Knost recommends bond issue to fund Forward Motion plan

Knost’s proposal would need tax-rate increase of 29 cents

By Gloria Lloyd

Superintendent Eric Knost already gave the Mehlville Board of Education a glimpse of his $24.5 million Forward Motion long-term facilities plan for the district, but last week he recommended how to fund it — a bond issue that would require a 29-cent tax-rate increase.

Last fall, the Mehlville board asked Knost to work on a long-range plan as one of his goals for this school year. Knost is leaving in June to serve as superintendent of the Rockwood School District.

“I’ve taken this seriously, I’ve put a lot of heart and soul into it,” Knost told the board. “It’s kind of hard to say, but it kind of means I’m done (as superintendent). But ultimately if the taxpayers don’t agree, it won’t happen.”

The May 7 meeting in the Bierbaum Elementary School gymnasium opened with the Oakville High School Choir performing two songs for the board. Of the 24 speakers who addressed the board at the beginning of the meeting, 16 focused on the benefits of an auditorium at Oakville High.

Most of the speakers were current band and choir students, who emphasized that Oakville has nationally recognized music programs but does not have proper facilities in which to practice.

The board did not vote on Knost’s long-range facilities plan, but is set to examine the proposal again Thursday, May 22.

Board member Samantha Stormer, who was elected last month, said she wants the board to tour all the district’s schools before she signs on to the plan.

“I love everything about it,” she said. “I just want to make sure that we as a board feel that these projects are being put in the right places, that there’s not other things we feel are being left out.”

“We’d better make sure that what we propose is going to be our best options, because we are not going to pass too many bonds,” board Secretary Lori Trakas agreed.

Trakas was the sole vote against the plan when Knost first brought it to the board without a price tag on April 24, noting that she preferred to focus on classroom needs instead of a new auditorium and Witzel Learning Center renovations.

The district has needs beyond those in the plan, Knost said, but funding all of them would require a large tax-rate increase just like those that failed in the past.

“A 97-cent tax increase — our community doesn’t want us to do that,” he said. “It’s not a fruitful effort.”

Mehlville voters have not approved a tax-rate increase since Prop P in 2000 — a 49-cent increase. Funds from Prop P went to build Oakville Elementary, Bernard Middle School and the John Cary Early Childhood Center and addressed numerous districtwide facility and technology upgrades.

Knost drew a distinction between his plan and the larger tax-rate increases that Mehlville voters have rejected over the last decade, including a 97-cent increase in 2006 and an 88-cent increase in 2010. He said this bond issue would be smaller than past failed proposals, but he also noted that the district’s administration has shown good stewardship of taxpayer dollars on construction projects in recent years.

The district’s first auditorium, the $6 million William B. Nottelmann Auditorium at Mehlville High, opened in November on time and under budget, and Knost also oversaw a new eight-court tennis complex at Bernard Middle School and expansion of the district’s 1:1 technology and facilities commitments throughout the district.

“This’ll be criticized, I’m expecting it. But I hope at the end of the day that even critics can understand that this is significantly different than proposals in the past,” Knost said. “It’s a fraction of what we’ve asked for in the past. I’m not trying to fix the school district for decades and decades to come… This is an attempt to get us to the next level of forward motion.”

Knost’s bond issue recommendation cuts $5 million from his $29.2 million Forward Motion plan to make the bond issue smaller.

Knost’s full plan calls for $8 million to replace HVAC systems more than 20 years old, $8.2 million to build a 500-seat auditorium and 75-seat theater at Oakville High School, $6 million for classroom additions at three schools and a new library at Bierbaum Elementary School and $2.5 million for a new entryway and elevator at the Witzel Center.

To cut the cost to $24.5 million, Knost rolled back the HVAC replacement budget to $5 million and took window replacement and tuckpointing out of the Witzel project.

Of the 29 cents included in two ballot questions proposed by Knost, a 19-cent bond issue would go to the debt-service fund to pay for the smaller $24.5 million long-range facilities plan and retire certificates of participation — a move that would free up some of the district’s operating budget to fund ongoing technology and facilities plans — and a second ballot question, a 10-cent tax-rate increase, would go to build up reserves.

Knost strongly recommended that the board place the bond issue on the ballot in August, the next general election, but some board members wondered whether a November bond issue would fare better.

Board Vice President Venki Palamand cautioned that ballot issues have historically not gone well for Mehlville in August elections, and losing would mean that the district would have to cut back on its technology and facilities programs.

“Why August?” asked board President Ron Fedorchak.

“Why not August?” Knost replied.

Palamand noted that without any type of survey, the district has no idea if the bond issue will pass a few months from now.

“The vote is a survey. Put a vote out there,” board member Jean Pretto said. “Survey the people. See if they want it or not.”

Pretto added that she believes district voters are ready to support a bond issue that is reasonable, contrasting the cost of the current proposal with past rejected plans.

“With all due respect, they were out of line,” she said. “And naturally they were turned down by reasonable people.”

“There’s a real cost to losing, and not just in terms of morale,” Palamand said. “If it doesn’t pass, the district is going to have to wait another two to three years (to bring up another bond issue). The other thing is, you won’t be here … If we wind up losing in August, I don’t see how we can hold the Rockwood superintendent accountable for this loss.”

The long-range plan is the capstone to Knost’s work as superintendent, he noted.

Concern about Knost leaving prompted former school board candidate Randy Howard, who came in fifth place among five candidates in last month’s school board election, to note that Knost will not be here to oversee or carry out the plan.

“We are seeking a new superintendent and to propose a massive spending proposal in the last month of a broken contract is less than responsible,” he told the board. “You need to not saddle a new superintendent with something like this.”

After Knost got the job at Rockwood in March, the Mehlville board voted 7-0 to release him from his three-year contract, which ran through 2016.