Mehlville School District considers future potential ballot measure

Bond could be used for facilities, or a tax levy to address competitive wages

The+campaign+committee+for+Mehlville+School+District%E2%80%99s+Proposition+S%2C+Mehlville-Oakville+United%2C+hosted+a+donut+drive-thru+March+13%2C+2021%2C+at+Mehlville+High+School%2C+Washington+Middle+School+and+Oakville+Middle%2FWohlwend+Elementary.+The+event+featured+free+donuts%2C+%E2%80%9CYes+on+S%E2%80%9D+car+painting+and+committee+members+dressed+in+costumes+to+raise+awareness+about+the+bond+measure%2C+the+district%E2%80%99s+first+in+over+20+years.+

Photo by Erin Achenbach

The campaign committee for Mehlville School District’s Proposition S, Mehlville-Oakville United, hosted a donut drive-thru March 13, 2021, 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, News Editor

Voters in the Mehlville School District may be considering a ballot measure for the school district in either the form of a bond, tax levy or both in the next four to six years. 

During a strategic plan update at the Board of Education meeting June 9, Superintendent Chris Gaines told the board the district was facing a series of financial challenges that could require a ballot measure to offset their effects, including stagnation in state formula funding for public schools, increasing costs of goods, escalating construction costs and needing to maintain competitive wages. The district has the second-lowest blended tax rate in St. Louis County.

A court decision in 2021 also changed the way local taxing districts could calculate taxes, which affected every school district in the state including Mehlville. 

Gaines said the district has been able to address some of these challenges by reprioritizing capital projects and altering the reallocation plan for the district’s bond-like certificates of participation. Like all public school districts, Mehlville also received federal Elementary and Secondary Education Emergency Relief money, or ESSER, to mitigate and address learning loss from the pandemic. 

Gaines told the board that according to data from the state government and federal government, Mehlville has used 86 percent of its ESSER funds so far in addressing learning loss, however, the funds expire in 2024. 

“Those are the moves that we can make. You go beyond those moves, the community is going to have to decide because anything beyond that is going to require some type of ballot measure,” Gaines said. “As we look at the challenges that are ahead, it just forces us to recalculate consistently.” 

The district has several options on when and how it asks voters to approve another ballot measure. If it wants to keep positions currently funded through ESSER  — learning interventionists, student mental health supports, after school supports — it would need to ask voters for a levy either in 2022-2023, or 2023-2024. A levy to address competitive wages could also be asked in the same years. In 2023-2024, the district could end Proposition A — the 2016 bond that raised the district capital projects fund by 4 cents — early and ask for another facility bond measure. Prop A could be extended with an increase in 2024-2025 or 2025-2026, or the district could ask for another facility levy all together to address HVAC and continued facility improvements. 

The earliest the district could ask for anything would be the Nov. 8 ballot, which would require a board decision and necessary information to St. Louis County by Aug. 30. 

Chris Gaines

“For example, if — capital I, capital F, underlined, bold, all that stuff — if the board was going to ask for something this November, that decision would have to be made … a little bit before (Aug. 30.),” Gaines said. “We can look at it like this: If we were to keep the ESSER-funded positions, what are the possible years we can do that? … The competitive wages … that’s probably something that could be looked at at any time. Ending Prop A early, there’s really only one window we can do that.” 

Board President Peggy Hassler said it would be beneficial for the district to collect data on how learning intervenstisons and other ESSER-funded supports were improving student academic performance if the district planned to ask voters to approve a ballot measure. 

“In the past, we had discussed that we would like to see data and keep data on the improvements. So if we want to go back to the taxpayers to see if they would support keeping the staff, we need data on what good it would do,” Hassler said. 

Director Scott Huegerich said it could be useful to emphasize that 86 percent of ESSER money had been used toward learning recovery if the district decided to pursue a ballot measure in the next two school years to maintain ESSER-funded positions. 

“I think it’s outstanding that the federal government wants to highlight the Mehlville School District because we’ve used 86 percent of our ESSER funds for learning recovery. That’s absolutely outstanding and anyone who is keyed in on the fiscal performance of the district should make note of that,” Huegerich said. “I guess what I’m trying to do is look at this from a messaging standpoint to the community because if we’re asking them- — the ESSER funds are going to disappear, we want to maintain that staff — we need to tangibly show in an easy-to-understand fashion what are we accomplishing by keeping these people. That is a very easy story to tell the community.” 

Gaines said there was a concern that there was a “cliff” approaching for school districts who used ESSER funds for employee wages, and that Mehlville had always approached the ESSER-funded positions as a finite resource without an additional funding mechanism. 

“I know district across the country, they’ve used every bit of this money to support employee wages. It goes away, what are you gonna do with that? I think there is a concern that a cliff is approaching for some school districts,” Gaines said. “So the conversation has shifted if we want to keep (ESSER-funded positions), more resources have to come into play.” 

The last ballot measure in the district was Proposition S in 2021, a $35 million no-tax-rate-increase bond for facilities and security improvements. In 2015, voters approved Proposition R, a 49-cent levy increase to the school district property tax.