Mehlville needs to cut ‘luxury items’ first, board member says

By MIKE ANTHONY

The Mehlville Board of Education needs to consider eliminating “luxury items” before it begins targeting programs and services that directly impact students, according to board member Karl Frank Jr.

Administrators who facilitated task force study groups appointed by Superintendent Tim Ricker to help build the 2006-2007 budget presented the groups’ recommendations to the Board of Education last week.

Voters will consider Proposition A, a proposed 97-cent tax-rate increase, Tuesday, Feb. 7. As proposed, Proposition A would generate roughly $14 million annually to implement a revised Comprehensive School Improvement Plan, or CSIP, recommended by the district’s Long Range Plan-ning Committee and accepted by the school board.

But if Proposition A does not pass, the task force study groups are recommending such things as charging $375 for bus service, charging a $150 fee for playing a high school sport, charging activity fees for elementary and middle school clubs, and eliminating team teaching at the middle schools.

Before the presentations were made at the Jan. 12 meeting, Ricker said, “… The main thing that I have to mention is that this information that you see tonight is for you to digest, to think about, to comment on and ask questions and possibly ask for additional information … This process is separate from the Budget Committee process and the Long Range Planning finance group that met earlier in the year and the Budget Committee group that’s met the last couple of years to help design and develop what ends up being the recommended budget to the Board of Education, which is considered in the month of June …”

The discussion at the meeting would focus only on expenditures and not revenues, he said, emphasizing that at this point no decisions have been made regarding any of the recommendations by the study groups.

“… No decisions have been made. This is informational in nature. We’re not asking the board to make any decisions on anything,” Ricker said. “This is the beginning, preliminary process of starting to design on the expenditure side what we’re going to be looking at and all the expenditure line items as we design the budget that will come forward in the future month by month. In fact, on the 26th of this month, we’ll have our first budget workshop to talk about the revenue and the expenditure side, and then we’ll build on that over time as information becomes available, better information from DESE (Department of Elementary and Secondary Education), better information from the county, better information on simulations that are done. At the same time, listening to the legislation, the General Assembly, where they’re going with their budget, where tax receipts are going, so on and so forth …”

Ricker’s announcement last fall that volunteers were being sought to serve on the task force study groups came as a complete surprise to Frank, who still believes Ricker should have brought his proposal for the groups to the Board of Education.

“I felt that if we were going to have committees formed to talk about budget cuts, there should have been some inclusion of comments and suggestions by board members for the task forces to study … The charges of the task forces should have been all-encompassing of our entire budget, not just certain areas that were picked out by the administration that they would like to suggest for cuts,” he said.

Areas that Frank says he wants to look at for cuts include interdistrict travel, out-of-state travel, cell phones and public relations.

“We’re talking about possibly cutting busing for kids and to me it’s irresponsible to cut busing for kids. You have to keep in mind that the people saying this and supporting this have spouses that run $500 million businesses and they have six-figure salaries. Whatever happened to inclusion?” he asked. “What ends up happening when you cut busing is it excludes and punishes our children and their parents who barely have enough money to live … So to me, it’s not a matter even of dollars and cents, it’s not even a matter of higher truancy rates or decreased graduation rates, in some cases it’s a matter of life or death for some children …”

Frank told the Call he is adamantly opposed to charging for bus transportation.

“It excludes kids. Some of us can provide transportation, but some of us can’t, and that’s what public education’s about — it’s inclusion. It’s about educating everyone and providing equal opportunity for everybody to learn. So we shouldn’t be cutting buses and raising activity fees when we have luxury items to cut,” he said.

“It’s a luxury item to have two area superintendents. It’s a luxury item to have 10 principals at two high schools. It’s a luxury item to have a quarter-of-a-million PR (public relations) budget. It’s a luxury item to have the Mehlville Messenger, which has become nothing more than a campaign propaganda magazine. Luxury items are cell phones, interdistrict travel reimbursement, out-of-state travel reimbursement, and what other luxury items do we have to cut that I’m missing here? These are the kinds of things that these budget task forces should have been looking into, not just analyzing suggestions from the ad-ministration,” he said.

Frank also was critical of the increased frequency of the Mehlville Messenger, including the Mini Messengers, be-ing mailed to residents.

“The Mehlville Messenger was going out quarterly and I do think it’s OK to send out periodic communications to the public to keep them on page with what’s going on,” he said. “But I think quarterly was sufficient … My real concern is that since we’ve started this campaign for a tax levy is that we’re sending it out now three times more, I guess, or four times more than we were, and it’s basically just financial proclamations all the time. Where are the stories about our students? Where are the stories about our teachers? Where are the stories about the accomplishments that Mehlville has? Instead we’re using the Mehlville Messenger to poor mouth to the community and it’s costing us taxpayer money.”

By task force, some of the recommendations are:

• High School — Changing the current eight-block schedule to a four-by-four block model. A reduction of 10 teachers would save roughly $450,000.

• Middle School — Eliminating team teaching and reducing the number of teachers by roughly 20 for an estimated savings of $900,000 to $1 million.

• Transportation — Charging a $375 per child fee next year for all students living less than 3.5 miles away from school.

• Elementary Programming — Eliminating elementary lunch/recess monitors, high school lunch monitors and 4.5 physical education/music teachers for an estimated savings of $447,000.

• Student Fees — Charging a $150 fee for the first high school sport played with an additional $50 maximum for additional sports played next year. A cap of $300 per family also would be established. In addition, elementary and middle school pupils would be assessed an activity fee of at least $20 for participation in clubs beginning next year. Such fees would generate nearly $325,000, while the district would still fund the remaining cost of more than $489,000.

Because he believes the board should look at eliminating “luxury items” first, Frank believes the recommendations by the study groups will be perceived as threats by the community.

“To me, they are threats. They might be possible cuts, but they are definitely threats of cuts if you don’t pass this tax levy and I don’t think this community responds well to that,” he said. “In my mind, there are some things, in order to meet state and federal mandates, there are some things that Mehlville could use more money for, but this isn’t how you get it. You don’t get it by punishing your base …

“So not only is it irresponsible to suggest these cuts without taking everything else into consideration, threats such as these do not sit well with this community. You’re hurting yourself, you’re hurting your cause and you’re hurting our children,” Frank said.