Your Call: Mehlville officials destroy their credibility with taxpayers

Daniel S. Fowler

As chairman of the Mehlville School District’s Citizens’ Advisory Committee for Facilities, I was shocked when a front-page headline in the Call last week screamed at me: “Prop P, related work may total more than $86 million by 2008.”

In November 2000, Mehlville voters approved a 49-cent tax-rate increase to fund the nearly $68.4 million Proposition P districtwide building improvement program that was recommended by the Citizens’ Ad-visory Committee for Facilities.

Since that time, the public repeatedly has been told by Superintendent John Cary and Board of Education President Cindy Christopher that Proposition P was on time and on budget.

We now know that these statements, made as recently as April 24 at the district’s 23rd annual Recognition Night, simply are not true.

We now know that Mehlville, according to a scenario presented to the school board May 12, could spend more than $86 million to complete Proposition P projects.

Do not be surprised if the real number turns out to be closer to $100 million.

For Mehlville officials to say with a straight face that Proposition P is on time and on budget is a betrayal of the trust voters placed in them with the approval of Proposition P. Deceiving taxpayers about money matters — millions of dollars in this case — is the ultimate betrayal of public trust.

Certainly the 12,000 students who attend Mehlville schools will benefit greatly from the facility improvements made possible by Proposition P. However, deceiving the public about the true cost of Proposition P will do serious damage to Mehlville’s credibility with the taxpaying public in the long run, and make it impossible for the district to go back to the community and seek additional funding when it is needed in the future.

In the short term, Mehlville officials may believe they have won. In the long run, however, they have destroyed their credibility with taxpayers.

Despite what they would like you to be-lieve, that’s not a child-centered decision.

Let there be no mistake, it’s obvious the Mehlville School District has plenty of money to complete all of the Proposition P projects that voters were promised. After all, Mehlville’s own estimates indicate the 49-cent tax rate increase will generate nearly $26 million more over 20 years than is needed to pay off the bond-like certificates issued to fund the Proposition P improvements. But given the district’s track record, can we even trust that number? Do not be surprised if the 49 cents generates millions more than Mehlville says.

After this fiasco, how can we trust anything district officials tell us? They have violated a sacred public trust. It will take years to repair the damage and only then with new people in place.

But the real question is: Who authorized the Mehlville School District to spend more than the nearly $68.4 million that was ap-proved by voters in November 2000? In a telephone conversation last week, incoming Superintendent Tim Ricker confirmed to me that these decisions were made “ad-ministratively.”

Clearly, decisions of that magnitude re-quire approval of the school board. Because board approval for most of these additional costs wasn’t sought, one must question whether the administration has been deceiving the Board of Education about the true cost of Proposition P. Perhaps board Pres-ident Cindy Christopher truly believed Prop-osition P was on time and on budget when she made those comments to more than 500 people at the recent Recognition Night.

However, Mrs. Christopher heads a board that repeatedly has demonstrated an inability to ask probing questions about money matters and how decisions are made. After all, budget workshops that used to be conducted for hours over a series of meetings now are completed in 15 or 20 minutes.

For example, did the Board of Education seek bids or even know when administrators authorized $48,000 to clean schools and help prepare classrooms for the beginning of the current school year?

The bottom is this: No substitute exists for being up front and telling the truth, even when it hurts.

Instead, here’s what Mr. Cary had to say in last week’s Call article when asked whether Proposition P was within budget or over budget: “… So I guess somebody could say: ‘You went over budget,’ but it was places where we felt like we could go over budget and accent or add to to make it a better project. At the same time, we could have made cuts in the projects to keep all that in Prop P. We just chose not to do that. So that’s a hard question to answer because it all looks like one project … To be quite honest, we’ve expanded Prop P somewhat as we’ve gone through it.”

Who gave Mr. Cary the authority to do that? Certainly the board has not approved all of this, but more importantly, it was not authorized by the voters. Any additional work or funding beyond the $68.4 million program should have been approved by the taxpaying voters, not overpaid bureaucrats.

To go a step further, the Board of Edu-cation should return to the taxpayers all funds that exceed what it takes to retire the bond-like certificates issued to fund Prop-osition P. This could be done by rolling back the district’s tax rate. Anything less would involve the school board making a deliberate effort to betray the public’s trust and to ignore its fiduciary responsibilities.

Over the years, Mehlville officials have had a propensity for shooting themselves in the foot and then blaming the messenger for the messes they create as they circle the wagons and prepare their defense with psycho-babble baloney. Instead of de-fending their actions, they should have been up front and honest from the beginning about the true cost of Proposition P.

Maybe it’s time to reconvene the Citi-zens’ Advisory Committee for Facilities and obtain the public’s input about the future scope of Proposition P and its funding.

Perhaps Cindy Christopher said it best when she read a bold prepared statement in her re-election bid last year. “I feel that a Board of Education committed to educational excellence can provide the positive focus needed for the entire district. I also think that politics and covert, underhanded games should not be a part of what we as a board should convey to our students, our staff or our community.”

Now it’s time to make it your call.

Daniel S. Fowler served nine years on the Mehlville Board of Education. He also served as chairman of Mehlville’s Citizens’ Advisory Committee for Facilities and as a chairman of the Citizens to Protect Our Investment.