If you trust school officials, vote yes on Proposition A

Just more than five years ago, the Mehlville School District was riding the high of highs.

Voters in November 2000 approved Proposition P, a $68.4 million bond issue funded by a 49-cent tax-rate in-crease, and the school district seemingly restored much of its credibility with the public that had eroded during the mid- to late-’90s and was poised for greatness.

Dan Fowler, a former Board of Education member who chaired both the Citizens’ Advisory Committee for Facilities and Citizens to Protect Our Investment, wrote shortly after the passage of Proposition P, “We are very fortunate in Mehlville to have the best superintendent in the state of Missouri, John Cary, some of the best teachers in St. Louis County, rising test scores and now soon-to-be-updated facilities. We should not only expect the best, but also be the best school district in St. Louis County. After all, our children’s future de-pends on it.”

What happened? Perhaps George Santayana said it best: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

We believe the Mehlville School District has regressed to a point worse than the problems it experienced in the mid- to late-’90s. Just consider the fact that the cost of Proposition P has exploded by roughly 30.3 percent to more than $89.1 million. Just consider the dramatic decline in academic performance as evidenced by the district’s Annual Performance Report the past two years. Just consider the poor public relations the district has with the media — print and electronic — and even with some members of the community.

But it didn’t have to be that way.

In November 2000, the district had earned the trust of a majority of voters through a true public engagement process that culminated with the passage of Proposition P, which was promoted and sold to the public as a $68.4 million bond issue. Voters trusted district officials when they said they would spend $68.4 million to improve the district’s facilities.

That trust was there when Cindy Christopher, then board president, told 500 people in April 2003 at the district’s Recognition Night that Proposition P was on time and on budget. But that trust started to erode within weeks after this newspaper and the public learned district officials planned on spending more than $86 million on Proposition P.

That trust again was damaged in June 2003 when the chairman of the Proposition P Oversight Committee, former board Pres-ident Chuck Van Gronigen, contended ad-ministrators had not provided full disclosure to the panel of the total estimated cost of the building program and related projects.

Perhaps that trust was irreparably severed at the same Oversight Committee meeting when Randy Charles, then the district’s chief financial officer, had the audacity to say: “The voters approved a 49-cent levy. They didn’t approve a $68 million project.”

Despite the recently completed so-called Proposition P audit, the “ghost” of Prop P continues to haunt the district. Perhaps Mr. Fowler said it best: “School district officials want to put Prop P behind them, but the community is never going to put Prop P behind it until there is a full accounting of what went wrong, and I believe that Prop P will haunt the Mehlville School District for many years to come like a ghost. And it will keep coming back until it is properly addressed.”

That brings us to Proposition A, a 97-cent tax-rate increase voters will consider next Tuesday. If approved by voters, the district’s operational tax rate would increase to a “blended” rate of $4.27 per $100 of assessed valuation — roughly a 29.4 percent increase over the current blended rate.

If approved, proponents say the roughly $14 million that will be generated annually will be spent on such operational ex-penses as textbooks, teachers’ salaries and transportation. The district’s Web site even has a breakdown of how the money will be spent — 5 cents for textbooks, 4.8 cents to lower class size, 17.2 cents to replace de-segregation revenue, etc.

But the breakdown of how the money will be spent isn’t included in the ballot language. Essentially the Board of Educa-tion is asking voters to approve a roughly $14 million blank check that can be spent in any fashion it sees fit. We won’t even get into the threats of cuts that are being used to scare voters — especially district parents — into approving Proposition A.

It’s simple: If you believe you can trust administrators and board members with a roughly $14 million blank check that’s renewed on an annual basis, then you should vote for Proposition A. If you can’t trust them, then vote against Proposition A.