Fowler, Witzel have opposing views on Mehlville’s Prop R

Witzel Learning Center named in honor of family’s contributions to school district

Kurt Witzel

Kurt Witzel

By Gloria Lloyd

Two former Mehlville Board of Education presidents who served alongside each other in the 1990s are taking opposite stances on the district’s Proposition R 49-cent tax-rate increase that is on the Nov. 3 ballot.

Former board President Dan Fowler said at a meeting of the Mehlville-Oakville United Committee, or MOU, last week that the election is the most critical one in a generation for Mehville.

“If we lose this, I fear for the sake of our community,” he said. “It goes beyond our schools, it’s about our community. We are in an act right now of saving our community.

“There is no Plan B.”

District officials say they will have to make $3 million to $5 million in budget cuts if Prop R does not pass, on top of $4 million in cuts already made this year.

But another former board president whose family’s last name is on one of the district’s schools said last week he isn’t buying it.

The original Mehlville High School, the Witzel Learning Center, is named after former board President Kurt Witzel’s family for their contributions to Mehlville — especially his grandfather Louis Witzel, who as Mehlville board president in the 1930s secured the land and federal funding to build the district’s first high school.

In 1994 when both Fowler and Witzel served on the school board, the board voted unanimously to name the building after the Witzels. After Kurt Witzel left the board, then-board President Fowler headlined a 1997 dedication ceremony for the building attended by more than 70 Witzel family members.

At that June 1, 1997, ceremony, Fowler noted that Louis Witzel dedicated more than 20 years of voluntary service to Mehlville children and added, “On behalf of the Mehlville Board of Education, to the Witzel family, we’d like to thank you for all that you do.”

Then-Superintendent John Cary thanked the Witzels and added, “I think it’s important that we take this legacy this family leaves us, take it as a challenge for the future that we need very dedicated people for the Mehlville School District to continue to provide the education that is very, very important for the young people of this community.”

Since Witzel and Fowler left the board, the district has enacted unrestored budget cuts of at least $58 million, including cutting 121 teachers and 13 administrators.

“We just cut and starved and cut and starved, and the district’s just starving and struggling, really,” Superintendent Chris Gaines told the Call.

Last week at a meeting of the Oakville Township Republican Club, Oakville GOP Committeeman Witzel noted that few people are more connected to the district than he is, but he said he is firmly in the same camp as the Prop R opposition group, Secure Mehlville Oakville Future.

“This whole school tax levy thing sort of kills me, actually,” Witzel said. “Both my parents worked for the district, I grew up in the district, and then when I was 29, I served for 12 years on the school board. So if anyone should be indoctrinated in the district, it should be me.”

Salaries at Witzel’s company, Anheuser-Busch, stayed flat during the Great Recession while Mehlville teacher salaries went up, he noted.

“All the things that I heard early on — teacher salaries are terrible and we’re so far under everybody else, our assessed value’s going down — over time all those points have fallen apart,” Witzel said. “It just kills me to know that the school district, rather than playing with the facts, are sort of playing with the spins and spinning the information to their own best interest. And I understand that, I mean, that’s really what politics is about, and that’s really what trying to get people to vote for you is about.”

Secure MO Future treasurer Jane Conder presented against Prop R at the Oct. 1 meeting. She filed papers with the state the day before to officially terminate the committee, which group member and Concord-Lemay Republican Club President Linda Bowen said is temporary until the group establishes a different committee.

Despite terminating as a committee, the anti-Prop R group continues to raise funds. Its GoFundMe page has raised $75 of its $3,500 goal from four donors, including a $5 donation from a contributor who wrote, “Vote yes on R.”

The MOU campaign has topped $20,000 in donations and at the Call’s press time was just below its $10,000 GoFundMe goal with 234 donations.

In meetings held last week a few miles apart on Telegraph Road, Fowler and Witzel both said they believe the other side is resorting to attacks to try to win.

“When the facts are not on your side, you pounce on little things and try to make it an issue,” Fowler noted at Andre’s South Sept. 28, adding that he is proud of MOU for running a positive campaign without consultants, using only data and statistics to sway voters.

But Conder, Witzel and Oakville GOP Committeewoman Celeste Witzel, Witzel’s wife, took a different view at their Oct. 1 meeting at Crusoe’s.

“It seems like there’s a bullying mentality in certain areas, of people engaging in constitutionally protected speech,” Celeste Witzel said.

Although the number of teachers who left Mehlville for other districts nearly tripled this year, Kurt Witzel said Mehlville’s average teacher salaries are roughly the same as other districts, including Lindbergh and Fox, with the same “unbelievable” retirement benefits.

Fowler and district officials have singled out those neighboring districts, along with Hancock, for paying salaries that lured away some of Mehlville’s “rock-star teachers” this year by paying them more than Mehlville does.

District officials say Mehlville has taken in less revenue over the last eight years while keeping a lid on expenses, and if they received cost-of-living increases at the same rate as Social Security recipients they wouldn’t be as cash-strapped as they are today. But Celeste Witzel said district officials live in a bubble, disconnected from seniors without pensions.

“Not everyone is living at the income level as district officials seem to be,” she said.

Kurt Witzel said he knows from experience that board members and district officials form a “closed culture” where everyone supports initiatives like Prop R.

“There’s a month to go before this thing, and I’m looking for some reason for the school district to tell me factually that they need this increase, but I don’t see any of that, so that’s my two cents,” he said.