Levy increase needed by ‘24 to keep Mehlville ESSER positions

Mehlville+Superintendent+Chris+Gaines+talks+to+a+teacher+in+a+hallway+while+schools+were+all-virtual+in+fall+2020.+

Mehlville Superintendent Chris Gaines talks to a teacher in a hallway while schools were all-virtual in fall 2020.

By Erin Achenbach, News Editor

The Mehlville Board of Education again reviewed the possibility of placing a tax-rate increase on a future ballot at its meeting last week.

For the past several months since June, the Board of Education has discussed the possibility of placing a tax levy increase on the ballot sometime in the next two to three years to maintain educational interventionists currently funded by federal pandemic aid set to expire in 2024, as well as to address competitive salaries.

“We’ve had a number of these discussions … and really, the need for the community to make some decisions over the ballot box in the next four to six years, relative to a number of items both operationally and facility improvement-wise, really begging the question of what kind of district does the community want,” Superintendent Chris Gaines said at the Nov. 17 meeting.

The district has faced a number of financial challenges according to several presentations given to the board by Gaines, including inflation, stagnation in the state funding formula and increasingly competitive wages. Additionally, the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief money the district is receiving is set to expire in 2023-2024.

The ESSER money is being used to fund 34 learning interventionists, after-school supports and other learning recovery programs, as well as some facility maintenance related to air quality. The board approved the district’s ESSER plans in May 2021 with the knowledge that additional funding would be needed to maintain those supports beyond 2024.

The district could ask for a tax levy increase in either April, August and November of 2023, or April of 2024 to maintain the ESSER supports. Gaines estimates that it would take about 16 cents in local tax rate to generate the money needed to maintain the ESSER pieces that are unrelated to facilities once the ESSER funds end.

Future facility needs could be addressed through a bond issue instead of a levy increase.

The board has also discussed the need to address competitive classified and certified salaries across the district. Mehlville’s starting salary for teachers, $41,500, is nearly $2,000 below St. Louis County average. Hancock Place and Lindbergh’s starting salaries are $46,000 and $44,000 respectively. Fox in Jefferson County is the same as Mehlville while Affton is slightly lower at $40,400.

“We can tell … if we were looking at this relatively narrow group of districts that we think that we compete with the most, our starting salary would need to be $2,300 higher this year to be competitive,” Gaines said, estimating it would take an additional $2.4 million in revenue to “catch up” with Mehlville’s counterparts, which equates to an 11-cent levy.

“I still think that number is probably too low,” Gaines added. 

Between both the ESSER supports and salaries, the district is looking at a roughly 30-cent increase in operating levy needs to cover both. A home valued at $300,000 would pay about $153 a year, while a home valued at $500,000 would pay about $255.

However, tax levy increases in the district have historically been unsuccessful. Most of the increases Mehlville has asked for since 1970 failed — 19 out of 25. The last tax rate increase to pass in the district was Proposition R in 2015, a 49-cent increase to the district’s property tax rate for learning interventionists and other educational supports.

“The community has to make some decisions on those and from that we recalculate and more decisions and more recalculations,” Gaines said. 

The board has until January to make a decision about whether or not to put something on the April 2023 ballot. A levy would have to be placed on the April 2024 ballot at the latest to maintain ESSER-funded items. Results of a community survey will be presented to the board in December. 

“We have a limited window around any of the ESSER positions and activities. Realistically, we can ask a levy to address competitive wages at any time,” Gaines said. “Pretty much anything facilities-wise, November ’23 is early … April of ’26 probably makes more sense.”

The last ballot measure in the district was Proposition S in 2021, a $35 million no-tax-rate-increase bond for facilities and security improvements.