South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

Mehlville board member compares district’s fiscal practices to Greece

School district incapable of using funding wisely, Trakas says
Lori Trakas
Lori Trakas

Mehlville Board of Education members debated last week whether the district is in such dire financial straits that it needs more money to educate its students, but one board member said Mehlville’s money management reminds her of Greece.

In new Superintendent Chris Gaines’ first full week on the job, he said at his school board meeting debut July 16 that he immediately senses from initial visits with principals that Mehlville is in “starvation mode” in key areas, especially reading coaches, where schools currently share one for each half of the district.

“One of the things I have heard over and over this week is we have kids that are on waiting lists to get reading help,” Gaines told the board. “We shouldn’t have kids that are on waiting lists to learn how to read.”

Principals have uniformly told Gaines in his first visits to schools that even when the district had 6.5 reading coaches last year, students weren’t getting the help they need, he noted. Five reading coach positions were slashed in the $4 million of budget cuts going into effect, so help will be even harder to come by for struggling students.

Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum Tina Plummer confirmed that when school starts next month, every school will open with a waiting list of children who need help reading, and the tutoring budget was cut to zero.

Board President Venki Palamand said he believes it’s time to admit that while Mehlville has the lowest cost per student of any district in the region and has done what it can with what it has for a long time, it now needs to provide additional resources to its students.

It’s a view much of the board shares with former Superintendent Norm Ridder, who said Mehlville was the leanest district he ever saw, even more than private and parochial districts. Ridder took over Monday as interim superintendent in Joplin.

“We are as thin as possible,” Palamand said. “To borrow a phrase from Dr. Ridder: We are abusing parents and abusing students. We have got to step up and do better …”

“Venki, I would just throw a little caution about using the word ‘abusing’ children,” Trakas interjected. “For a school district with over a $100 million budget — I don’t think there’s any abuse. If you want to go to other people that have a less amount of money than we have, there’s a lot of people you can look at and they are getting educated — I’m not going to sit back and let you use the word ‘abuse’ with a $100 million budget.”

“According to a superintendent who’s had 40 years of experience, who’s been in all kinds of districts, that was Dr. Ridder’s quote,” Palamand replied, noting that parents have to raise money for their children’s education, activities and even textbooks.

Parents are “taken advantage of” with the many costs they take on that other school districts would pay for, said board Secretary Samantha Stormer, noting the volunteers who are donating their time and resources to remodel the Oakville High School locker rooms, which until this year never had a separate girls’ locker room.

Trakas objected that the locker rooms and similar volunteer projects just weren’t where the board wanted to spend its money.

“It’s a facility we can’t take care of,” said Stormer, who joined the board last year.

“You made a choice,” said Trakas, who joined the board in 2013. “The board chooses how it allots its money.”

“I think what Dr. Ridder meant is we have run so lean and so mean that we’ve crossed the line,” board Vice President Larry Felton said.

While most of the board appeared ready to support placing a tax initiative on the November ballot, Trakas came out strongly against a ballot measure on behalf of “demonized and demoralized” taxpayers who don’t trust the district with new funds.

During a seven-minute statement Trakas read at the conclusion of the meeting, she took issue with a statement Ridder made about senior citizens at the April meeting of the Mehlville-Oakville United Committee, which is seeking a tax-rate increase.

“A community that lives and thrives and focuses on the children has an extremely exciting future — a community that thrives and focuses and really zeros in on its seniors dies with its seniors,” said Ridder, 66. “And so I’m not saying Mehlville’s doing that, I really believe because I’ve worked two districts that were far more conservative than this one — the seniors are the ones who really have the energy for the kids, but they’ve got to trust the system.”

However, one TV station reporting on the meeting cut out the context of Ridder’s comment, which gave the impression that he only commented about seniors without the corresponding statement about children. Trakas did not attend the meeting.

Although Trakas praised Ridder for his work at his last board meeting June 18, last week she objected to his words at Andre’s.

“‘A community that focuses on its seniors dies with its seniors,'” she said. “This demonstrates a lack of understanding of who we are and the people that made this community great. Once upon a time, not long ago, Telegraph (Road) was two lanes — only a few subdivisions occupied our green space, and hard work and integrity were represented through the parents who are now our seniors. This district should be ashamed of itself for demonizing the people of Mehlville and Oakville.”

Trakas went on to compare Mehlville’s use of tax dollars with those of a government across the globe — Greece, the European country that recently narrowly avoided bankruptcy and a forced exit from the common European currency.

Greece suffers from large-scale corruption, lack of transparency in government operations and systematic tax evasion, with individuals and companies regularly bribing tax inspectors, according to a report from the nonprofit organization Transparency International.

Referring to Mehlville as MSD, Trakas said the district reminds her of Greece: “I see MSD not unlike other governing bodies in the news recently. Like Greece, the country, MSD steadfastly refuses to consider any change in the status quo: The relentless quest for increased taxes. Like Greece, MSD has proven it is incapable of effective, efficient use of the resources it has been provided. Giving MSD more money by increasing money on its patrons is, in the end, the quintessential definition of insanity — doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

Trakas’ statement prompted impassioned responses from Stormer and board member Jean Pretto, who said she is a senior citizen and understands what Ridder meant.

“I think it’s easy to make comments like that when you don’t have kids here in the district that are having programs and everything else being taken away from them,” Stormer told Trakas.

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