Mehlville board needs to step up to the plate on Prop P

By Dan Fowler

Many good suggestions were made to straighten out the Mehlville School District’s Proposition P quagmire during a recent meeting of the Proposition P Oversight Committee.

In particular, great input was provided by Chairman Chuck Van Gronigen, Vice Chair-man Gloria Brazell and committee member Mike Levine, who contended the committee needs to be apprised of all Proposition P costs and that the Board of Education needs to establish a firm budget for the district-wide building improvement program. It was evident that committee members felt hampered by a lack of reliable information from school administrators in making recomendations about Proposition P.

Near the end of the meeting, Superintendent Tim Ricker said, “… Basically, to sum up what you’ve said, is that the only way that we’re going to generate this trust in the community is to make sure that we take this input, go back, put it in a format that the board feels comfortable with in a budgetary process, laying everything out on the table so that people see every bit of information and we’re going to have to have systems in place where we have more people looking at our work over a period of time to get better input than we’ve gotten in the past.”

So far, Ricker has been very forthcoming with information that was so lacking in the very recent past and if he delivers on his pledge, he will be successful in stopping some of the Proposition P hemorrhaging.

Reliable information about the true cost of Proposition P and how the program is being funded has been lacking and even some available information has been disguised in deception.

I have no doubt that Ricker was handed a colossal mess from retiring Superintendent John Cary.

As reported in the Call, Randy Charles, assistant superintendent for finance and the district’s chief financial officer, told the Oversight Committee that referring to district capital funds being used for Proposition P-related projects as “non-Prop P funds” has led to much confusion about the source of those funds. The confusion stemmed from the fact that those funds were being referred to as non-Prop P funds even though they are generated as part of the voter-approved 49-cent Proposition P tax-rate increase, Charles said. The assistant superintendent blamed the resulting misunderstanding about the source of district capital funds on poor communication.

That’s a hard story to swallow and, quite frankly, is not at all believable. No doubt exists that Mehlville administrators under the Cary administration were not up front and honest about the financing of Proposition P.

Here are a few facts that we now know: the school district’s Proposition P districtwide building improvement program is at least $18 million over budget. We know that only 41.6 cents of the 49 cents approved by voters is being used to retire the bond-like certificates of participation issued to fund Prop P. We also know that the remaining 7.4 cents is being funneled through the capital fund for “Proposition P-related projects.” That 7.4 cents is generating nearly $1 million per year.

Running 7.4 cents through the capital fund for Proposition P-related projects raises serious legal and ethical questions.

Did voters approve Proposition P-related projects? I believe not. To answer this question, the board should seek an outside bond counsel for an opinion or this question will linger.

But the real issue is trust. The Board of Education has a long way to go to win back the trust voters gave them when they approved Proposition P.

In the latest edition of the Mehlville Messenger, much space is devoted to Proposition P, but useful information is seriously lacking. For example, Charles touts Mehlville’s wise use of funds for Prop P. If he truly believes that, then the wise thing to do is roll back Mehlville’s tax rate by seven cents, place a seven-cent tax-rate in-crease on the ballot and let voters decide.

In fact, if voters believe their tax dollars have been spent wisely, they will approve the seven cents, right? After all, Charles will tell you it is not that much money, only about $1 million per year or $13.30 for the owner of a $100,000 home.

Our neighbor, the Lindbergh School District, earlier this year received approval of a 10-cent tax-rate increase to fund a $14.1 million bond issue. It was the second time this issue was on the ballot and a four-sevenths’ majority vote was required for approval. The bond issue ultimately was successful because the Lindbergh School District has the overall confidence and trust of taxpayers because Lindbergh administrators and board members are up front and honest about how they spend tax dollars.

In fact, the Lindbergh Board Education consistently has rolled back its tax rate when it legally and rightfully could have kept those tax dollars and spent them. By rolling taxes back and adhering to its philosophy of only taking what’s needed, Lindbergh earned taxpayers’ trust. When the need for additional funding occurs, tax-payers give Lindbergh the green light because of its history of good stewardship.

The Mehlville Board of Education ultimately is responsible and accountable for the district’s Proposition P problems. It is the Board of Education that helped dig the deep hole the district finds itself in because of a lack of proper oversight and stewardship of the public’s tax dollars.

The Board of Education needs to step up to the plate, admit its shortcomings and formulate corrective measures to restore credibility with the taxpayers. Failure to do so will result in the removal of board members at election time by a public that demands and deserves accountability.

If board members held Central Office administrators to the same policies and disciplinary procedures other employees and students must adhere to, some overpaid Mehlville administrators would be suspended, if not expelled.

I hope you are more accurately informed; now make it your call when the time comes.

Daniel S. Fowler served nine years on the Mehlville Board of Education. He also served as chairman of Mehlville’s Citizens’ Advisory Committee for Facilities and as a chairman of the Citizens to Protect Our Investment.