On May 22, 2011, two hours before the massive tornado ripped through Joplin, hundreds of Jasper residents were gathered in one room for the Jasper High School graduation.
If that storm had veered north instead of south, finding shelter for all those people would have been almost impossible.
Now, thanks to prudent fiscal policies by the school district and a $750,000 grant from FEMA, the district has a brand new multi-purpose room rated to withstand an EF5 tornado, along with a new cafeteria and kitchen and space to grow and move classes, offices and programs out of three different mobile classrooms — trailers that have cost the district about $25,000 a year to lease.
Jasper School Superintendent Rick Stark said he will schedule a public meeting and open house to introduce the community to its new shelter from the storms for sometime around the New Year's holiday.
"I'm required to have a public meeting for the FEMA grant so what I'll probably do is make it a public meeting and some type of open house, let people tour the building and answer any questions," Stark said. "Right now I don't plan on any kind of huge ribbon-cutting or dedication or anything. The main thing is to make sure the community is informed about the function of the safe room and make sure people get credit where it's due."
Stark credits former board members and retired superintendent Kathy Fall for building up the district's "Fund 4" or capital improvements fund, for making this $2.5 million construction project possible.
The project started out as a $1 million safe room a large room capable of withstanding a strong tornado and sheltering hundreds of people. That room, which will also serve as the district's lunch room and an auxiliary gymnasium, is the big gray concrete box on the north side of the high school end of the campus.
The cost for that room was funded with $750,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, matched with $250,000 from the district.
"One thing I made sure we did when they made the plaque for the entrance to the building was make sure that Mrs. Fall was included on that plaque because she took part in this as well," Stark said. "She's the one that built up fund 4 and she's the one who went through the two-year application process. She set the stage for what we're doing now and she needs to get credit for that."
In addition to the safe room the district decided to build a new kitchen, locker rooms, weight room, offices and storage rooms at a cost of another $1.35 million. The district used a lease-purchase agreement to finance that part of the project over 20 years.
"Once we knew we were going to do the FEMA grant, we put together a building committee, which was made up of community members, board members, teachers, I was on that committee and a couple of administrators, basically to plan out what we needed, what can we accomplish with this project," Stark said. "If we had not done the lease-purchase, this would have been a very-much-scaled-down project. You probably would have seen just the FEMA safe room, just the gymnasium and that's it. That would have been useful, but not nearly as useful as what we're getting."
Page 2 of 2 - The completion of the new kitchen and using the safe room as a cafeteria frees up the old cafeteria and kitchen for other uses.
At the regular Nov. 19 Jasper Board of Education meeting, board members approved a $135,000 change order to allow Branco Construction, the contractor on the entire project, to also renovate the existing lunch room and kitchen into classroom space.
"That is going to consist of an elementary music room, elementary art room, special ed room," Stark said. "Our early-childhood special ed coop, they actually have their offices in a trailer right now and they're going to be located at the front of that room. We're moving Title 1 elementary into the elementary building and by doing that that will allow us to get rid of three more trailers at the end of December. The only trailer we'll have left is the one across the street for the pre-school."
Stark said he anticipates the entire project will be done by the first of January, which a busy Christmas break for a lot of teachers and administrators.
Stark said the district had been spending $35,000 a year leasing trailers for classrooms. It will save $25,000 of that by eliminating all but the pre-school trailer and that money can be used to help male the approximately $100,000 annual lease-purchase payment.