South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

Mehlville School District voters won’t see tax measure until 2020

Proposition P tax hike OK’d by voters in November 2000
Chris Gaines
Chris Gaines

Superintendent Chris Gaines does not envision the Mehlville Board of Education asking voters for more money until 2020 at the earliest, when voters could be asked if they want to continue levying the Proposition P tax-rate increase first approved in 2000.

That 49-cent tax-rate increase — now 51 cents — funded new schools, building expansions and air conditioning at all district schools, and its legacy debt of roughly $9 million a year comprises most of the district’s current debt burden.

At least one attorney has given the district a legal opinion that the Prop P tax was set in stone when voters approved the Proposition T tax-rate transfer in 2009 that shored up district finances.

When voters approved the new Proposition T rate, the thinking goes, they also approved a permanent extension of Prop P.

But despite that opinion, Gaines — who is signed to a contract with Mehlville through 2020 — said he does not plan to continue to levy the Prop P tax without asking voters first.

“That way there’s no questions about, ‘You should’ve done, you could’ve done,'” Gaines said. “The community got to decide. You’re just asking for, you’ve been paying this 47 cents and can we move that 47 cents over here?”

Instead, he plans to take a similar approach to how he sold the district’s 2015 49-cent tax-rate increase, Proposition R, to voters.

“The community needs to choose what kind of district it wants,” he said. “So can we hold the tax rate the same and then be able to do all of these things with it? Do you want to use that money to do these things? Because without that money we can’t do these things. So if you want these things, you’ve got to continue the tax rate. If you don’t want to do those things, then tell us no, and we know which way you want us to head.”

Proposition P funded a districtwide building program that built three new schools, including the John Cary Early Childhood Center, the new Oakville Elementary and Bernard Middle School.

The program also funded improvements at every Mehlville school.

Voters approved what was billed as a tax-rate increase for facilities that functioned like a bond issue.

It was used to issue $68.4 million in certificates of participation, or COPs, but the budget was revised to closer to $89 million in 2004, a 30-percent increase over the program envisioned in 2000.

Today, the district levies 51 cents to pay off the COPs, which will be mostly retired in 2021. Typically, that would trigger an expiration of the tax, unless voters say otherwise.

But the district has struggled in the last few years to get the state auditor or attorney general to weigh in on whether the tax rate was officially reset with the approval of Proposition T, which included the Prop P levy in the new tax rate that voters approved.

No official wanted to take a stance either way, Chief Financial Officer Marshall Crutcher said.

Once most of the Prop P debt is paid off, the district will only continue levying 4 cents of the 51-cent tax for its remaining COPs.

That leaves 47 cents that voters could approve to allocate to other areas in a no-tax-increase tax-rate transfer, which typically have been successful with Mehlville voters.

With the district’s facilities needs in mind, Gaines plans to split the 47 cents between either a bond issue or general tax-rate increase for facilities, with the rest going toward operations.

“So what we were seeing is splitting that 47 cents so that some part of it would go to a capital issue — a bond or a lease, bond being my preference — and the other part of it going to operations,” Gaines said. “That’s not necessarily a 50-50 split, that’s just, you know, however way we would end up splitting it. Maybe it’s 10 cents toward a bond, maybe it’s 13. I don’t know what the number is.”

During the campaign for Prop R, the district compiled a $55 million list of facilities needs that included no new construction, but only maintenance of existing properties.

With an extra $1.75 million a year for capital from Prop R and an extra $486,000 for 10 years for roofs and HVAC approved by voters with Proposition A for AC in 2016, the district is spending more on maintaining its facilities than it has in many years, if ever.

“We’re chunking it off, but if you’ve got a $55 million list and you’re chunking away $2 million of it a year, that’s still a long time to knock that out,” the superintendent said.

The district is tracking its spending on facilities on three fronts, the general capital fund, Prop R and Prop A.

Several keystone projects on the $55 million list have been accomplished in the last two years, including a $3 million replacement of the Margaret Buerkle Middle School HVAC system this summer, new turf this summer at Mehlville High School and next year at Oakville High School, and a new gym floor at Oakville High this summer.

The district has not kept a running update of the facilities list, but as old projects are checked off, new ones are coming up as needs all the time, Gaines said.

The Facilities Committee plans to walk every school in the next two years and analyze what projects should be on the master list.

To see what residents think is a priority, the district conducted a survey on facilities earlier this year using the ThoughtExchange system.

Overall, the biggest concerns throughout the district were HVAC systems and mold, landlocked parking, technology, room size, safety and security, pickup and dropoff and lack of an auditorium in Oakville.

Some of the top concerns have already been addressed, like overcrowding at Bierbaum Elementary and lack of an art room at Oakville Elementary.

Both were fixed by creating more space in those schools through redistricting.

Oakville High School respondents wanted equity for their school compared to the facilities at Mehlville High, including an auditorium and a pool.

Parents at Rogers Elementary want a non-traditional lab or makerspace, and parents at Hagemann Elementary and Washington Middle School wanted more technology.

By paying off outstanding bus leases and other debt this year, the district will have more funds to be able to use for some of those needed projects cited by students and parents, but much of Central Office’s emphasis is prioritizing projects for the potential 2020 bond issue, Gaines said.

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