Mehlville school board hires consultants to review budget procedures

NEA members vote to accept salary freeze for 2008-2009

By BURKE WASSON

The Mehlville Board of Education took steps last week to solidify its finances for the 2008-2009 school year by approving agreements with two consultants to review procedures for budget development and projections.

School-board members voted 6-0 on May 15 to accept a $3,480 contract with Daniel Jones & Associates of Arnold to review the district’s procedures for budget development. Board member Erin Weber was excused from the meeting. A request for proposals for those services also yielded a $27,300 offer from the Management Advisory Group Inc. of Woodbridge, Va.

The Board of Education also voted 5-0, with Vice President Micheal Ocello abstaining, to solicit the services of St. Louis University professor William T. Rebore to review the district’s budget projections at no cost. Rebore has worked with several local school districts on long-range financial projections.

Management Advisory Group also submitted a request to review the district’s budget projections at a cost of $24,400.

The two moves come after administrators discovered earlier this spring that the board was presented last year with faulty financial projections before approving the 2007-2008 budget, which included a 6-percent raise for all employees. New projections indicate the school district’s operating-fund balance will dip below the state-required 3-percent minimum by the end of the 2009-2010 school year.

Superintendent Terry Noble has said he was “taken aback” by the new projection for the 2009-2010 school year as it differed significantly from a previous projection that the district would have an operating-fund balance of 5.75 percent on June 30, 2010.

Noble has reiterated that the financial situation is not an immediate crisis and that funds are available to correct the projected shortfall if voters would agree to transfer 31 cents from the debt-service fund into the operating fund. District officials have contemplated placing that transfer on a ballot later this year.

The transfer would generate roughly $5.7 million annually for the district. Mehlville’s overall tax rate would not increase, but the transfer would extend the district’s bonded indebtedness by 15 years.

Because of the district’s well-publicized financial woes, members of the Mehlville National Education Association recently voted to accept a pay freeze for the 2008-2009 school year.

Although the teachers’ union voted to go without raises for the next school year, Blades Elementary School fifth-grade teacher and Mehlville NEA President Kay Cappos told board members last week that it was not out of “satisfaction,” but out of understanding of the district’s financial challenges.

“Even though we will have a frozen salary package, the majority of the Mehlville NEA membership voted to accept the package,” Cappos said. “That vote was not because we felt it was a good package.

“That vote was because we understand the financial situation of the district. That vote was because Central Office and the Board of Education have been honest and open with us and the community. That vote was because we feel we can work together to improve things for next year. The vote of acceptance in no way reflects satisfaction with a zero-dollar-increase salary package.

“In recent years, staff has been reduced, expenditures for supplies were cut, textbook funds were decreased and programs were altered to save money. Mehlville teachers have shown repeatedly they are willing to help the district out with its financial concerns. Our base salary is 21st of the 23 accredited St. Louis County school districts. Once again this year, we are losing some of our best and brightest teachers to other districts. When asked why they are leaving, these teachers mention receiving an over $10,000 increase in salary, more technology, the ability to have 50 percent of their advanced-degree work paid, more educational resources and smaller classes. It costs our district a considerable amount of money to mentor a new teacher. When teachers leave the district, we have to incur these training costs again with the new hires.

“I feel the residents of the Mehlville School District are fortunate to have a professional, highly skilled staff educating their children. Because of the efforts of our staff and students, our district earned Missouri’s Distinction in Performance, four of our schools were listed on the top ten for their MAP (Missouri Assessment Program) scores and our graduates last year earned nearly $6 million worth of scholarships.

“All of this was accomplished even though the Mehlville School District spent less per pupil than all but one district in St. Louis County. In fact, our per-pupil expenditure is over $2,000 below county median. One has to wonder what our teachers and students could achieve with more resources. Mehlville NEA members believe in the mission of the Mehlville School District — to ensure that all students reach their potential. We work very hard every day to do this and hope that others also value our students’ learning and appreciate our dedication.”

While pleased that Rebore will review the district’s budget projections at no cost, Ocello abstained from the vote to solicit his services.

“I don’t mean to sound combative or hostile, but if we were paying somebody to do this and they had a legal responsibility to this and they didn’t do it properly, we’d go back and sue them,” Ocello said. “… I appreciate someone willing to say they’re willing to do this as a community service.

“I’m just concerned are we going to get that high level of concern that someone whose insurance on the line is?”

“… If he brings the finished product to us and we feel like it leaves something to be desired, we’ll resubmit a request and make sure that we pay someone to do just that,” Noble said.

“I respect and appreciate that he’s offered to do this,” Ocello said. “That’s why I don’t want in any way to sound like I’m trying to detract from that because I’m really not.

“But in the public sector, an auditor is not allowed to be your friend … They’re truly independent. If they see something wrong, they’re not going to worry about public relations. They’re going to tell you that it’s wrong because they have a legal responsibility to do so. And I’m hoping whoever does this takes the same approach. It’s great that they’re a friend. But I’m not looking for a friend. I’m looking for somebody to tell me if there’s a mistake.”

“I think he’ll be quick to tell us if there’s a mistake because I think he wants to sincerely help,” Noble said. “And I think he feels he has an ethical and moral duty … I think you’ll get just as much from him as if you were paying him top dollar for it.”