Mehlville sought too much money at wrong time, survey finds

District sends out 40,000 e-mails, letters seeking participation in survey.

By EVAN YOUNG

Proposition C failed last November primarily because the ballot measure asked for too much money at the wrong time, respondents to a recent Mehlville School District survey said.

But district patrons should be given the chance to vote on a tax-rate increase again before a decision is made on possible staff and program cuts, a majority of respondents said.

Results of the district’s “Post Proposition C Survey” were presented earlier this month to the Board of Education.

More than 62 percent of voters Nov. 2 rejected Prop C, a proposed 88-cent tax-rate increase that was billed as the funding vehicle to make Mehlville a high-performing school district through staffing, program, technology, facility and safety improvements.

The board last month authorized the district’s Communications Advisory Team to proceed with an electronic and paper survey to find out why the community turned down Prop C.

More than 40,000 e-mails and letters were sent out seeking participation in the survey. The district received 1,268 completed surveys.

The defeat of Prop C wasn’t due to a lack of awareness in the community, according to the results. Sixty-five percent of respondents said they were “very familiar” with how the tax-rate increase would be spent.

But asked to choose one to three primary reasons why the measure failed, 61 percent of respondents said they believed most voters “felt the 88-cent tax increase was too high,” while 53 percent said they believed “it was bad timing in light of the current economy.”

Twenty-three percent of respondents said they believed voters didn’t agree with what Prop C would’ve funded; 21 percent said they believed a tax-rate increase proposal would fail regardless of the amount; and 14 percent said voters didn’t have enough information on Prop C to make a decision.

Three percent said they weren’t sure why the measure failed and 30 percent listed other reasons, such as the lack of a sunset, or end date, on the tax.

Respondents indicated bringing teachers’ salaries up to the county median and replacing outdated technology in buildings were the most important aspects of Prop C and the things they’d most likely support in the future.

Thirty-nine percent of respondents said they would “strongly prefer” the district, given the choice between budget cuts and asking voters for a tax-rate increase, choose the latter. Sixty-one percent said patrons should be given a chance to vote on a tax-rate increase before the district decides on any budget cuts.

Participants were asked to grade the district in several areas. Among them:

• The job performance of the Board of Education — 46 percent rated it as “excellent” or “good” while 55 percent said it was “not so good” or “poor.”

• Providing a quality education that exceeds other St. Louis County districts — 66 percent rated the district as “excellent” or “good” in this area while 34 percent said it was “not so good” or “poor.”

• Responding to public input — 42 percent rated the district “excellent” or “good” in this area while 58 percent said it was “not so good” or “poor.”

Respondents were split 50-50 in rating the district on communicating with area residents.

Communications Advisory Team member Jack Brickey said his group was “really excited” about the results of the survey.

“Not just (because of) the percentages and all the numbers,” Brickey told the board at a Jan. 5 work session, “but the fact that people took the time to respond to a survey that had a good deal of questions and a lot of opportunity for open-ended comments.”

Participants left a wide range of comments. Some expressed their support for Prop C.

“As someone who has grown up in this district and moved back here for my children to attend this district, I am wanting the most and the best of everything for these kids, all of them. We must be realistic,” one participant stated. “I am also a district employee, so I do see both sides of the issue. I believe that previous mismanagement has made many, many residents very leery of approving any additional funds.

“We have also had many opportunities with the press that have not gone as well as expected. Things that are being said are being misconstrued.

“We need to prove to these residents that this is the district that they want to be in, for their kids, for their grandkids. And right now, that’s not happening.”

Another participant stated, “I voted for Prop C. I fully support the district. I think there are too many stakeholders in the district who see no connection between themselves and the district except for their taxes. We need to connect with those people.”

Other participants, however, were more critical.

“(T)he district should revamp (its) management infrastructure and build confidence in the district’s citizens by improving what is perceived by most people — that I know anyway — as a corrupt bureaucratic mess,” one person stated.

“Start being honest,” another participant suggested. “No one trust(s) anything the school district does. They have proven over and over again that they do not put the children first.”

Deputy Superintendent Eric Knost, who will replace Superintendent Terry Noble on July 1, described the survey as a “learning tool.” He said a next step for the district may be to establish regular, ongoing forums for community members.

“Maybe it doesn’t even have an agenda … kind of a town-hall meeting format,” Knost told the Call, noting district officials and board members already conduct Saturday morning “cafes” for residents at the St. Louis Bread Co. “If we could make that a little larger, in one of our buildings or a local church or a local parochial school, but just so people know they can come out and be heard and we’re not going to fire back. We’re not going to give them reasons why this isn’t valid or that isn’t valid, but we’re just in a listening mode, a learning mode — learning what our community is interested in.

“Also, I think we’re going to spend more time really helping our community see what a great school district we have,” Knost added. “We’ve always thought that, but sometimes when we’ve tried to show our needs by default we … put the really good things in the shadows as opposed to keeping them in the forefront.”