addressed. Projected costs for those new repairs have reached a little over $1 million.

"It's just maintenance that needs to be done," Benyon said.

While trying to find the money to repair their infrastructure, the district is also looking for ways to improve the educational process with their students.

The school board introduced the idea of going to 1-to-1 technology, which will put wireless tablets in the hands of each student. Benyon was part of a team at Woodland that implemented 1-to-1 and saw first-hand how it improves learning within the student body.

"I have seen success with 1-to-1 technology at Woodland, but teachers still have to look at it as a tool and not as the teaching device," Benyon said. "That's something you have to take in stages with proper training. That's what we're looking at right now. First, getting the infrastructure, then choosing the device and get the proper training for teachers. Introducing it to the students comes next. We have to be knowledgable first.

"The problem with that is that is costs money," Benyon added.

To curb some of the costs, the district is writing grants, specifically an e-rate grant, which provides discounts of up to 90 percent to help eligible schools and libraries in the United States obtain affordable telecommunications and internet access. The earliest 1-to-1 technology could be implemented at SCC is estimated for the 2019-20 school year.

Right now, the current digital system in place is too old to carry out the endeavor.

"[That grant] will help us build the infrastructure so that students can work independently on their own devices wirelessly," Benyon said. "That will be a process to get that grant. It takes a couple of years... We're having to add access points here and there just so we can get some wireless access. That's where we're at right now, until we get that grant money."

The district has also cut teachers and been on a salary freeze for the last few years, halting any bumps in pay. That's also something Benyon would like to change.

"We need to start paying our teachers," Benyon said. "We need to build our fund balance up so we can start paying more... We've cut staff to where we can get our fund balance starting in the right direction. We've also done things to shuffle money around so we can pay for more construction stuff that has to be done with the bond money we have. There's still additional facility issues that have to be addressed."

Though he's been littered with financial and building upkeep, Benyon is excited about what's in store for the school, which includes their Science Technology Engineering Art Math (S.T.E.A.M) program among other things.

With a new lab at hand with grants from Monsanto to help with costs, students have formed a new robotics team that creates and builds robots for competitions across the state.

"They've been going out and looking for grants to help with funding," Benyon said. "They're really excited about this, which is a great thing for our students."

Despite some of the big financial and construction hurdles, Benyon said he has enjoyed his short time at the school and connected instantly with the staff and community members. He's also witnessed increases in the Missouri School Improvement Program (MSIP) and their Annual Performance Reports.

"In spite of all the hurdles we have to go through, our kids and our teachers are succeeding," Benyon said. "That has to do with our leadership and our teachers. We have very strong teachers here at Scott County Central. Day one since I've been here, I see how hard they work and that's why we continue to succeed."

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