Free bus transportation reinstated in Mehlville

By MIKE ANTHONY

The Mehlville Board of Education voted 4-3 last week to reinstate free bus transportation for the 2006-2007 school year.

However, while free bus transportation will be provided to all students for the coming school year, it will differ from the service currently offered. The board voted to adopt a transportation option first presented in February to streamline existing bus routes, which will result in a projected savings of $350,000.

The savings will be realized by having fewer bus stops, longer walks for students to bus stops and a four-tier bus schedule instead of the current three-tier schedule that also will require a change in starting and dismissal times at some schools.

The board’s vote was taken just a few minutes before midnight at the end of a roughly 4.5-hour meeting April 19. Voting in favor of the motion to reinstate free bus transportation were board President Ken Leach, Vice President Karl Frank Jr., Tom Diehl and Micheal Ocello. Opposed were Secretary Tom Correnti, Cindy Christopher and Rita Diekemper.

While the board voted April 19 to reinstate free bus transportation for 2006-2007, Ocello emphasized that he viewed the restoration of free transportation as “a one-year fix” with the cost coming out of the district’s projected surplus and not as a reoccurring expense.

Frank originally had made a motion, seconded by Diehl, to restore bus transportation to its current levels. But after discussion in which Leach and Ocello expressed their preference for streamlining existing bus routes, the board adopted an amended motion made by Diehl and seconded by Ocello to accept that option.

District voters in February overwhelmingly rejected Proposition A, a 97-cent tax-rate increase, and the school board has started 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 fee for playing a high school sport and charging activity fees for elementary and middle school clubs.

The board voted 5-2 March 10 to approve a motion by then-Secretary Mike Heins and seconded by Christopher to cut nearly $2.5 million from the 2006-2007 budget, including charging $375 per student for bus transportation for those who live within 3.5 miles of their school for an estimated savings of $695,000. Besides Heins and Christopher, voting to approve the motion were then-President Diekemper, then-Vice President Bill Schornheuser and Correnti. Opposed were Frank and Leach.

Diehl and Ocello were the top vote-getters for two seats on the board in the April 4 election, defeating four other challengers, including Heins and Schornheuser. Within minutes after being sworn in April 10, Ocello made a mo-tion to call a special meeting of the board for April 12 “to discuss reinstatement of bus transportation by expensing the cost through the expected budget surplus.”

Ocello’s motion was seconded by Diehl, who also was sworn in that night. After discussion, however, Ocello withdrew his motion and agreed to have the item placed on the agenda for the April 19 meeting when updated revenue projections for the 2006-2007 school year were presented to the board.

Under state law, the district is required to maintain a 3-percent operating balance. As projected on June 30, the district will have a 5.98-percent balance — $4,642,525 — in the general fund and teachers’ fund, excluding food service, activities and athletics. Including those three categories, the anticipated fund balance on June 30 is 6.89 percent — $5,740,905.

When the current budget was adopted last year, the balance projected in the general fund and teachers’ fund, excluding food service, activities and athletics, was 3.27 percent — $2,529,396. Including those three categories, the original projected balance was 4.16 percent — $3,457,736.

On April 19, Diehl provided information to the board about a 1978 transportation referendum approved by Mehlville voters with 10,074 yes votes and 844 no votes. That ballot measure asked whether Mehlville shall “provide transportation at the expense of the district for pupils living less than one mile from school on condition that such expense shall not require an increase in the tax levy?”

Noting the measure was overwhelmingly approved, Diehl said, “… For us as a board, we’re kind of stuck with this particular item because we don’t have the authority to overturn the decision that was made through this referendum …”

He suggested using reserves to fund transportation for the coming school year, saying,”I don’t see how we can get around the decision that was made by the voters because it’s never been overturned.”

In response, Ricker said, “We actually brought that issue to (Mehlville attorney) John Gianoulakis and asked when that was done and subsequent issues centered around this, would we be held to that standard and his indication to us was no, we would not, and that between 1978 and 2006, if you will, a lot of the other issues centered around funding and funding formulas have changed both from the Legislature and at the local level …”

Diehl said he believed the district was bound by the 1978 vote because it has not been rescinded.

Diekemper asked, “Did you get a legal opinion on that?”

Diehl replied, “Well, unless you have a vote to rescind the law, it’s in effect.”

Diekemper said, “Well, OK, you could say in effect Proposition A when it stated that that would be a cut, when people voted against Proposition A, they were choosing not to fund that item any more.”

Diehl said, “… Well, that’s not the way laws are enacted …”

After further discussion, Ricker said he would seek a written opinion from the district’s legal counsel.

Christopher wanted the board to postpone any additional budget decisions until the end of the fiscal year — June 30 — approaches.

“I just would like to wait on making any budget decisions in addition to what have already been made until we are closer to the end of our fiscal year,” she said. “I know that there have been times that our state said that they’re fully funding our formula or whatever and they have not come through with that. I mean we could create, I can’t even imagine what we could create by making a lot of decisions to spend money or to change what’s already been done without having firm numbers. I think that’s a very, very bad and dangerous business position to be in with taxpayer money … So I would just caution this board, while I would like to reinstate a lot of things, including a lot of teacher positions at this point, I cannot in good conscience, as having fiduciary responsibility for the taxpayers’ money, at this point I do not feel confident at all in making any kind of budgetary changes right now …”

Frank later said he was surprised to learn about voter approval of the 1978 referendum to provide transportation to students who live less than one mile from school.

“I just feel like that’s something that should have been brought up before this time … As far as getting legal opinions and stuff on that, I mean I don’t remember ever directing that or — I never even knew this existed …,” he said.

Diekemper later said she agreed with two parents who spoke earlier in the meeting. They urged the board not to reinstate free bus transportation, but to spend the money for teachers and textbooks.

“… I want to reiterate what the parents said this evening. That if we have any money that’s available, I think it should be going for teachers and for textbooks and we have so many needs that we have in this district, and I think that to do — to overturn this and to go back, it’s doing the same thing that we’ve always done, which is we go into the classroom when we need more money and we take stuff out of the classroom. And I think that is wrong … and the result of this is that we’re not supporting our schools as a community the way we should …,” she said.

Diekemper also said she may have voted differently on other budget-related issues if she had known the decision to charge for transportation was going to be rescinded.

She also advised against dipping into the district’s fund balances, saying that would jeopardize the district’s future financial stability.

“And then also, I don’t think we can rely on a tax increase …,” she added.

But Diehl later said that the results of the April 4 election in which he and Ocello were elected “show that people want a change in the course as to how things are happening with this board. I think that many people are concerned about how the decision to cut the buses would affect the parents, affect the kids and affect the community as there was not a lot of thought put into it as far as what was going to be offered in the way of alternatives. And the thought was well, we’ll have all summer long to come up with an alternative plan on how to handle transportation …”

Correnti later raised concerns about revisiting the issue of free transportation, noting that the original goal was to have transportation registration forms for the 2006-2007 school year returned to the district by March 1 so new bus routes could be formulated based on the number of students who opted to pay the $375.

Noting that it’s almost May, he said it would be nearly impossible for district officials to determine those new routes and notify parents.

“They’re sitting on pins and needles as it is whether they have to come up with the $375,” he said of parents. “But no, we’ve got to come up with all this stonewalling stuff because we’re going to have to go and revisit something that’s already been voted on by a board. And now, all of sudden, we have to start all over again? This is amazing because we want 4-3 to bring this stupid thing back up … Come on. We’re hurting the people more than you people say we’re helping them …”

Ocello later said he considered reinstating free bus transportation to be a safety issue.

“… I think in some regards, there may be some misunderstanding, and I look at this and my feeling on it is, it is a safety issue and this is the reason why it’s a safety issue — is that I have heard and I heard this from some of the people that made that vote. The question was asked: Have there been considerations taken for safety? And the answer was: Well, you know what, the schools will figure that out. I’m sorry, folks, I don’t want to take anything away from the teachers. I don’t want to take anything out of the classroom,” he said. “That’s why I think we should use some of the surplus. We’re talking about if we go with the streamlining effect, it’s $350,000. In reference to this budget, that’s not used. I agree with Cindy and I agree with Rita. I don’t want anything out of the classroom and the truth is, you know what, I really don’t want to see our reserves go any lower.

“You’re not getting any disagreement here. But when it is my understanding based on what I’ve heard, and if it’s been misrepresented then I would stand corrected, that we didn’t do the necessary things at this stage of the game to consider those safety issues. Now that’s coming from a board member — two board members who said that at the candidate forum. So from my perspective, this is not saying let’s put this in as a reoccurring item — absolutely not,” he said, noting that the reinstatement of free bus transportation would be only for the 2006-2007 school year.

“We spend that $350,000 using the streamline effect so that this administration has a legitimate opportunity to study how to do it right, and that’s to me what is really important. And I know there’s some people here that are absolutely going to disagree with me. I can accept that …,” he said, noting that his wife drives his daughter to school every day.

“But there are some people out there that just don’t have that luxury. They do have to have their kids go to bus stops. And you know what? I think at this stage of the game until we do it right, it’s not fair to anybody to put them in that position. And we’re not talking about taking books out of the classroom. I’m saying let’s spend a little bit of that surplus. The truth is, we’re significantly higher than what we believed we were going to be …,” Ocello said, noting that the district has collected almost 90 percent of the revenue that had been projected for the current school year.

“I’m sorry, when it comes to the safety of the children in this particular regard because we haven’t done the things that we needed to do, based on what I’ve been informed, I’m sorry but we’ve got to give it back for this year,” he said, adding, “… I’m only saying for this year because it’s got to be fixed. And I’ve said all along, if it got down to teachers and books vs. buses, I’d cut the buses and I meant that. But I never said that I would sacrifice safety in order to save $350,000 out of our reserves …”