Call, Frank are responsible for defeat of Proposition A, say co-chairs of committee

By MIKE ANTHONY

Call Newspapers and Mehlville Board of Education member Karl Frank Jr. were responsible for last week’s defeat of the school district’s Proposition A, according to the co-chairs of a committee that advocated passage of the 97-cent tax-rate increase.

Mehlville voters overwhelmingly rejected Proposition A in the Feb. 7 election. The tax-rate increase received 6,746 yes votes — 36.05 percent — and 11,968 no votes — 63.95 percent, according to the official results from the county Board of Election Commissioners.

Of the district’s 65,546 registered voters, 18,812 — 28.70 percent — cast ballots in the election.

At a school board meeting two days after the election, Debra Selinger and Andrea Keller, co-chairs of Citizens Protecting Our Investments, blamed the defeat of Proposition A on the Call and Frank during a period for public comment. Selinger also accused Frank of having political aspirations beyond the school board and called for his resignation.

Noting he would not resign, Frank later said he had no political aspirations beyond serving on the school board. He added he hoped to be on the board as long as former board member Alex Lantos, who served five three-year terms.

Board members later discussed revenue and expenditure projections for the coming year, but took no action regarding the budget. No action was taken by the board on recommendations made by task force study groups appointed by Superintendent Tim Ricker to help build the 2006-2007 budget in the event Proposition A did not pass. The task force study groups had recommended such things as charging $375 for bus service, charging a $150 fee for playing a high school sport, charging activity fees for elementary and middle school clubs, and eliminating team teaching at the middle schools. The board again will discuss the 2006-2007 budget Thursday, Feb. 23.

Addressing the board Feb. 9, Selinger said, “… One of the most heart-warming accomplishments we take from this campaign were the friendships that we established working side by side with our volunteers. We did not see north vs. south or Oakville vs. Mehlville or even black vs. white. We saw a community of people with a common goal: Provide the best education for our children so they may compete and succeed in this ever-changing global society. Our children is exactly that — yours, mine, ours. We are all in this together. Our children sit, walk and play alongside each other inside and outside of the school. There are no boundary lines, only streets that pass from one school to the next.

“On Tuesday evening when I learned that Proposition A had failed, my thought was of the children in the district. My family was just as devastated by the results as I was. They had been always taught that if you work really hard at something and you put in a hundred percent of your efforts, you will succeed. My family put in 110 percent along with the over 1,000 volunteers who worked tirelessly during this campaign,” she said. “But to our big surprise, our biggest hurdle was not the 97 cents. It was not our opposition group. Our biggest hurdle was the community newspaper and the consistent editorials by one of the board members.

“While the board member openly commented that he would not work against us in our efforts, he did just that through his public statements made on a weekly basis to the community newspaper. He stated in one of his e-mails that: ‘We must not forget as a board that we are servants to our constituents (not) kings and queens in some monarchial feudal system.’ While he says these words, his actions are otherwise. You cannot bring a community together and unite this district with constant criticism. He seems to have elected himself as spokesperson of the school board as opposed to one of the servants that he speaks of.

“He alone reports to the community paper on a regular basis. He knows that they cannot be unbiased while they are involved in litigation with the district,” she said, referring to a lawsuit the Call filed in May 2004 against the school district that alleges three “purposeful” violations of the Missouri Open Meetings and Records Law, also called the Sunshine Law. That suit is pending.

“These points make it clear that he has no regard for the reputation of the school district or the children of this community. While other board members show integrity and loyalty to our community by refraining from public grandstands, he uses the community paper to voice his criticism,” she said. “One criticism that I am completely appalled with was the statement at a recent board meeting that he said he was embarrassed with the district’s annual report card score. His embarrassment with the report card score directly relates to the children’s performances contained therein. He should know that as a parent you do not condemn your children for any poor performance. Instead you look to the positives and compliment them for just that … Why didn’t you tell them you were proud of them because their test scores had risen?

“If you would put as much effort into saving this district as you did in criticizing it, we would be sitting here tonight discussing what to do with the new revenues,” she said. “Instead we must now battle the wedge that’s in this community. It is clear that he has political aspirations that are beyond serving the children of this district as a school board director. Like our opposition group in our campaign, he has turned this into something that is completely political and that I resent. I do not wish to have the livelihood of my children tossed around in such a meaningless manner. I challenge him to a new approach. Why not set aside the differences? Why not take a sabbatical from your weekly editorials with the community newspaper? Why not actually work to come up with a legitimate solution to our problems as opposed to throwing accusations and numbers that are only used to create smoke for neglectful behavior as a board member.

“I challenge him to work at moving the wedge in our district and helping with the public relations in this community. We cannot have the kind of school district our children deserve if you do not serve the children of this community unconditionally,” she said.

The School/Community Relations Department and the Mehlville Messenger, which Frank has criticized, “have become more important than ever. It is the community’s only resource of factual information …,” she said.

Selinger also asserted that Frank was not fulfilling the oath he took to serve as a school board member.

“As such, I request Mr. Frank that you tender your resignation from the Mehlville school board as director immediately,” she said, thanking the other board members for faithfully fulfilling their duties.

Keller placed a photograph of her five children on the front of the speaker’s podium, saying she thought those present might like “to see the people I’ve been fighting for the last couple of months.”

Noting that many people have asked her and Selinger what their plans are since the defeat of Proposition A, Keller said, “Are we going to regroup? Are we going to do it again in August and you know what, quite honestly, that will be up to the Board of Education. But we are here to tell you tonight that to regroup would be futile unless some things change in our community, and it has nothing to do with looking back at Prop P over and over again to build trust somehow in our community, as one board member keeps suggesting over and over again.

“That same board member e-mailed me the day before the election wanting to know, you know, what kind of numbers we were getting when we were canvassing. If that board member would have rolled up his sleeves like five other board members who worked alongside us weekend after weekend, he would have known that as we visited over nearly 14,000 households of likely voters and parents that the third weekend into it 58 percent of those that we visited said: ‘Yeah, I’d vote yes for this.’ But unfortunately as we started to make reminder phone calls to those identified yes voters, what we found is that because of a certain community newspaper and comments that were made and the five automated phone calls that were made from our opposition group, who also had the advantage of the community newspaper that helped them to repeatedly get their message out, some of our yes votes had suddenly changed into I’m-not-so-sure and no votes. And instead of having 30-second reminder phone calls, we ended up having 30-minute conversations with people in our community, talking about Prop P and dispelling the myth that it was a 30 percent tax increase.

“Other myths would be about interdistrict travel and cell phone use and cutting administrators, all which would have hurt our district. And most people were surprised by the fact when we told them the interest savings from the bonds in Prop P would — made up for the overages. That’s something that they really said: ‘I haven’t read that in our community newspaper.’ Well, they might have once or twice — it was back near the ads or something. But more than likely what this community has heard from a community newspaper is that over and over again 20 million over budget. This Board of Education is not accountable. It cannot be trusted,” Keller continued.

“I just want to know how much more accountable an organization can be than to submit itself to an audit — an independent auditor come in, make recommendations and then open itself up for meetings so that the public can come in and discuss Prop P, which, by the way, not one person showed up. One person did show up, but they thought they were going to talk about Prop A. So, you know, it seems like there’s just a select few that just keep bringing it up, over and over again. What was an embarrassment to me when I sat in that board meeting that night is to hear a board member challenge a reputable auditor’s result publicly and calling it a whitewash in the newspaper later. Thus again damaging our reputation as a school district and that auditor will probably never come back and work here again,” she said.

“So even though the current board (and) administration, which had nothing to do with Prop P — they’ve tried to move forward and put this behind them, we continually have a board member and a weekly newspaper, a community newspaper, that just keeps bringing it up. How can you compete with that? The people on Prop P didn’t have to compete with that, the promoters of Prop P. They actually had the support and endorsement of the newspaper. And so I’m sure with the board’s approval we could regroup and we could try to bring it back on, but it would be futile because, again, the opposition group is someone that is against taxes. So you could bring it up again, and he’s got the ear of the community newspaper. So we could bring it up again and it will never happen because this person will come out again …,” she said.

Keller also criticized the Call’s coverage of a group that she co-chaired last year, Families for a Fair Formula and criticized local Republicans for opposing Proposition A, saying, “This should have never become a political issue, I’m sorry. This should have never become while I’m standing at the polls outside of Queen of All Saints, old people coming up: ‘Thanks for your yes vote on Prop A to help our kids.’ ‘Oh, it’s all about the kids, isn’t it? What about us old people? You know, it shouldn’t have become a wedge …”

Keller also said she and Selinger were submitting letters to have their names removed from the Call’s mailing list.

Also speaking was Tom Diehl, who is seeking election to the school board in April. Seats held by Vice President Bill Schornheuser and Secretary Mike Heins are up for election and they are seeking re-election. Other candidates are Mark Counts, Micheal Ocello and Theresa (Saunders) Kleusch.

Diehl said, “… Tuesday’s election shows that there is a tremendous credibility gap between south county residents and the Mehlville School District. This huge turnout and negative vote is much more than an anti-tax mentality, the number of private school students who live in the district or reassessment. Voters were grading the Mehlville School District on performance, accountability and trust.”

He also suggested the administration and school board “begin a process of reconciliation with all factions of our community tonight. No more hand-chosen committees, no more predetermined agendas, no more hiding behind the cover of attorney-client privilege. I see that there is a need for two immediate steps that need to be taken.

“First, the board needs to seek a settlement with the bums at the Call Newspaper on litigation regarding Sunshine Law violations,” Diehl continued. “The precedents are clear. No public entity has successfully defended itself in these cases. And the law is even clearer. When the administration is proposing to cut our faculty and cannot pay for textbooks, it has no business running up needless legal expenses.”

Saying it was obvious to him “that the voters do not support the current direction and vision presented by this district’s leadership,” he then proposed a summit involving all community members.

Another speaker, Art Miller, told the board that he could support a 50-cent tax-rate increase and probably a 60-cent tax-rate in-crease, “but I thought that the 97 (cents) was way too out of line and that you were being greedy. Our own survey said that a 50-cent increase had a good possibility of passing and we got greedy and we went with 97. I think we should have gone with 50. Got our 50 in our hand and gone from there.”

Heins later took exception with references to the Call as a “community newspaper,” as well as some of Diehl’s remarks.

“… Some of the folks, they referred to that one paper as a community newspaper. I don’t truly believe it is a community newspaper,” he said. “If there is a community newspaper, I think it’s the St. Louis Post-Dispatch or the Journal. Both of those papers I believe have good intentions for the community. You don’t always agree with their editorial standpoint, but I believe that they’re run by people who try to get the news out in a factual manner. I believe their editorials are intended to help. Also, the Call is not printed here. It’s printed in Louisiana, Mo. So to call it a community newspaper certainly if you’re in the printing business, like I am, you don’t really respect that.

“Additionally, there was one other speaker and he made some comments about the Sunshine Law and litigation. I would never speak about the school board having litigation they’re talking about, however, I thought the comments were just a bit immature because he could no way possibly understand any litigation without two sides to it, and I know lots of public entities that have defended themselves and should defend themselves if they are doing the right thing,” he continued.

“And I’ll say personally I am a little offended because this person should understand about frivolous lawsuits against him, and I personally have defeated the Call in a frivolous lawsuit this last year, and I will continue to defend myself against any harassment from the Call personally,” he said.

In an interview, Call General Manager Bill Milligan disputed Heins’ “frivolous lawsuit” remark, noting last fall he had filed a petition in the Family Court of St. Louis County seeking an order of protection against Heins. Milligan had sought the order of protection after he felt threatened following a confrontation with Heins while Milligan was shooting photographs at a cross country meet.

“I don’t consider my personal safety to be a frivolous matter,” Milligan said.

A motion to dismiss Milligan’s petition was filed by Paul N. Rechenberg of Doster, Mickes, James, Ulom, Benson & Guest.

Rechenberg is one of the attorneys representing the Mehlville School District in the Sunshine Law lawsuit involving the Call.

Milligan’s petition was dismissed without prejudice on Oct. 26 by the court, which held that Milligan had not at that time proven his allegations. The court did not rule that the petition was frivolous.