Four challengers, two incumbents square off at Mehlville school board forum

By MIKE ANTHONY

Four candidates challenging two incumbents for two seats on the Mehlville Board of Education in Tuesday’s election contend a majority of the current board is out of touch with the community, which has lost faith in the district’s leadership.

Mark Counts, Tom Diehl, Theresa (Saunders) Kleusch and Micheal Ocello are challenging incumbents Mike Heins and Bill Schornheuser, who counter that they are the only candidates with the experience to lead the district through its current financial crisis. The two were elected in 2003.

The six candidates squared off last week at a forum sponsored by the school district’s Citizens’ Advisory Committee. The March 20 forum, which attracted roughly 90 people, lasted two hours at Mehlville Senior High School’s Jones Gym. Former Board of Education President Kathy Weber served as moderator, asking written questions submitted by those attending.

Questions focused on the district’s finances, particularly the need for additional revenue, and recent budget cuts the board has made for the coming school year, specifically the school board’s decision to charge $375 per student for bus transportation for those who live within 3.5 miles of their school.

District voters last month overwhelmingly rejected Proposition A, a 97-cent tax-rate increase, and the Board of Education has begun to act 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. Board members are considering a target of $4 million in budget reductions for the 2006-2007 school year.

While all of the candidates said they supported Proposition A, most of the challengers said they had problems with the way the ballot measure was marketed, specifically citing concerns about threats of cuts if the measure did not pass. The four challengers said they didn’t believe the decision to charge for bus transportation was well thought out, citing concerns about safety and affordability, but Heins and Schornheuser responded that the board had no other choice.

When asked about the decision to charge for bus transportation, Counts said he believed Proposition A was set to fail from the beginning and cited concerns about what he termed “fear-mongering” tactics regarding potential cuts if the measure was not approved.

Counts said he had addressed the Board of Education on March 10 — the night the board voted to charge for bus transportation, urging members to consider all options before approving the $375 fee.

State law requires school districts to maintain a 3-percent operating fund balance to avoid being placed on the state’s list of financially distressed school districts, and the administration is recommending the district maintain a 6-percent balance.

Some of the challengers advocated dipping into the reserves to avoid charging for bus service, but Schornheuser said doing so would be playing with “dynamite.”

“When it comes to the safety of children, I would rather lower the fund balances …,” Kleusch said, noting that all parents are talking about is how they will get their children to school. She added she hopes to find more money to change that decision.

Terming the March 10 meeting “a sad, sad board meeting,” Ocello said, “… To be honest with you, my heart went out to those people that had to make that decision. But one of the things I do think that needed to be considered before we sacrificed the safety of children, asked elementary students to walk down streets that don’t have sidewalks and some of them don’t even have shoulders, is there something else that could have been done? And I have to be honest with you, I think most people would say: I’m not sure that everything that was available to do has been done first …”

He questioned whether it really was necessary to begin charging for bus transportation, noting that a 6-percent ending balance equals roughly $6 million.

“I think there’s more things that we could have looked at before we had to take that drastic of a measure,” Ocello said.

Heins said, “… I can’t be more saddened by the cutting of transportation. It’s like most public services. Once you cut it, it hurts the people of modest means the most. There’s a lot of people in this community who said we pay for our transportation, go to parochial schools. We take our kids (to school). Kids in public schools can do that …”

Diehl said, “I would have to say that I agree with the fact that this cut was not thought out the way it should be. The ramifications of what this cut will mean, not only to the parents, but to the community when we have these traffic bottlenecks every morning, will create a lot of anger and antagonism towards the school district, and we don’t need to worsen our relationship with the community. I would have to agree that we should look at the size of that reserve and reducing it because let’s face it, the district is in financial distress …”

Noting many of the cuts that already have been made, he said, “We’ve got to be honest with the community and tell them exactly what our situation is, but we can’t go sacrificing the safety of the students to save a few dollars.”

Schornheuser said, “I just want to say that Friday, March 10, was one of the toughest days that I’ve ever had on this earth, making that decision. It’s not one that any of us wanted to get to, but we’re there. We do have very few options when it comes to cuts. We can and will dip into the reserves if they do come in over projections, but, again, that’s almost playing with dynamite.

“You cannot do that. The reserves have to be there to make payments. We’ll go more in debt with more interest payments trying to make payroll …,” he said, noting the district each fall borrows money to meet operating expenses because it does not receive its tax revenue until late December or January.

Regarding the decision to charge for bus transportation, the incumbents were asked if the district would implement safety measures for children who walk to school, such as traffic lights and crossing guards.

Heins said, “I’m sure that each of the schools will address whatever safety standards are necessary, and every school is different and I’m sure there will be some additional costs coming to the board for approval …”

Nothing specific has been brought to the board yet, he added, a point Schornheuser reiterated.

“We had had a short discussion with the administration beforehand about what kind of policy changes would be needed. Those have not come to us yet,” Schornheuser said. “I would assume that some policy changes will have to come. Again, this is a lesson we can learn from our parochial schools. They do it on a daily basis. It’s something that we can learn. I did it going to parochial school. It can be done, and I hope the majority of people do take the option of paying for transportation because then we will not have as many cars (going to each school).”

The four challengers were asked about their ideas for safety regarding those children who will not ride the bus.

Counts said that given the location of Beasley Elementary, no pupil could safely walk along Koch Road to that school, while other schools barely have enough space for buses, let alone an influx of cars.

“Point Elementary School does not have the space for the buses to pull in, much less the parents to pull in and drop off their kids,” he said, adding that he believed the district will have to hire someone to direct traffic at some of the schools.

Besides Point, the influx of cars at other schools on Telegraph Road will have a tremendous impact on traffic, he said, adding, “I just don’t think that the right questions were asked prior to making the decision, and there is going to be a financial impact.”

Many will not pay the $375 fee, he said, and will drive their children to school.

Ocello said he would address the original question.

“… I think that this speaks to part of our problem. We made a dramatic change to the services we provide to the parents and students of the Mehlville School District. It seems to me that with proper planning, we would already have those answers,” he said. “In business, when we put a plan together, you also have to have contingencies, and it seems to me that’s part of responsible, proper planning. You don’t just make major decisions impacting thousands of people without knowing what the ramifications are going to be and what your contingencies are if it doesn’t go the way that you expect. It seems to me that we’re kind of doing this after the fact …”

Diehl said, “I think that this whole decision on bus transportation was poorly thought out because you have a couple of issues here. First of all, we have many streets in south county that have no sidewalks. We’re going to be asking children to walk to school along these streets, and to ask questions as to whether the district would come up with a plan as far as crossing guards and security, I think shows how poorly the decision was thought out.”

While some parents will pay the fee, others will not be able to afford it, and “so the buses will still be running, but they’ll be running probably half empty or worse. So you’ll still have that expense … This decision needs to be revisited,” he said, adding there must be a better plan.

Kleusch said she agreed with Diehl that the decision needs to be reconsidered.

“I said this before, I would hope that this decision would be changed. If the new board doesn’t revisit it, then I would propose that we would have each school coming up with a plan to help parents, carpooling, ideas and assistance for helping to keep those children safe …,” she said.

The six were asked if a tax-rate increase is needed, whether it should be placed on the ballot in August and for how much.

Schornheuser said he believes the community has paid enough already, but he does not see any additional revenue coming from the state to fund “some of the deficiencies that we have — textbooks, adding the additional teaching staff needed to meet and to exceed No Child Left Behind … So, yes, I think we need one. As far as a dollar amount, again, I think we’ll go back to the community, have them go through the suggested ideas that the community came up with, have them pick through and we’ll put a dollar (amount) to it, and when it goes on, I don’t know.”

Ocello said many residents have asked if a tax-rate increase is necessary. They also had questions about why the board sought 97 cents with Proposition A and how the funds were going to be spent.

“… I think at this stage of the game, we need to fully figure out exactly what we really do need and talk to our community, bring everybody together, and then be able to say: ‘This is how much money we need,’ because that seems to be the $64 question. Do we need it? And I think clearly from the vote that we saw on Prop A, people are obviously saying we don’t think you need 97 cents. So we need to do a better job and find out exactly what we need, telling the people what money needs to be spent, where that money’s going to go to and then put the proposition out there if it is still needed. And I have to tell you, from everything that I’ve seen, I believe it’s still needed …,” he said.

Kleusch said, “I believe we need a tax levy, but we’re in no position at this time to run a tax levy … I’ve been walking out in the community, especially around this high school, and we have to do a lot of homework and bring our community back to us. There are many angry people out there, especially with the cut on the busing, and there were angry people before concerning the levy, the high rate on the levy. I think we should have initially listened to what the survey said and got what we could, what this district would support so we wouldn’t be in this financial crisis …”

Heins said that the district needs additional revenue, but doesn’t believe a measure will be placed on the August ballot.

“We have to learn from what we just saw, and you can draw your own conclusions from the levy vote, but primarily what I heard people say, they didn’t want their taxes raised. So we need to do a better job.”

The district needs to bring in critics and make them understand Mehlville’s needs, he said, adding, “… Then there’s no doubt that the school district will go out for a levy in the next year.”

Counts said “most definitely” a tax-rate increase is needed.

“I think the issues over the past couple of weeks, the busing, it really hit a nerve with a lot of the people that are in the district. Obviously, we’re in financial distress right now, and the issue of the busing, it’s just a Band-Aid …,” he said.

Diehl said, “I think before we take any tax-increase proposal to the voters, this district has to do a lot to restore the trust and faith of the leadership within the community, and so that will probably cloud my understanding of when we do this tax-increase proposal. Like Mike (Ocello) said, the question that is in a lot of minds is how much do we really need, and, if so, what would it take to accomplish what the district truly needs?”