Mehlville Prop S makes history: Bond issue will fund secure vestibules

Six women take the lead on ensuring passage of Prop S

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Photo by Erin Achenbach

The campaign committee for Mehlville School District’s Proposition S, Mehlville-Oakville United, hosted a donut drive thru Saturday, March 13 at Mehlville High School, Washington Middle School and Oakville Middle/Wohlwend Elementary. The event featured free donuts, “Yes on S” car painting and committee members dressed in costumes to raise awareness about the bond measure, the district’s first in over 20 years.

By Erin Achenbach, Staff Reporter

History was made in the Mehlville School District April 6 when voters passed the first bond issue on the ballot in the district since the 1990s, Proposition S, with over 80 percent of the vote. Projects start this summer.

Proposition S for “Safe Schools, Safe Kids,” a 12-cent, no-tax-rate-increase $35 million bond issue, uses funds that have paid off 2000’s Proposition P lease for facilities upgrades and secure entry vestibules at all of Mehlville’s 18 schools. Mehlville had been the only school district in St. Louis County without a bond issue in several decades.

Prop S passed with 80.1 percent of the vote, well above the 57 percent it needed to pass.

“I believe our success is because we asked the people what they wanted and put it on the ballot, and the community was supportive of that,” said Superintendent Chris Gaines, referencing survey feedback from the strategic plan along with the 18 months that a Facilities Steering Committee spent visiting every school and analyzing facilities needs.

Prop S is the third ballot measure to pass under Gaines’ leadership following the 49-cent operational tax-rate hike Prop R that passed months after he took over the position in 2015, followed by 2016’s 10-cent Proposition A, a dedicated 10-year tax for replacing HVAC.

Those ballot victories are a rare winning streak at the ballot box for the district, at least since the 1990s. Attempted bond issues in 1995, 1998 and 1999 were all unsuccessful, and then the district stopped trying bonds altogether and opted, as with Prop P, to fund facilities with operations funds, which didn’t require 57-percent approval.

“Honestly, it was awesome. … I think it’s a huge demonstration of community support,” said Abby Riess of the Mehlville-Oakville United Committee, the all-volunteer campaign committee. “It feels really good that we were able to educate and inform people and that the community cares so much for our schools.”

The Board of Education voted unanimously in January to go to voters in April, after originally delaying from November due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But Prop S has been in the making for years, starting in 2016 when Gaines first told the public he was eyeing a ballot measure for facilities in 2020, when Prop P was paid off.

“I think (the passage of Prop S) is reflective of the campaign committee’s hard work and the Facilities Steering Committee going back to 2019 and really listening to the projects that were prioritized and brought forward,” said Gaines. “During that whole (Mehlville Listens) engagement process … we kept hearing safety, safety, safety over and over again.”

Unlike past ballot measures like Prop R, there was no organized opposition to Prop S — although campaigning during a pandemic brought its own challenges.

The latest Mehlville-Oakville United Committee organizers marked the passing of the torch to a new generation of leaders, with a group of six moms taking the helm: Riess, Rebecca Bahora, Stephanie Bailey, Laura Metz, Jennifer Rayborn and Nicole McRae. In past years, large rallies got out the vote, most notably the one for Prop P that drew then-U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt. But this time, large in-person rallies were not an option and the six had just over two months to raise awareness.

“In January, we just hit the ground running. It was pretty incredible the momentum that we had,” said Bahora. “With COVID, it has been very unique, so there were a lot of things we weren’t able to do. We really relied on PTO groups. We visited every meeting on behalf of MOU, we had parent pick-up rallies with people walking around with Prop S signs.”

The committee took full advantage of getting the word out, conducting a print and digital ad campaign with The Call and posting videos in the weeks leading up to the election urging voters to come out for Prop S. One video featured hockey legend Brett Hull from the website Cameo, where you can pay celebrities to give personalized messages. Hull says, “I’ve got a message for the residents of Mehlville School District. … Make it your goal to get out and vote for Prop S, we need you.”

Riess said that committee organizers had a unique perspective on the bond issue’s importance as mothers with children attending school across the district.

“On the campaign, we understood that we were working for the whole district here. Our goal from Day 1 was to unify all the schools, get them educated and informed, and really just start to build a culture of community and support,” said Riess. “That is the theme we went with and the approach we took on social media —  that we are working on behalf of the entire district. The women understood that and committed to make it achievable.”

For parents like Bahora, the passage of Prop S represents new potential for Mehlville.

“When I think about Mehlville School District compared to other districts in the county, I feel like Mehlville has a lot of potential and growth. … Residents here are deserving of a good school district and we need to get the brick and mortar in a good place so … we can continue to focus on academics,” said Bahora. “I think when you have to focus so much on facilities, it takes resources away from the real things that need to happen.”

Work begins this summer

Some Prop S work will begin this summer with preplanned work on the baseball and softball fields at the high schools. The district had taken bids on what those field upgrades would cost last year and didn’t have enough money in the existing capital budget, so those were included in Prop S.

The secure entry vestibules at each school and other Prop S upgrades will be divided into different bid packages in the coming years, said Gaines.

“For each of those, we have a timeline of how long we think design will take, the bidding timeline and the construction timeline,” Gaines said.

Besides the secure entry vestibules and improved accessibility, Prop S will largely fund HVAC and roofing replacement and parking lot updates at various buildings.

“There’s a lot of work, so there’s gonna be a level of disruption over the next couple of years,” said Gaines, who hopes to have the entire bond issue wrapped up by the end of summer 2024. “It’s been a long time since we’ve made a significant investment in facilities. … We also ask for everyone’s patience as we do this work. There will be some disruption to the flow, but we will emerge on the other side with improved safety and air quality conditions and all kinds of stuff around facilities.”

Residents will be able to track all expenditures once “we start paying the bills” on the district’s website, Gaines said. Progress updates will also be given at board meetings and in the Finance Committee comprised of district residents who are financial professionals.