Mehlville survey shows 51 percent support for 94-cent tax hike

Voter approval of referendum ‘not a slam dunk,’ Wright says.

By EVAN YOUNG

A recent telephone survey of Mehlville School District residents shows that roughly 51 percent of voters likely would support a possible 94-cent tax-rate increase on the Nov. 2 ballot to fund recommendations in the district’s long-range improvement plan.

Results of that survey were presented last week to the Board of Education.

The survey, which included 501 telephone interviews conducted in July by communications firm UNICOM•ARC, initially found that only 45.8 percent of respondents would favor the possible 94-cent tax-rate increase.

But when asked later in the survey about the possible 94-cent tax-rate increase after answering several other questions regarding that increase, 51.3 percent were in favor and 44.8 percent were opposed.

That possible tax-rate increase, if successful, would fund COMPASS II — Charting the Oakville-Mehlville Path to Advance Successful Schools — a long-range improvement plan that contains $107 million worth of proposals to make Mehlville a high-performing school district.

The survey’s margin of error is plus or minus 4.4 percent.

The school board will further discuss the survey results at its annual retreat on Aug. 14 and will decide how much of a tax-rate increase, if any, it will place on the Nov. 2 ballot when it meets at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 19, in the Administration Building, 3120 Lemay Ferry Road. The board has until 5 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 24, to place a measure on the November ballot.

UNICOM•ARC previously conducted a community survey for the district in July 2008.

In that survey, 64.8 percent of respondents said they would favor a debt-service transfer of 31 cents per $100 of assessed valuation into the district’s operating fund. At the same time, 59 percent of the 400 participants said they would oppose restoring the district’s tax rate to its 2006 level by increasing the overall tax rate by 37 cents.

The board subsequently put the transfer proposal on the November 2008 ballot as Proposition T, and the measure won with more than 62 percent of the vote. However, the board did not put the 37-cent tax-rate increase on the ballot.

UNICOM•ARC President Rod Wright noted last week that reaching younger families while conducting this survey was difficult because they likely were on vacation.

“When we tallied at the end, we were a little heavy on the 65-plus category,” he told the Call.

Surveyors, then, performed a “little statistical adjustment” to make the demographics of the survey match a voter registration list and the demographics of previous surveys UNICOM•ARC has conducted for Mehlville, he said, noting the move is “not uncommon” and that it resulted in a “single percent” difference.

Roughly 55 percent of survey participants were female, while about 45 percent were male. Nearly 69 percent said they did not have children under the age of 18 living in their household, and about 32 percent of those who did said their children attended public schools.

Participants were asked more than 50 questions on subjects ranging from their familiarity with the COMPASS effort to what they believe are the district’s greatest needs.

Some highlights of the results:

• “How familiar are you with the Mehlville community-engagement program called COMPASS?” The survey showed 10.2 percent of respondents were “very” familiar, 28 percent were “moderately” familiar, 21.1 percent were “not very” familiar and 40.1 percent were “not at all” familiar.

“That didn’t surprise me,” Superintendent Terry Noble told the Call, noting a question about the awareness of COMPASS on the 2008 survey yielded similar results. “I think what we look for is once they know what’s in the plan, how do they feel about it then? … Communication is always the issue on almost every problem that comes up.”

• “When it comes to providing a good education for kids in your community, do you think the Mehlville School District has more than adequate revenue, just enough revenue, or do you think it needs additional funds?” The survey showed 21.4 percent of respondents thought the district had “more than adequate” revenue, 33.2 percent thought it had “just enough” revenue and 34.7 percent thought the district “needs additional funds.”

“Despite the best efforts of COMPASS, I think the understanding of some of the financial projections for the district are just not there,” Wright told the board last week.

• “When thinking about how much Mehlville spends per pupil, do you think Mehlville should rank in the top third, the middle third or bottom third when compared to other school districts in St. Louis County?” The survey showed 34.8 percent of respondents felt the district should be in the “top third,” 42.5 percent believed it should be in the “middle third” and 7 percent felt the district should be in the “bottom third.”

Mehlville currently ranks 21st out of the 22 public school districts in St. Louis County for per-pupil expenditures, with about $7,500 spent per pupil.

“I’ve had the experience throughout my years in education with people that think being in the middle is OK,” Noble told the Call. “They just think that’s a good place to be. It means you’re doing OK. People also look at where they think they can afford to be, and possibly in this community we feel like we can afford to be in the middle and we can’t afford to be at the top.

“And they know who’s at the top. We’re not Clayton. We’re not Ladue. So I think in fairness to them I think that’s what they’re thinking of when they think of the top. That’s not our goal to reach their level of per-pupil expenditures because they’re right: We can’t afford that. So I think that was a pretty fair response, if you look at it that way.”

When asked to prioritize the district’s needs, respondents indicated building maintenance and computer and textbook updates were high priorities. Questions related to teachers’ salaries also received high marks, with nearly 71 percent of respondents saying raising teacher salaries to the county average was a high priority and nearly 72 percent saying keeping those salaries competitive was a high priority.

Respondents also were asked various statements that have been made about the possible 94-cent tax-rate increase.

Some of those statements, along with their support, are:

• “With all the economic uncertainty, I’m opposed to paying higher taxes to support our schools.” The survey showed 52.1 percent of respondents agreed and 46.4 percent disagreed.

• “I like our schools and I love our community. I just can’t afford to pay higher taxes to support education at this time.” The survey showed 59.3 percent agreed and 38.7 percent disagreed.

• “The only way we can make sure property values are stable and begin to increase is by investing money in our schools.” The survey showed 61.1 percent agreed while 36.4 percent disagreed.

“Any time in this survey we connected investment and property or investment and education as to stabilizing the community or protecting the quality of the community, the numbers jumped off the chart,” Wright said.

Wright said the school district’s chances of passing a referendum in November depend greatly on how well community residents campaign for it.

“It’s not a slam dunk,” Wright told the Call. “When we were weighing this issue two years ago, that no tax-increase piece of it, we didn’t want to put that at risk because the district really needed the revenue.

“They’ve been able to do some positive things over the last couple of years because they’ve had that revenue. So the stakes for losing aren’t as high this time because we were successful in 2008. The stakes are high but they’re not as high as they were then.

“If you go forward, it’s going to take a vigorous effort from an independent committee to take this message forward,” he added. “And if that effort isn’t there and people don’t want to step up and do it, you’re not going to pass it.”