Mehlville board asked to take a stance on south county casino

By Alyson E. Raletz

Despite the Mehlville School District’s neutrality on a potential south county casino, anti-gaming activists appealed to Board of Education members last week — asking the board to take a stand on the issue.

Anti-gaming activists aren’t the only ones looking for some input from Mehlville on the matter as the South County Chamber of Commerce recently submitted a letter to the board with its endorsement of a proposed casino near the Jefferson Barracks Bridge.

But school board members still have no plans to take an official stance on a potential south county casino.

Rally Against Gambling Expansion founder Denny Hettenhausen and Don Cannon of South County First submitted two large white bags stuffed with letters signed by people who oppose gaming and any proposal for a south county casino — whether it be in Lemay or Oakville — to board members April 27.

Rally Against Gambling Expansion, South County First, Kids First and other anti-gaming community groups are conducting a letter-writing campaign, in which they claim they are delivering at least 39,000 letters to area legislators and taxing districts in an effort to prevent a casino from coming to south county.

“We just want to share the knowledge that we’ve gained from researching the effects of casinos with people,” Hettenhausen told the Call. “And we thought that leaders would be the best place to start because they influence other people — especially school boards. They influence our children.”

Cannon also submitted information to the board with statistics about adolescent gambling addiction.

“We would like to see the school board, as much as legally possible, look into this more and address the issue and actually say yea or nay on this,” Cannon said. “And I don’t know what can be done, but as individual citizens I know that you have the right to speak out against it, OK?”

Pinnacle Entertainment, Isle of Capri Inc. and Harrah’s submitted applications to develop a casino in south county. While Isle of Capri and Harrah’s both formulated proposals for Oakville sites west of the Jefferson Barracks bridge, a St. Louis County Port Authority selection committee selected Pinnacle’s proposal to construct a casino at the former National Lead Site in Lemay.

The County Council currently is evaluating the Pinnacle proposal so that it can submit some type of recommendation to the Missouri Gaming Commission.

“Naturally, I would like to see them take a stand in our favor … I think that they should be speaking out about having a casino right next to one of our schools … because we are electing them to look out for the best interests of our children,” Hettenhausen said, noting that Beasley Elementary is close to the casino site identified in the Isle of Capri proposal. She has a son who will attend Beasley as a kindergartner in the fall.

“And if they think that a casino right in the neighborhood of a school is safe and a good thing and a good influence on our kids, then I don’t think that they should be in office,” she added.

Anti-gambling groups are not the only ones seeking a response on the gaming issue from the Mehlville School District as the South County Chamber of Commerce recently submitted a letter to the board with the organization’s endorsement of the Isle of Capri proposal.

“Currently the Mehlville school system is expected to have to make $1.6 million in education cuts this year and an additional $2.6 million next year. The personal and real estate property tax contribution from this new business (Isle of Capri) are equivalent to a 25-cent tax levy. How often does the district get the opportunity to raise significant revenues without having to go in front of the voters?” South County Chamber President David Robert wrote in an April 19 letter to Mehlville board President Cindy Christopher and Superintendent Tim Ricker.

“Our board does not typically take a stand on issues such as this, but felt the economic impact of this project was so significant for south county that we had to publicly state our position,” Robert’s letter stated.

Contending the $300 million Isle of Capri proposal would bring much-needed revenue and development to the Mehlville School District, the letter stated, “We should do everything possible to make sure this opportunity is not missed … I would appreciate knowing how the Mehlville School District feels about this and if you agree or disagree with the impact it will have on the school district.”

But Christopher contends that endorsing or not endorsing a casino proposal for south county is not within the Mehlville board’s scope of responsibility.

“Certainly we are in favor of economic development,” Christopher told the Call, noting that this “particular development (a casino) … wouldn’t be something necessarily the board would address.”

While she appreciates the community’s involvement on such a divided issue, Christopher never intends on placing consideration of the casino proposals on a future agenda.

“The realm of decision-making of the Mehlville Board of Education does not fall within the definition of economic development …,” she said. “There is nothing that we, as a board can do … It’s really not within our scope of responsibility. We are not directed to do economic development … We’ve got a lot of things we’re responsible for … And I am always willing to step up to the plate for school district business … But I think I’d be overstepping my bounds as a board member into someone else’s responsibility … It doesn’t fall into our realm of responsibility …

“Other people are elected or appointed to deal with that … They don’t tell us how to run our school district. We have to be careful to not assume that we do that — we as a board,” she added.

But County Councilman John Campisi, R-south county, told the Call he believes Mehlville officials should give him some feedback on the casino issue.

“They don’t say anything about — I don’t know with that school board what they do … Their board is just so afraid of saying anything,” Campisi said of Mehlville. “Isn’t it time someone take a stance on something? Just say no if you don’t want it … What if I did that? How would you know where I stood on anything? You know, you may be mad at me because I put the casino in or you may be mad at me because I don’t put the casino in. But if I don’t say anything or take a stand either way, how the hell do you know who you’re voting for?”

Campisi said Mehlville officials particularly should have some type of opinion on an educational foundation that could be implemented if Pinnacle’s proposal is approved.

Even though the Pinnacle casino would be developed within the Hancock Place School District, other south county districts, such as Mehlville, Affton and Bayless, would benefit from an annual $4.3 million in additional funding.

As proposed, representatives from each of the districts would be members of the foundation and help determine annually how the $4.3 million should be distributed.

“That foundation is going to make sure that the schools are taken care of …,” Campisi said. “You would think that Mehlville would have an opinion either way on whether they receive money on a casino or not … These are tough times for not only Mehlville, but it’s tough times for a lot of the schools in my area. And I expect their input just as much as I expect my constituency in my areas to tell me how they feel.”

Noting the Mehlville board typically is neutral on economic development matters, Christopher added, “I understand this is a very difficult issue. I am sure people don’t understand why the board doesn’t take a stand — especially considering Hancock unanimously has taken a stand. I really believe it’s beyond their scope as board members in my personal opinion.”

Three top Hancock Place School District administrators publicly voiced their support of the Pinnacle proposal two weeks ago during a town-hall meeting on casinos, which took place at Mehlville Senior High School.

No Mehlville administrators or board members spoke on the issue.

Hancock Superintendent Ed Stewart told the Call he has no problem publicly supporting the Pinnacle proposal on behalf of the Hancock Place School District because resources are desperately needed given Lemay’s economic condition.

“I feel very strongly I haven’t overstepped my bounds,” Stewart told the Call. “People outside the district don’t understand how desperately we need economic development. If Pinnacle doesn’t go in there, nothing will.”

Like Mehlville, the Hancock Board of Education has taken no vote on the matter, but Stewart added the Hancock board has discussed the Pinnacle proposal during meetings. The Hancock Board of Education formally endorsed a proposal for a casino at the former National Lead Site in the 1990s.

“There’s been no real negativity to the Pinnacle proposal,” he said. “I don’t know if they felt they should have taken a formal vote. But I have had several conversations with the school board on this issue and I’m sure if they thought I wasn’t representing the school district, they’d let me know … I don’t like to speak for the board … but if it came down to a vote, I think they’d support it.”

Asked if he believed the Mehlville School District should take a stand on the issue or continue to be neutral, Stewart said, “I’ve got a lot of respect for the people from the Mehlville School District. They can make whatever decision they want to make … One reason I’ve taken such a strong stance is because the Pinnacle proposal is in our school district.”

Mehlville board Vice President Matt Chellis told the Call he personally is opposed to the expansion of gambling, but he echoed Christopher’s comments on Mehlville’s official position or lack thereof.

“Gambling just adds a negative element to our culture,” Chellis said. “However, I don’t think it’s something the board should really get involved with. It’s a county decision — not a school board decision … I don’t think we should be reliant. I don’t think because we have a budget problem we should have more gambling because it should help our budget.”

Chellis said the Mehlville board’s job is to manage the resources of the school district — not to decide cultural and social issues for the community.