Mehlville leaders looking for answers after defeat of Proposition C

Defeat of Prop C ‘failure of leadership,’ Frank contends, ‘not of our families …’

By EVAN YOUNG

Mehlville School District leaders say they plan to ask the community why more than 23,000 voters rejected a proposed 88-cent tax-rate increase last week.

More than 62 percent of voters Nov. 2 turned down Proposition C, an 88-cent tax-rate increase proposal that would have generated $15.4 million annually for the district beginning with the 2011-2012 school year.

Prop C received 13,971 “yes” votes — 37.4 percent — and 23,357 “no” votes — 62.6 percent, according to unofficial election results.

Voters rejected a measure that was promoted as the funding vehicle to make Mehlville a high-performing school district. The revenue was to fund roughly $106 million in improvements outlined in the first phase of the district’s long-range improvement plan, COMPASS II — Charting the Oakville-Mehlville Path to Advance Successful Schools.

The COMPASS II plan contains such capital projects as the construction of a new Margaret Buerkle Middle School on the Mehlville Senior High School campus; new performing arts and technology centers at the district’s two high schools and major renovations to Oakville and Washington middle schools and Bierbaum and Trautwein elementary schools.

The plan also includes such operational proposals as moving staff salaries closer to the county median; funding for Parents as Teachers and full-day kindergarten and updating curriculum and technology.

Superintendent Terry Noble told the Call Friday the administration and Board of Education soon will discuss the best way to gather feedback from the community on why voters rejected Prop C.

One option is an electronic survey, a method the district’s Communications Advisory Team has used in the last year for marketing purposes, he said.

“We could use that structure. I think we could get some good information,” Noble said. “There may be some community-engagement sessions or town-hall meetings. What we really need is information that represents a lot of people. In other words, it’s great to hear comments from individual voters, and we need to hear all of those. But what we really need is to hear what the majority of folks are telling us.”

Prop C supporters cited Mehlville ranking next to last in per pupil spending among St. Louis County public schools as a primary reason for voters to rally behind the measure.

The state and county average is roughly $10,000 per pupil. Mehlville spends about $7,500 per pupil.

“I’m disappointed with the results, naturally, but the needs are still there to improve the education that we provide to our kids,” Board President Tom Diehl said. “Somehow the community has to come together to find out how to go about making sure we can implement these recommendations and what kind of timetable we can do it on. If you look at St. Louis County districts, 12 out of 22 in less than a year have passed ballot proposals, and we’re going to continue falling behind.”

Jim Schibig, co-chair of the Committee to Restore the Pride, the organization that advocated passage of Prop C, said he believes additional COMPASS installments are needed to keep the community engaged.

“I don’t think there’s any such thing as a status quo,” Schibig said. “You’re either moving forward or you’re going backward. And we have to get everybody together again and figure out what our next steps are going to be.”

Board member Karl Frank Jr. told the Call he takes “full responsibility” for Prop C’s defeat.

Frank was on the school board in February 2006, when Mehlville last asked the community for a tax-rate increase. He opposed the 97-cent ballot measure, Proposition A, as did 64 percent of voters.

Four years later, though, Frank contended the time was right to go to voters and believed there was a good chance Prop C would pass. He said Friday that Prop C’s defeat was a “failure of leadership, not of our families or our community.”

“Nov. 2 was a tale of two possible futures converging into one,” Frank said. “On one hand, it is a terrible feeling to look the children in the eyes and know what could have been possible for them. On the other hand, it is at least good to know where we stand financially for the foreseeable future.”

He added, “This election was about showing what was possible in the community and the district, and I think if I would’ve done a better job of explaining and we would’ve done a better job of communicating, the results may have been different. But we had a lot working against us.”

Frank on Sunday submitted a letter announcing his intent to resign from the school board at the Nov. 18 board meeting.

Diehl believes Prop C was an appropriate ballot measure but likely fell victim to poor timing. The COMPASS II plan, he told the Call, still is a sound vision, one based on extensive research and community input.

“We knew that we need make these changes so that our kids can compete not only with other districts around the county but across the country and around the world. That is obviously what was driving our decision,” Diehl said. “From that standpoint, this was to be the first phase of a multistep process. The timing, I guess, when you look at the national results, probably we should’ve gone at some other time than November 2010.

He added, “I’m not going to completely dissect the election until we get a closer look at the returns and look at where the turnout helped us and where it hurt us. But I think before we make any kind of move to go back to the voters we’ve got to do a better job of educating people as to what we’re trying to accomplish. I think our message just got drowned out in the overall tone of the election from the standpoint of voter anger and voter mistrust of anything relating to government spending.”

The most vocal opposition to Prop C came from the Mehlville Community Taxpayers Association. A grassroots, nonpartisan organization, the MCTA formed shortly after the school board placed Prop C on the November ballot.

The group contends it isn’t against public education but questions the timing of placing a tax-rate increase before voters, citing high unemployment, an increasing number of foreclosures and rising utility costs.

Members also say they’re dissatisfied with the representation being provided by board members and believe the board is out of touch with the community.

Concord resident Rich Franz, a founding member of the MCTA, says the organization is “deeply satisfied” with the outcome of Prop C.

“We’re frustrated that we had to engage in this campaign in the first place,” Franz told the Call. “Our feeling is the election totals are a vindication of our argument that the board is out of touch with the feelings of the citizens of the school district. And if the board intends to try to fulfill the COMPASS II suggestions, they need to spend some time engaging in relationship-building and communication-building in the community so they can restore their credibility …

“I think the message that the taxpayers and the voters sent on Tuesday is that in the current economic climate, considering the condition that a lot of the families in this district find themselves in, there is no way the voters are going to consider any type of tax increase in the near future.”

And when Mehlville does go back to voters, it should seek a bond issue, not a tax increase, Franz added.

“They need to be talking about a bond issue with a definite sunset clause that they’re all willing to sign their names to, because that is the only way people are going to believe the money is going to be spent on the items that are set out in COMPASS II,” Franz said.

As for the MCTA, Franz said the group will get together in the next month or so to discuss its future.

Some members have said they want to solicit candidates to run for the school board next April. Seats currently held by Frank, Drew Frauenhoffer and Erin Weber will be up for election then.

“We believe that we have established the credibility of our organization within the community, although we can certainly continue to build on it,” Franz said. “I’m not saying we’ve established ourselves as the voice of the community. I don’t think that’s the case. But I think we’ve established ourselves as presence in the community for the taxpayers.”

Five former Mehlville school board members also voiced opposition to Prop C.

One of those members, Matt Chellis, contends the district already is spending, close, if not equal to, the county average per pupil.

“What they can and should do is give the community a complete and accurate account of all expenditures, which would include debt service, and divide that total by the number of students,” he said. “What you would learn is that the Mehlville School District is already spending an amount somewhere between $9,000 and $10,000 per student, per year.”

Noble said he has heard from a handful of Prop C supporters and opponents since the election.

“Some thought it was bad timing or it was too much, too fast and too aggressive. Some went back to ancient history with the district where they felt like the district hasn’t been good stewards …,” Noble said. “Then again, there were just as many people that contacted us who were very positive. But even when they’re positive, they are looking for solutions, too, on what can we do to gain the support of the community. I think it would really be helpful for the board, the district to know why it failed and specific reasons why it failed and what we need to do differently.”

Noble believes the majority of district residents value public education and are able to understand the connection between the health of a school district and that of its community.

“I think that from my experience whenever an issue fails, like this one failed, it’s usually either because there was something about the proposal the community didn’t like or we failed to communicate or establish the need that exists,” Noble said. “And we need to figure which one it is. It could be both.

“Maybe the (COMPASS II) plan is not really all that the community wants to see. Or maybe it is but we were too aggressive with it in trying to implement it. Or maybe it’s because of the economy. There’s a whole array of reasons it could be, but if we focus on those two things — did we do a good enough job communicating what we want to do and does it represent what the people want to see as our shared vision — I suspect either one of those or a combination of that will be what we find out, that we failed in either one or both of those in some way.”