Majority would back tax hike in Mehlville, survey results show

Support ‘rock solid’ for hike, superintendent says

Although interim Superintendent Norm Ridder, left, has led the financial education effort in Mehlville this year, any tax hike would come under the leadership of incoming Superintendent Chris Gaines, right.

Although interim Superintendent Norm Ridder, left, has led the financial education effort in Mehlville this year, any tax hike would come under the leadership of incoming Superintendent Chris Gaines, right.

By Gloria Lloyd

A survey commissioned by the Mehlville School District shows that a majority of voters would support a possible tax-rate increase — a higher-than-expected result that took district officials by surprise.

In a telephone survey taken at the beginning of May, 58 percent of 408 frequent voters polled said they would vote for a 40-cent tax-rate increase, 48 percent said they would support a 55-cent increase and 40 percent said they would support a 70-cent increase.

The possible tax-rate increases saw the highest support from parents of children in the district.

The survey, conducted by Opinion Research Specialists of Springfield, has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent — a 95-percent confidence interval.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that the survey indicates we have strong support at the 40-cent level,” Board of Education President Venki Palamand said.

But Superintendent Norm Ridder had stronger words for what he told the Call he views as “rock-solid” support for a tax-rate increase that, if passed, would be the district’s first tax-rate increase in 15 years.

“Without a doubt in my mind, right now if we took a vote you would pass an initiative right at 48 cents, no question about it,” Ridder told the board at the May 21 meeting. “I think you could stretch it to 55 cents … The community needs to tell you what they want, and you have to listen to what they want.”

The last tax measures the board pursued failed overwhelmingly at the polls, with two-thirds of voters rejecting a 97-cent tax-rate increase in 2006 and an 88-cent tax-rate increase in 2010. The last successful tax-rate increase voters passed was 2000’s 49-cent Prop P, which focused on facilities, including the construction of three new schools.

Some residents are skeptical of the survey due to the district’s history of employing surveys for those ballot measures that turned out to be wildly off-base, a mistake current board members acknowledge.

Unlike past surveys, the latest survey results are scientifically and statistically accurate to within five percentage points, Ridder said.

The board could place a tax measure on the ballot as soon as November. At a meeting held last month at Andre’s South, then-board President Ron Fedorchak predicted that board support for a “reasonable” ballot measure would be 6-1, with board member Lori Trakas opposed. However, Fedorchak was not re-elected and Katy Eardley left the board, replaced by Lisa Dorsey and Eardley’s brother, Jamey Murphy. During the candidate forum, Dorsey said she would support a tax-rate increase to prevent more budget cuts, but Murphy said the board has to rebuild community trust first.

While district parents were more likely to be in favor of a tax-rate increase, Ridder said he sees “pretty high support across the whole system,” especially for a spring survey, which is usually when survey results will be lowest since people have just paid their income taxes and received their preliminary property assessments.

Years of declining assessed valuation during the Great Recession have kept the amount of tax revenue Mehlville takes in virtually the same, so that the district cannot keep up with inflation even as it contains costs, the district has said. Last month, the board approved $4 million in budget cuts and new fees to cut a projected $8 million deficit in half.

The district currently has the second-lowest tax rate in the county, above only Ladue. If the tax rate increased by 40 cents, Mehlville would still be lower than Clayton, which is the third-lowest. Mehlville is currently 72 cents below Lindbergh, which has the fifth-lowest tax rate.

When the district first took surveys last fall, 58 percent of respondents said that, despite the district’s then-$5 million budget deficit, they believed the district could function on the same amount of money it already receives, but 36 percent thought the district needs more money and 6 percent thought it should get less money.

The change since November means the district’s efforts to educate the community about its financial difficulties are working, Ridder noted, crediting much of that new financial knowledge to articles in the Call and the district’s newsletter, the Mehlville Messenger.

Of the respondents surveyed, 61 percent replied that they either know “a lot” (24 percent) or “some” (37 percent) about the school district’s new strategic plan. The survey-takers most aware of the strategic plan are younger voters, parents of Mehlville students, and Oakville residents.

On the district’s budget deficit, 79 percent either know “a lot” (44 percent) or “some” (35 percent). Those most aware are younger voters, as well as parents.

But although they do not typically have children in school, senior citizens are also very aware of the financial situation, Ridder said, noting that at a forum he held at Bierbaum Elementary School with 250 senior citizens, he asked how many knew about the budget deficit and 95 percent of the seniors raised their hands.

Ridder had board members and other school district observers guess the survey results in advance of the release, and the officials — including Palamand — were taken by surprise by the strength of support residents showed for an increase, the superintendent told the Call.

Instead of asking whether voters would support a 70-cent, 55-cent or 40-cent increase, the $5,000 survey asked if voters would pay a higher tax of $200 a year on a $150,000 home, $155 a year or $115 a year. On a ballot measure, residents would vote for the cents of a tax-rate increase, not for a specific amount of tax.

At the 40-cent level, a tax-rate increase saw 58 percent support, with 29 percent undecided and 13 percent against.

A 55-cent tax-rate increase showed 48 percent of voters in favor, 36 percent undecided and 16 percent against. And the highest increase, 70 cents, had the least support with 38 percent in favor, 45 percent undecided and 17 percent against.

Of the respondents, 22 percent are district parents and 78 percent have no children attending Mehlville. The age range spanned 29 to 90 years old, with a median of 63.

With respondents roughly split between Oakville and Mehlville, all levels of tax-rate increases saw the highest support from district parents and from Oakville residents, with 63 percent of Oakville in favor of a 40-cent increase and 55 percent of Mehlville in favor.

Of district parents, 88 percent are in favor and 5 percent are opposed to 40 cents, 79 percent are in favor and 9 percent opposed to 55 cents and 70 percent are in favor and 13 percent opposed to 70 cents.

Among residents with no children in the district, 50 percent support and 35 percent oppose 40 cents, 39 percent support and 43 percent oppose 55 cents and 29 percent support and 53 percent oppose 70 cents. The other percentages were undecided.