Mehlville school board to discuss potential cuts Friday night

By MIKE ANTHONY

Potential budget reductions for the 2006-2007 school year are scheduled to be discussed Friday night by the Mehlville Board of Education.

The Board of Education will meet at 6 p.m. March 10 in the Mehlville Senior High School Library, 3200 Lemay Ferry Road.

Board members last week discussed potential budget re-ductions, including charging a fee for bus transportation, but took no action. Board Secretary Mike Heins and board member Tom Correnti were absent from the Feb. 28 meeting that drew a standing-room-only crowd to the Mehlville Senior High School Library.

District voters last month overwhelmingly rejected Prop-osition A, a 97-cent tax-rate increase. Since the Feb. 7 election, board members twice have discussed, but taken no action on recommendations made by task force study groups appointed by Superin-tendent Tim Ricker to help build the 2006-2007 budget in the event Proposition A did not pass.

The task force study groups had recommended 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.

Board members last week discussed some of the recommendations made by the task force study groups, but focused at length on the proposal to charge $375 per student for bus transportation for those who live within 3.5 miles of their school.

Ricker said the administration recommends the board adopt that proposal in developing the 2006-2007 budget, which would result in an estimated savings of $695,000.

The district’s chief financial officer, Stephen Keyser, noted the board has the option of not making any changes in transportation, which would result in no savings. He also presented a new option for streamlining the existing bus routes, which would result in a project savings of $350,000.

Keyser said, “When we talked about transportation in the past, there were some questions related to our liability issues if we were to eliminate transportation and one of the questions was do we have — does the district have a legal liability if a student were to be injured on their way to school, walking instead of being on the bus because we had eliminated free transportation, and the answer is no, we don’t have a legal liability because the district does not have an obligation to provide transportation at less than 3½ miles. There-fore, since we don’t have an obligation, we don’t have a liability …”

Noting that a question had been raised about the impact on students “if we were to stop free bus transportation at 3½ miles or less,” Keyser said 100 percent of elementary pupils — 4,257 — would be impacted, 91.1 percent of middle school pupils — 2,184 — would be impacted and 68.4 percent of high school students — 2,415 — would be impacted.

Keyser also discussed the new streamlining option, noting that under that proposal, bus transportation would be provided to all students.

As proposed, the new streamlining op-tion would provide fewer stops, “which would require both elementary and secondary students to walk further to their bus stops,” he said.

In addition, the new option would require a four-tier bus schedule, instead of the current three-tier schedule, and would necessitate a shift in school starting times.

In response to a question from board member Ken Leach about accidents, Di-rector of Transportation Keith Henry said, “I can give you some estimates on national figures. A student traveling to and from school in their own parents’ car is more than eight times more dangerous than a school bus, things of that nature …”

During the discussion, Keyser indicated that if the board is going to approve the recommendation to charge for bus transportation, a decision needs to be made soon so parents can be notified. But some board members expressed concern that not all seven members were present.

As the discussion continued, board member Karl Frank Jr. and Leach cited concerns about safety and affordability if the board approved the administration’s recommendation to charge $375 per student for bus transportation for those who live within 3.5 miles of their school.

At one point, Frank said, “… I know it makes sense on paper here, but I just wouldn’t get too excited about the in-creased risk of safety for our kids, no matter what option we take.”

Board of Education President Rita Die-kemper said, “That’s why some of us went door to door …”

Frank said, “… That’s why some of us want to help fix the credibility problems of the district …”

Diekemper said, “I’ll be the first one to write my check.”

Frank said, “… And so will I, but we can afford it.”

He later added, “… I just really literally don’t want these kids’ blood on my hands …”

Diekemper later noted that for years Mehl-ville has provided bus transportation that far exceeds what is required by the state — 3.5 miles and beyond — and that’s a “luxury” the district no longer can afford.

She said, “… The state doesn’t say it’s a requirement. That’s why the state doesn’t pay you to provide that transportation. It’s a state requirement, it’s not our — it’s not really our issue. It’s a state issue. The state has said and they continue to reduce the amount that they will put toward transportation in the last five years. The state is who is telling us it’s not a requirement for us to provide this. In this amount of time, we’ve been doing that as a service to our kids and to the community, and that’s a luxury we can’t afford.”

Citing the roughly $7 million in cuts the district has made over the past three years, board member Cindy Christopher said during that time the board has not been “making child-centered decisions.”

“It’s very difficult to sit here and make this decision, and it’s unfortunate that we have to make them, but our community has spoken, and I think we were very clear up front, telling these people what would happen if Prop A didn’t pass. And I don’t think that anybody should be able to come back and say they didn’t know …,” Christopher said.

Frank said, “Well, we did the wrong thing, but that’s another discussion for another day.”

Diekemper said, “Well, I think parochial parents drive their kids and I can’t say that those building principals in those schools feel like they have quote blood on their hands.”

After further discussion in which Leach said he supported the new streamlining option, board members tabled the issue until Friday night’s meeting.