The Mehlville Board of Education declined Thursday night to place a no-tax-rate-increase bond issue on the Nov. 3 ballot, citing concerns that the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic as well the district’s decision to start the school year virtually would present challenges for successfully convincing enough voters to approve the measure in just over two months.
Ultimately the board did not take a vote on whether or not to place the measure on the November ballot with the understanding that it would be looked at later, possibly for the April 6, 2021 ballot.
For the last 18 months a Facilities Steering Committee composed of nearly 40 parents, teachers and community members toured 18 of the district’s 19 facilities, prioritizing future facility needs using those tours as well as surveys of teachers, parents and students from each school.
At the conclusion of the Facilities Steering Committee’s work, the committee identified more than $237 million in projects, although Superintendent Chris Gaines said many of the projects were “wants” rather than needs.
Ultimately, the committee narrowed its priorities to $35 million worth of projects that could be funded by a possible 12-cent bond, the bulk of which centered around safety at $11.6 million, said Gaines, presenting updated numbers to the board at the Aug. 20 meeting.
Other projects identified include $7.3 million in HVAC, $5.6 million in unspecified “other,” $2.8 million in restrooms, $2.7 million in roofing, 2.2 million in contingency funds, $1.9 million in Americans with Disabilities Act compliance-related projects and $900,000 in parking.
“We’re almost to the point now with COVID that HVAC is almost a safety issue. We will be increasing the amount of outside air … that we’ll be pumping into the buildings,” said Gaines. “A lot of upgrades to be compliant with ADA. … The recommendation overall is 12 cents to fund a $35 million bond issue.”
The 12 cents would be a portion of the 45 cents the district currently levies from the Proposition P tax, passed in 2000. The district has the option to ask voters if they want to funnel 12 cents from the 45 cents of the current Prop P tax levy into facilities investments, while using the remaining 33 cents of the levy to continue funding operations.
Had the board decided to place the measure on the November ballot, it would have had to vote by its August meeting. Placing a measure on the April 2021 ballot requires a decision by January.
However, like so many things this year, the COVID-19 pandemic has created unforeseen challenges, even for plans many years in the making.
“I guess the question to ask is, from a communication point of view, given the fact that there’s going to be so many absentee votes and mail-in votes this year that will probably get executed early to mid-October. … What would be the strategy to get out and explain this to everyone as no-tax, where the values are, the emphasis on safety and just maintenance of buildings?” said board member Larry Felton. “I think that’s the key thing.”
Others on the board agreed with board member Lisa Messmer, who said that she was concerned about the impact the virtual start to the school year, with no children physically present in buildings, could have on a November bond measure about the district’s facilities.
“To me, it doesn’t seem like November is the right time,” said Messmer, who had been a proponent of starting the school year virtually due to the amount of virus in South County; she is a nurse at Nazareth Senior Living Center, which reported more than 70 coronavirus cases in an outbreak this past spring.
Board President Kevin Schartner had concerns that asking the community to vote for a bond measure, even if it is not a tax-rate increase, would be “tone deaf” at a time when students are not physically in school buildings and when families are struggling with economic impacts from the pandemic.
“There’s a lot of people right now who are spending more money on child care or maybe even having difficulty finding that,” said Schartner. “… Everyone’s trying to find ways to deal with this, and I just wonder if it comes off a little tone deaf to those issues people are having if we push this right now.”