Mehlville board OKs $4.96 million in cuts, fees, deferrals

Parents willing to pay more to save programs from cuts

Point Elementary second-grader Dylan Lohrke, 7, speaks to the Mehlville Board of Education last month to ask them not to cut teachers, buses, custodians or the gifted program STRETCH. Also pictured are board members, from left, Jean Pretto, Larry Felton and Venki Palamand.

Point Elementary second-grader Dylan Lohrke, 7, speaks to the Mehlville Board of Education last month to ask them not to cut teachers, buses, custodians or the gifted program STRETCH. Also pictured are board members, from left, Jean Pretto, Larry Felton and Venki Palamand.

By GLORIA LLOYD

The Mehlville Board of Education voted to approve $4.96 million in budget cuts, extra fees and capital deferrals last week in an effort to more than halve next year’s originally projected $8 million deficit.

Board members emphasized that they did not want to cut anything from the district’s 18 schools, but said they had no choice given the district’s financial situation.

The voice vote to approve the budget cuts received the most unenthusiastic response from the board of any vote in recent memory. Some did not say “aye,” but none voted “no.” With board member Lori Trakas absent from the April 23 meeting, the vote was 6-0.

Some board members emphasized that they are volunteers who are trying to make the best decisions they can. The cuts also will impact some of them, they noted, including the new $218 busing fee for children who live within a mile of school that the board approved instead of cutting all busing within three miles.

“Just keep in mind that we are part of the community: Both of my children go to elementary school in the district,” new board member Lisa Dorsey said at her first full meeting. “I just received an email message from the principal saying that my children’s class sizes are going to be 30 … My boys are also being affected by this in a number of ways, and I probably fit into this transportation (fee) piece, too.”

Board member Samantha Stormer noted she will soon be paying for two of her children to ride the bus to Rogers Elementary, since the fee is per child.

Although Trakas did not let the board know ahead of time that she would be absent, she told the Call that she was attending a graduation dinner for her stepdaughter Ally, who attends Westminster Christian Academy in Town and Country.

When budget cuts were first presented to the board, Trakas said she supported rolling back last year’s salary increases instead, to save teaching jobs and the “disappointment and angst” from the cuts.

During Beasley Elementary School teacher Tammy Hagely’s 30 years in the district, the board has repeatedly backed off threats to cut buses, she said.

“… If you keep cutting things and not adding to our salaries…. I’ve been here 30 years, I’ve heard this speech before,” she said to applause from teachers in the audience. “It ends up coming back to the teachers: Less teachers with more kids in a classroom.”

Children who receive free or reduced lunches will be exempt from the busing fee, and some parents will opt to drive their children to school instead, so the district counts on fewer than 713 of 1,084 eligible students to pay the fee, for a total of $156,000.

Cutting busing has virtually no support from the board, but it was one of the only ways the district thought it could save money, board member Jean Pretto said.

“This was never, ever a threat of any kind,” she said. “We certainly don’t get into being punitive with our neighbors about what we’re going to do or not going to do just to be mean — it was something that none of us ever wanted to do, because our community is not built for kids to walk to school.”

The budget cuts mostly follow the outline originally recommended by officials before a month of feedback from the public, although officials moved some cuts over from an alternate list of $8 million in cuts after the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corp., or VICC, board comprised of county superintendents met April 17 and unanimously rejected Mehlville’s bid to add 200 more voluntary transfer students.

Even before the VICC vote, Superintendent Norm Ridder modified the plans to include more fees, a suggestion from parents who said they were willing to pay to keep programs. Parents also pushed for increasing activity and athletic fees so that extracurricular activities would not be lost altogether, which will raise $63,000 as fees for each activity increase from $30 to $100.

At its previous meeting April 9, the board unanimously approved favorable budget adjustments that, prior to the budget cuts, project this year’s original $5 million deficit will fall closer to $4.3 million and next year’s original $8 million deficit without pay raises will improve to $6.6 million.

State sales tax revenues have increased and expenses have not been as high as projected, but Chief Financial Officer Marshall Crutcher said he does not expect any more major budget swings.

With the $4 million in cuts and another $1 million in maintenance and capital deferrals, next year’s budget deficit now hovers around $2.3 million.

Although district officials previously thought the prospect of pending changes to the transfer law made tuition from any Riverview Gardens transfer students too unpredictable to count on, after the VICC vote Crutcher added in 14 Riverview students, for $680,000, along with 15 more VICC students for $95,000.

At the end of the meeting, Pretto emphasized that residents need to “roll with the flow” as the board modifies proposals based on new information. Residents opposed to any tax increase at all are being shortsighted about the cost to their homes and their community, she added, forgetting that if the district is declared “distressed” by the state because it runs out of reserves, it could be merged into a neighboring school district where Mehlville residents would pay higher taxes anyway.

“All my life I’ve been a hopeless optimist, and I can always see the silver lining or the bright side or whatever the heck you want to call it,” Pretto said. “And I realize that my optimism is of no value to anyone but me, I get that. And my optimistic side tells me that we can fix this, we’ll get this fixed. But then there’s this nagging, realistic side of me that says we are in deep you know what … This wonderful community that I’ve lived in all my life … The community, folks, not just the school, is on the brink of disaster …

“People in this area care, they care about that they have, they always have and hopefully they always will. It just breaks my heart to think about what could happen if people don’t step up to the plate and say, ‘I care enough to do this, for my kids, for your kids and even if I don’t have kids, I want to do this.’ It really breaks my heart to think how fast our community will decline if we don’t step up to the plate and do what we need to do.

“If it would come to the school district failing and our kids need to go somewhere else, your taxes are going to go up anyway because we’re the cheapest one around … So you might as well bite the bullet for your own town,” Pretto said. “I’m sure the opponents of any possible tax levy have nothing to lose … because if they did have anything to lose, they would certainly look into the future just a little distance and figure out how their biggest asset could possibly become worthless.”