Mehlville school-board member Diehl testifies in support of Senate Bill 540

Mehlville Board of Education member Tom Diehl, who asked Sen. Harry Kennedy, D-St. Louis, to sponsor Senate Bill 540, gave the following testimony March 12 in support of the measure before the Senate Ways and Means Committee:

“Public schools across the country wrestle with the issue of how they should fund their schools. The Mehlville School District, in South St. Louis County is no different. We face the mandates of No Child Left Behind and DESE (Department of Elementary and Secondary Education). Beyond that, we confront the challenges of providing a comprehensive and rigorous curriculum for our students who will live in a fast-changing global economy that requires adroitness and flexibility from an educational structure that has changed little in the past 50 years.

“As the largest employer in south county, we have an annual budget of almost $100 million. Eighty-six percent of that budget is payroll. Our class sizes are at the state maximum limit. We keep our administrative staff as low as the state will allow.

“Until last year, we were a hold-harmless district. Our school district, like many others, has been forced to make tough choices and cuts over the past few years. Currently, less than 10 percent of our budget comes from the state. The federal government provides a similar share. We have laid off teachers and not renewed contracts. Textbook purchases were canceled, bus routes were cut and activity and parking fees increased. Before I joined the board, the district proposed what many would call an ill-advised property-tax increase of 25 percent. It failed by a two-to-one margin.

“But that does not mean south county residents do not and will not support their schools. We realize that for many residents on fixed income, property-tax bills have grown substantially in a hot housing market while their pension checks have not. We have half the commercial property of the neighboring Lindbergh School District, which serves only half as many students as Mehlville. We also have a higher percentage of rental housing, meaning we serve many families who pay no property tax.

“As I studied the problem, I looked at other funding mechanisms which are available. At least 12 other states have provisions which allow local school districts a local sales-tax option. Here in Missouri, I found that the Legislature has granted fire districts, park districts and tourism districts the right to place sales-tax proposals before voters. In St. Louis County, even developers have been allowed to establish community-improvement districts and implement a sales tax for infrastructure improvements.

“I looked at what impact it might have on our community. The Mehlville School District is rather unique in St. Louis County in that more than 90 percent of our territory is not covered by a municipal layer of government. That means our residents are not subject to those taxes faced by people living in one of St. Louis County’s 97 towns, villages or cities. Even though we pay a county sales tax, it is not as high as neighboring municipalities.

“A sales tax, if approved by voters, would allow us to spread the burden of funding our schools among residents and visitors who currently pay no property taxes. We get a substantial number of shoppers from across the river in Illinois.

“Senate Bill 540 would not impact any other district. It does not ask you to raise anyone’s taxes. It only gives our district the option to explore alternative methods to meet our obligation to our 11,000 public school children. On behalf of the Mehlville school board, I ask that you approve Senate Bill 540.”