Mehlville voters to decide fate of district’s 88-cent tax-rate hike

Supporters of Proposition C hearing ‘positive comments’; MCTA member says Prop C amounts to a ‘blank check.’

By EVAN YOUNG

Supporters of the Mehlville School District’s Proposition C say the 88-cent tax-rate increase would restore the pride in the district and lift the stigma of ranking next to last in per-pupil spending among the county’s public school districts.

Opponents argue Prop C is an unreasonable proposal that was placed on the ballot by an out-of-touch Board of Education.

District voters will consider Prop C when they go to the polls on Tuesday.

If approved, the measure would increase the district’s operating tax levy ceilings, per $100 of assessed valuation, to: $4.30 for residential property, $3.74 for commercial property, $3.78 for agricultural property and $4.81 for personal property.

Prop C would cost the owner of a home valued at $200,000 an additional $334 a year. The measure would generate an estimated $15.4 million annually for the district beginning with the 2011-2012 school year.

That revenue would fund the first phase of proposals in the district’s long-range improvement plan, COMPASS II — Charting the Oakville-Mehlville Path to Advance Successful Schools.

The first phase of COMPASS II contains roughly $106 million in improvements designed to make Mehlville a high-performing school district.

Among those are roughly $94 million in capital projects, such as the construction of a new Margaret Buerkle Middle School on the Mehlville Senior High School campus; new performing arts and technology centers at the district’s two high schools and major renovations to Oakville and Washington middle schools and Bierbaum and Trautwein elementary schools.

District officials believe the construction projects would put more than 2,500 people to work in south county.

The COMPASS II plan also includes such operational proposals as moving staff salaries closer to the county median; funding for Parents as Teachers and full-day kindergarten and updating curriculum and technology.

The Prop C ballot language states that “up to 40 cents” of the 88-cent increase would be “used to pay capital expenditures, including without limitation costs to construct, renovate, repair, improve, furnish and equip school facilities and sites, and update computers and technology … with the remainder of the increase being used to fund competitive salaries and benefits to attract and retain highly qualified classroom teachers and staff, expand kindergarten to full days and to pay other increased school operating costs.”

The COMPASS recommendations have been crafted over the last three years, and the COMPASS II plan was refined over the course of six community engagement sessions earlier this year. At the final session, nearly 400 participants overwhelmingly recommended the school board pursue a 94-cent tax-rate increase that would fund proposals totaling more than $107 million.

A telephone survey conducted this summer found that 51 percent of district voters would approve a 94-cent tax-rate increase.

The board later voted to place an 88-cent measure on the ballot and reduced the amount of proposals it would fund to roughly $106 million.

Throughout COMPASS, district officials have stressed that Mehlville does well with its current resources. However, the district ranks 21st out of 22 school districts in the county for per pupil spending. The state and county average is roughly $10,000 per pupil. Mehlville spends about $7,600 per pupil. Even if Prop C passes next week, officials project the district would move up just one or two spots on the list, with an estimated additional $1,000 spent per pupil.

At the same time, Mehlville’s tax rate would increase only to about the median of other county districts, officials contend.

Prop C supporters say it’s important for the community to invest in its schools, even in a tough economy, to protect home values and to give children an education that enables them to compete for jobs in the future.

“Eighty-eight cents seems like an awful lot, but the kids in the Mehlville School District are worth every penny,” said Jim Schibig, a former district principal and co-chair of the Committee to Restore the Pride, a nonpartisan volunteer group campaigning for Prop C.

Schibig’s fellow co-chair, district parent Jeff Clobes, told the Call he has been “very impressed” with the response to the Restore the Pride campaign, which has canvassed the community the past three weekends and plans to do so a final time from 8:30 a.m. to noon Saturday. Volunteers will meet at Bernard Middle School.

“We’re hearing a lot of positive comments from people out in the community that are really excited about the opportunity for the district to move forward,” Clobes said.

Votes from residents who no longer have children in the district will be particularly crucial on Tuesday, he said.

“I’d like to ask them to reach deep and ask themselves when their kids were in school how important education was for them, how important school was for them and to think about that with our kids today,” Clobes said. “It’s the same mindset today for my kids as it was for their kids when they were growing up. The same issues are still out there.”

But members of the Mehlville Community Taxpayers Association contend the majority of district voters do not support Prop C.

A grassroots, nonpartisan organization, the MCTA formed shortly after the school board placed Prop C on the November ballot. The group is led by Concord residents Rich Franz and Greg Frigerio and Lemay resident Ken Meyer.

The MCTA contends it isn’t against public education but questions the timing of placing an 88-cent tax-rate increase before voters, citing high unemployment, an increasing number of foreclosures and rising utility costs.

Members also say they’re dissatisfied with the representation being provided by board members and believe the board is out of touch with the community. They cite as an example the board’s unanimous decision earlier this year to offer Superintendent Terry Noble a roughly 24-percent, $44,000 increase in his base salary — from $181,912 to $226,000 — as part of a new three-year contract.

Noble later agreed to relinquish the raise. Board members in August rescinded Noble’s three-year contract and approved a new, one-year agreement that provides for a 6-percent base salary increase — to $192,798 from $181,912.

“The school board’s credibility is what motivated this campaign,” Franz told the Call. “The fact is that in the process of asking for this tax increase, they have been indifferent to the economic plight of the taxpayers and frankly disrespectful … I think if the school board had been sensitive to people’s financial situation, the passion that the folks who are against Prop C feel might not be as strong.”

Five former Mehlville school board members have publicly expressed their opposition to Prop C. They are state Rep. Walt Bivins, Matt Chellis, Rich Huddleston, Dick Roehl and Kurt Witzel.

Also opposed is Mehlville Fire Protection District Board of Directors Chairman Aaron Hilmer, who helped lead an effort to defeat the school district’s Proposition A — a 97-cent tax-rate increase — in February 2006.

During an MCTA meeting last week at the Cliff Cave Branch Library, Chellis emphasized to an audience of roughly 30 people that Prop C, if approved, would be collected indefinitely and could be the first of several future tax-rate increase proposals.

“This ploy of raising taxes to the median, is a never-ending cycle. When one raises the tax rate, the rest think that they must also,” Chellis said. “It’s a one way escalator. It only goes up.

“This tax is a big deal. It’s a big deal because it’s a big tax. It’s also a big deal because it’s a ‘forever tax.’ It’s not a five-year tax or even a 20-year tax. Supporters say if you don’t like it you can leave. It’s true — the only way to get out of it is to die or move out.”

Franz said of Prop C, “You are basically giving them a blank check. I don’t think anybody can disagree with that … If you have that much pride that needs to be restored, we need to talk. That’s an expensive pride issue.”