Five former Mehlville school board members oppose 88-cent tax hike

Noble’s raise, cost overruns for Prop P cited by speakers.

By MIKE ANTHONY

Five former Mehlville Board of Education members last week voiced their opposition to an 88-cent tax-rate increase the current school board has placed on the Nov. 2 ballot.

The five former school board members outlined their opposition to Proposition C during an Oct. 14 rally sponsored by the Mehlville Community Taxpayers Association at the Holiday Inn South County Center that attracted roughly 50 people.

The MCTA, a grass-roots, nonpartisan citizens’ group, recently formed to oppose Prop C, which would fund roughly $106 million in district improvements. District officials estimate Prop C would generate $15.4 million annually in new revenue.

MCTA members say their opposition to Prop C stems from the current school board’s lack of credibility and the community’s inability to afford the proposed 88-cent tax-rate increase.

Founders of the association include Rich Franz of Concord, a retired law enforcement official who now works in corporate security; Greg Frigerio of Concord, a small-business owner; and Ken Meyer of Lemay, a retired TWA worker.

The five former Mehlville school board members who spoke were state Rep. Walt Bivins, Kurt Witzel, Rich Huddleston, Dick Roehl and Matt Chellis. Also voicing his opposition to Prop C was Mehlville Fire Protection District Board of Directors Chairman Aaron Hilmer, who helped lead an effort to defeat the school district’s Proposition A — a 97-cent tax-rate increase — in February 2006.

The speakers cited what they contended was the school district’s long history of fiscal mismanagement dating back to the Proposition P districtwide building improvement program and continuing to the board’s decision earlier this year to award Superintendent Terry Noble a $44,000 pay raise.

Mehlville voters in November 2000 approved Proposition P, a nearly $68.4 million bond issue funded by a 49-cent tax-rate increase. However, a final budget revision approved by the school board in December 2005 raised the Proposition P budget to $89,137,440 — a roughly 30.3-percent increase — more than $20.7 million over the nearly $68.4 million building program originally envisioned.

In late March, the school board voted unanimously to increase Noble’s base salary by $44,088 from $181,912 to $226,000 — a roughly 24-percent raise. Noble later agreed to relinquish the raise.

Board members in August rescinded Noble’s three-year contract and approved a new, one-year agreement that provides for a 6-percent base salary increase — to $192,798 from $181,912.

Bivins last week discussed the cost overruns associated with Prop P, saying, “… Administrators, staff and board members, including Dick Roehl and myself, campaigned door to door for the passage of the $68.4 million bond issue program. Some time after voters approved the measure, interest rates dropped and it became apparent that the full 49 cents was not needed to fulfill the $68.4 million worth of projects requested by the administration. This board member and I believe others suggested to the administration that the bonds should either be amortized for a shorter period or the levy increase cover only the portion needed to finance $68.4 million worth of bonds. This would have resulted in a tax increase of something less than 49 cents …”

Bivins noted that he first ran for state representative in 2002 “and frankly wasn’t able to watch (Prop P expenditures) as closely as I had done previously. I mistakenly trusted the administration and the architect to be good stewards of taxpayers’ money …”

Noting he stepped down from the board in April 2003, he said, “During the whole time I felt I had been reassured the project as advertised, including contingencies, would conform to the $68.4 million that Dick Roehl and other board members and I had approved. Sometime later, I became aware that overruns and change orders resulted in a price tag of in excess of $90 million …”

Witzel later said, “… I’ve been a supporter of the district my entire life, having worked for bond issues and tax levies. Originally got involved after college and so it’s very uncomfortable for me to be up here tonight, considering that I supported this district and worked for this district and my family’s been a part of this district. It’s really been a part of my life for basically all of my 50 years. However, I am opposing this proposition for several reasons and most of them involve fiscal management …”

Witzel noted that he and Phil Barry of Oakville served as co-chairs of the Proposition P Review Committee that was established to examine the building program.

“… It was our job along with like seven or eight other citizens to look at the Prop P issue, to look at the construction and we spent about five months working on that, going through all the old information, through all the old board books, all the motions, all the change orders, all the construction things,” he said. “And we really did find that it was — there was no oversight. As much as they wanted there to be oversight, there was no financial oversight …”

Noting he was not present “to talk against Prop C,” Huddleston said he believes pupils, teachers and staff deserve better and praised the efforts of those involved with the district’s COMPASS II — Charting the Oakville-Mehlville Path to Successful Schools — community-engagement effort.

But he added, “… Do we want to give basically a free check, blank check, to the board to spend that kind of money? And I was on Prop P almost all the way through.

“When we got into the cost overruns it wasn’t something that we wanted, but it happened. This one (Prop C) really has less restrictions. I couldn’t find anything. If I’m right in reading the ballot language, that that money could go anywhere …”

Noting that no one ran against two board incumbents in last April’s election, Huddleston issued a challenge.

“… We really need to kind of do one thing and that’s stop the Prop C. I hate to say that. I’ve been a Mehlville fan. I have three children that graduated from the district. But let’s not be known as naysayers. Let’s be known as people that say: Stop. Let’s go back to the drawing boards. Let’s take that COMPASS committee and the people that donated so much time and effort to that and use their ability and the challenge coming now: We need people to run for that board — period. And we need people to do it who can meet with the committees, who can reformulate a plan … to help move that district along …”

Roehl later said, “… I like Mr. Witzel am a little uncomfortable coming here … What got me involved in this was I kept reading in the media over the last couple of months about the $45,000 increase that the superintendent was going to get because he was irreplaceable. Listen, nobody’s irreplaceable and if the district hasn’t trained someone to slide into his position, then shame on them.”

Roehl said he called school board President Tom Diehl three times and left a message stating he wanted to discuss Noble’s pay raise. Diehl never responded, Roehl said, adding he then spoke at a school board meeting.

“I scolded the school board and during my short three minutes, I was shouted down as being anti-kid by a COMPASS person in the audience, which was very rude and I let them know I didn’t appreciate that,” he said. “So I’m not anti-kid. They’ll want to paint me that way. I have worked very hard in this community as a business person for 20 years, building a good reputation and educating my kids and working for the school district.

“And what this is really about is we’ve got an arrogant, out-of-touch school board and administration. To come out in the community right now and ask for a 25-percent increase, about $400 per household, is arrogant, especially after all the negative feedback they got on the big pay raise for the superintendent …,” he said, noting that after the raise was rescinded and Noble accepted a 6-percent pay hike, “I was shocked that this group of people decided unanimously to put this on the ballot. That’s why I’m here. That’s wrong …”

During his remarks, Chellis noted that before Prop P was placed on the ballot, he had suggested an alternate proposal — a 50-cent tax-rate increase with a five-year sunset that would fund the construction of a new Oakville Elementary School and a new middle school and provide about $10 million for districtwide improvements.

“They told me we can’t do it that way because in order to get people to vote for it, we have to provide something for everybody in the district. We have to improve every building in the district …,” he said.

As result of the passage of Prop P, he continued, “… We’re paying for that over 20 years because we sold 20-year bonds paid for out of a 49-cent tax increase instead of just paying for the two schools that needed to be replaced and paying for it over five years. And then if something needs to be replaced five years from now, going back to the voters and saying: We have other needs. That’s what I would call accountability …”

Hilmer said, “… One of the things I told Rich (Franz), I said what you’re dealing with is you’re going to be running against a political subdivision that is spending over a hundred thousand dollars of your tax dollars to hire a PR firm. Now that PR firm is sending out slick literature, telling, crying … poor mouth.

“That PR firm is holding community-engagement meetings, which are nothing more than stacked with 80 percent district employees and that PR firm is doing phone surveys where they’re fudging the numbers to make it more palatable to you about their need for more of your money.”

He continued, “… The school district over the last five years has increased its pension contribution by nearly 40 percent that they put into the employees’ pension.

“When the Mehlville superintendent retires — and I believe he will retire after the failure of Prop C just like the former superintendent (Tim Ricker) did after the failure of Prop A in 2006 — he will receive a $180,000 check every year for the rest of his life — now if you can fathom nearly $2 million every decade in retirement …,” Hilmer said. “… One weird thing is I’ve never understood why people who work for the taxpayers should receive better benefits than the taxpayers who are forced to provide them …”