Editorial: Call makes recommendations on school district ballot measures

Lindbergh Schools voters and Mehlville School District voters will consider Proposition L and Proposition C, respectively, in next week’s election.

While both are tax-rate-increase proposals, that’s where the similarities end.

Lindbergh Schools is seeking a 65-cent tax-rate increase designed to stabilize the district’s finances. A decline in Lindbergh’s assessed valuation since the 2007-2008 school year has resulted in a cumulative loss of $14 million in tax revenue to the district. For the current school year, the school board approved more than $4.7 million in budget reductions and eliminated roughly 60 positions, including 45 teaching positions. Even with the $4.7 million in reductions, the school district still faces a roughly $4 million budget shortfall.

Mehlville School District voters will consider an 88-cent tax-rate increase that would fund the first phase of recommendations outlined in the district’s long-range improvement plan, COMPASS II — Charting the Oakville-Mehlville Path to Advance Successful Schools. The Prop C ballot language asks district voters if the operating tax levy should be increased by 88 cents, “with up to 40 cents of the increase being used to pay capital expenditures, including without limitation costs to construct, renovate, repair, improve, furnish and equip school facilities and sites, and update computers and technology, and with the remainder of the increase being used to fund competitive salaries and benefits to attract and retain highly-qualified classroom teachers and staff, expand kindergarten to full-days and to pay other increased school operating costs?”

COMPASS II’s first phase contains roughly $106 million in proposals designed to make Mehlville a high-performing school district. Those include nearly $94 million in capital recommendations — such as the construction of a new Margaret Buerkle Middle School on the Mehlville Senior High School campus — and roughly $8 million in operational recommendations — such as funding for all-day kindergarten.

The long-range plan formulated by COMPASS II does a great job of articulating Mehlville’s needs and offers the school board a major opportunity to take a giant step in moving the district forward. However, we cautioned the school board back in August about being overzealous, citing the tough economic climate that has impacted many in our community.

We also noted then any ballot measure proposed by this board would have a huge hurdle to overcome given the public’s dissatisfaction with its handling of Superintendent Terry Noble’s contract — since relinquished — that provided him a roughly $44,000 raise.

But instead of proposing a reasonable, measured approach to make Mehlville a destination school district, the Board of Education has embarked on a risky, all-or-nothing proposition. If the proposed 25-percent tax-rate increase is approved by voters — and that’s a huge if — we’ll be the first ones to tip our hat to school board members because they will have accomplished something that we didn’t think possible. However, taxpayers should be aware that even if voters approve Prop C, they should be prepared for future requests for additional funding to support the school district.

But don’t take our word for it. On the same night the school board voted to place Prop C on the Nov. 2 ballot, Mr. Noble noted that the district’s finance officials have projected severe cuts in state funding by 2012 and said, “I just want everyone to know that this is not the final time we will need community support. We believe the recommendations developed in COMPASS are the necessary and correct measures to become a high-performing school district, and it’s vital that we maintain our current program to meet state and federal requirements.”

Chief Financial Officer Noel Knobloch earlier this year projected the district could face significant budget problems by 2013 if it doesn’t take steps to increase revenue or cut expenses. Specifically, budget shortfalls caused by a combination of stagnant local revenue, a possible $2 million to $3 million drop in state revenue and increased operating expenses will deplete Mehlville’s operating reserves by 2013, his projection shows.

In July, the district’s Finance Committee told the Board of Education that sound financial footing in the short and long term for the school district means maintaining operating reserves that range from 10 percent to 15 percent of expenditures. And keeping those fund balance percentages in the double digits over the next three years, the committee told the board, means passing a 40- to 50-cent tax-rate increase within the next 12 months.

But the 88-cent tax-rate increase placed on Tuesday’s ballot by the school board does nothing to address the concerns cited by the Finance Committee. We won’t even mention the “blank-check” nature of the ballot language nor the questionable decision to finance buildings with a “forever” tax that will remain in place long after the construction debt has been retired.

For those reasons and our belief that some school board members have lost sight of why they ran for the board orginally, we urge voters to reject Prop C.

If Lindbergh voters do not approve Prop L, we believe Lindbergh no longer will be Lindbergh.

After making nearly $7 million in cuts over the past two years and eliminating roughly 60 positions for the current school year, Lindbergh is fighting for its life after a cumulative loss of $14 million in tax revenue since the 2007-2008 school year.

If Prop L is not approved Tuesday, district officials will have to make roughly $4 million to $5 million in reductions for the coming school year.

In late 2008, district officials pledged they would not seek a tax-rate increase for 24 months despite Lindbergh’s precarious financial situation. Instead, they opted to utilize the district’s cash reserves.

As a result of the revenue decline and cuts, class sizes have increased and the district’s cash reserves have dwindled.

Chief Financial Officer Pat Lanane said last week at a public forum on Prop L that district officials have tried to wait out the recession. “Well, we’re into the third year and we really can’t wait any longer. We need to know: What does the public want us to do?”

The answer is simple: If you want to keep Lindbergh Lindbergh, then you should vote “yes” on Prop L.