Mehlville voters to eye transfer proposal Nov. 4

Putting two proposals on Nov. 4 ballot could have confused voters, superintendent says

By BURKE WASSON

Mehlville School District voters will be asked this November to approve a transfer of 31 cents per $100 of assessed valuation from the district’s debt-service fund to its operating fund.

The Board of Education voted unanimously last week to place Proposition T on the Nov. 4 ballot. The measure would generate roughly $5.6 million per year for the operating fund.

The ballot measure would not increase Mehlville’s overall tax rate, but the transfer would extend the district’s bonded indebtedness by 15 years.

Superintendent Terry Noble said Prop T primarily would be used to maintain the district’s budget. Funding the teachers’ salary schedule — which was frozen in the 2008-2009 school year — along with addressing technology needs and reinstituting supplies and textbooks that were cut this year would also likely be done with funds from Prop T.

“On the top of my list is to do our best to maintain a competent, professional staff and support staff,” Noble said. “As you know, we froze salaries this year. We’re not at the median any place with our salaries and we’re farther behind this year because we froze our salaries. So that’s a top priority. We do have needs in technology that we need to fund.

“To what level we can go, I’m not sure about that. We need to reinstitute the cuts that were made this spring. We hoped those were temporary with our supplies and textbooks. And we’d like to be able to reinstitute those.”

The Board of Education at this time will not pursue a 37-cent tax-rate increase that was proposed through the district’s public-engagement program, COMPASS — Charting the Oakville-Mehlville Path to Advance Successful Schools.

That increase was to help fund the long-range plan that incorporates suggestions from those who participated in the community-engagement sessions. The previously proposed 37-cent tax-rate increase would restore the district’s tax rate to its 2006 level as the district’s total tax rate per $100 of assessed valuation would jump to roughly $3.64 from $3.27.

A recent telephone survey of 400 district residents indicated that while 59 percent opposed a 37-cent tax-rate increase, 64.8 percent of those respondents would support the no-tax-rate-increase transfer of 31 cents from the debt-service fund that Prop T would allow.

The additional $5.6 million per year that would be transferred out of the debt-service levy would allow the district to avoid deficit spending and also keep the operating fund’s balance in good shape.

After once fearing that their 2009-2010 balance would drop below the state-required 3-percent minimum, officials now project that the district will end the 2009-2010 school year with a 4.11-percent balance if teachers receive a raise.

If the teachers’ salary schedule is not funded, the district is projected to end the 2009-2010 school year with an operating-fund balance of 7.55 percent.

Through a series of cuts, a 9.62-percent operating-fund balance is projected at the end of the 2008-2009 school year.

This is largely due to the fact that the district’s teachers have agreed to a pay freeze for the coming school year.

The district’s 2008-2009 budget projects $102,346,006 in revenue and $102,897,834 in expenditures — a deficit of $551,828.

Mehlville officials had projected in May a deficit of $1,530,465 for the 2008-2009 budget, but were able to make further cuts.

Despite that $551,828 deficit, the district will not go into the red, but dip into its reserves.

Board of Education President Tom Diehl said last week that while a tax-rate increase would be needed to implement projects recommended through COMPASS, Prop T would help avoid deficit spending and strengthen the district’s operating fund.

“The survey results showed overwhelming support for this idea of a transfer at this time,” Diehl said. “It doesn’t allow us to implement the recommendations of COMPASS. But it does take care of our current needs and gets us to where we’re not deficit spending. And the other thing from the survey, it did show that there is support for the recommendations to improve our schools and that people feel there’s a need to make sure we have good, strong schools because they will help secure the neighborhood and the community.”

Diehl added that because the survey also shows that district residents would probably not vote in favor of a tax-rate increase at this time, the board must recognize that and wait until economic conditions have improved before asking for a tax-rate increase.

“To be realistic, the economic situation this country is in is hurting a lot of communities right now,” Diehl said. “I think the survey reflects that. And I think as elected representatives of the residents of south county, we have to realize that.

“As much as we do need to make those improvements in our programs and our facilities that the COMPASS committee came up with, we’ve got to do it at a time when the public is ready to support it. And right now, I think the concern about the economy is too great and weighs too heavily on people’s minds for us to move forward at this time with that part of it.”

Noble said the decision to place the 31-cent transfer on the ballot instead of the 37-cent tax-rate increase also was due to concerns about confusing voters with two district issues on the Nov. 4 ballot.

“By putting both of those issues on the ballot, you could confuse our voters,” Noble said. “You have the issue with the debt-service levy to be transferred to operations. That’s no tax increase. Then you have the other with a tax increase of 37 cents. That could be confusing to the voter.

“We’ve wrestled with that now for several months of how that could be communicated so it wouldn’t be confusing. But by breaking them up and doing one at a time, I think the voter would be confident in what they’re voting for.”

Board member Karl Frank Jr. added while the board is recognizing the public’s views by placing only the transfer on the Nov. 4 ballot, he does not want them to believe that the delayed 37-cent tax-rate increase proposed through COMPASS is unnecessary.

“Just because we’re not going for (a tax-rate increase of) 37 cents isn’t because we don’t need it,” he said. “We’re recognizing our situation and looking at the economy and just taking all that into account.”

And while Prop T would stabilize the school district’s operating-fund balance and avoid deficit spending, Noble believes residents should also focus on trends in Mehlville’s annual budgets when asking if the district needs more funding.

“I would urge our public and everyone not to get caught up too much on what the final number looks like on the fund balance two years down the road or three years down the road as much as what our situation is in terms of our trends in revenue and expenses,” Noble said. “And because we basically live on a fixed income due to the Hancock Amendment and due to heavy dependence on local revenue as opposed to the state foundation formula, we know that our expenditures are on an incline upward every year. It can’t be avoided when you have a frugal, conservative budget like we do.

“To go beyond balancing our budget and to move our district forward, it’s going to take some additional resources that we don’t currently have … To be a high-performing school district, that’s going to take additional resources … I know our public is supportive of kids. They’re supportive of schools … But we also know that the product sells itself. And the survey told me that the public doesn’t really know what the finished product is going to look like. And we’ve got to communicate that.

“… This was to be part of the finance plan for COMPASS. And it can still be that with the hope and desire that in the near future we can fund the entire COMPASS program through a tax initiative when it seems more reasonable to ask the public to do that,” the superintendent said.