Panel offers improvement proposals; Mehlville board to decide how to fund

Facilitating Team co-chair views support of tax-rate hike as ‘improbable’

By BURKE WASSON

The Facilitating Team for the Mehlville School District’s public engagement decided last week to offer recommendations to improve the district, but pass consideration of how to fund those improvements to the Board of Education.

“We asked the people what they wanted,” Facilitating Team member Desi Kirchhofer said during an April 21 meeting of the team. “We didn’t ask them what they think they can get.”

The Facilitating Team for COMPASS — Charting the Oakville-Mehlville Path to Advance Successful Schools — discussed the prospect of taking two ballot measures this November to Mehlville School District voters.

One measure would transfer 31 cents per $100 of assessed valuation from the district’s capital debt-service levy into the district’s operating fund. That transfer would avoid recent projections of the district sinking under a state-required 3-percent minimum operating-fund balance in 2010.

Additionally, the Facilitating Team previously proposed a separate ballot measure in November asking voters to approve an operating-fund tax-rate increase of 37 cents per $100 of assessed valuation as the first of four phases of a new master plan incorporating suggestions from the district’s community-engagement sessions.

The 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 37-cent tax-rate increase for an owner of a $200,000 home would result in an additional investment of $140.60 per year or $11.71 per month.

As proposed, the 37-cent tax-rate increase would be the first of four phases of elections to fund the district’s master plan. The district also would ask voters in November elections in 2010, 2012 and 2014 to maintain the district’s operating levy by waiving the district’s estimated 8-cent tax-levy rollback in each of those years.

The school district has scheduled a final community-engagement session on June 2 to present the Facilitating Team’s final proposal and executive summary. That proposal then is slated to be presented June 24 to the Board of Education.

While that recommendation will include suggestions emphasized by participants at community-engagement sessions since April 2007, Facilitating Team co-chair Dan Fowler said that proposal will not include how to fund those improvements.

“We tweak the plan to the best of our ability and present it to the Board of Education,” Fowler said. “The Board of Education will decide how they’re actually going to implement it through the funding mechanism.”

Though he agrees that the school board ultimately is responsible for how to move forward with the Facilitating Team’s recommendations, Board of Education Vice President Micheal Ocello last week told the team that he would like to see a more “reasonable” proposal that considers the financial options.

“At the end of the day, the board is really going to make the decision,” Ocello said. “But I also don’t think that the charge was well, just go out and find what everybody wants and then come back with a big Christmas list … We need a reasonable recommendation to the board. Because if you just bring us something that says we need to spend all this money, we have no choice as a board but to say: ‘Guys, we don’t have it so it’s not going to happen.’ And then what’s been accomplished? I think that’s more disingenuous to the process. At the end of the day, it’s up to the board to say do we put two (issues) on the ballot or one on the ballot? But give us something to work with, folks. Don’t just say well, that’s the board’s problem …

“We didn’t need to do COMPASS to know we need all that. We need COMPASS to prioritize. Give us a recommendation that’s reasonable.”

With the initially proposed 37-cent tax-rate increase, the district could fund the following services beginning in the 2009-2010 school year: all-day kindergarten, early childhood expansion, English Language Learner teachers, counselors and elementary remedial reading teachers. The additional 37 cents would also allow staff salaries “to become equal to the county average,” according to the district.

The increase also would fund improvements in 2009 in technology as the district could update current computers, implement wireless technology and classroom multimedia technology and add related technology staff and training.

The first phase also calls for full video security, scheduled replacement of district buses, appropriate facilities for all-day kindergarten, modification in early childhood satellite facilities, safety and security improvements, indoor air quality improvements, acoustic improvements, infrastructure improvements and a performing arts center at each high school.

As for transferring funds from the capital debt-service fund into the district’s operating fund, that proposal would involve no tax-rate increase.

Dan Burns of UNICOM•ARC, the consulting firm hired to assist the district with COMPASS, advised last week that the board should conduct a survey before deciding to place a measure on a ballot.

“We would have very much liked to have had survey results in your hands so that you would have yet another piece of data to help guide this final plan,” Burns said. “But be-cause of circumstances, that’s not reasonable. Ideally, it would have been nice for us to have had that.”

Faced with considering the COMPASS recommendations, Board of Education President Tom Diehl last week said the district should take residents where they “ought” to go and backed up that belief with a quote from Abraham Lincoln.

“Someone wiser than me said anyone can take people where they want to go,” Diehl said. “A leader takes people where they ought to go. I saw the COMPASS program as identifying what we need to do in this district so that we do what we’re charged with as far as educating the young people who live here. And now we need to go out and convince people what they ought to do.”

But Fowler, who reminded Diehl “that same leader oversaw a Civil War, too,” views public support of a tax-rate increase as “improbable” and would prefer that the district “stabilize” with a transfer of funds before putting a tax-rate increase on the ballot.

“Do I think the district can pass two measures on one ballot?” Fowler said. “I don’t want to set up this committee for a loss.”

Diehl countered that the district should look at the results of the April 8 school-board election as evidence that residents would support a tax-rate increase for district improvements.

“We need money to operate,” Diehl said. “This district hasn’t passed a tax increase in almost 10 years … In our last election, the five candidates took better than 60 percent. The three on the other side didn’t come close. And that was with a lot of bad publicity.”

But Fowler does not believe the results of the April 8 school-board election can be compared with a tax-rate-increase election as they are “two different animals.”

If the district were to be successful on a ballot measure, Fowler said it boils down to a push from “young families” who would benefit most from the proposed improvements.

“Regarding the master plan, if it were up to me, I would implement the whole thing tomorrow,” Fowler said. “And I’d pay for it in my taxes. I wouldn’t even hesitate for a second supporting the entire master plan today …

“This is about young families. Somehow, this school district needs young families to come forward in a leadership role and take this district forward. It boils down to young families back in neighborhoods. We saw three young families elected to the board this past time. We need more of them,” he added, referring to Karl Frank Jr., who was re-elected to the school board, and Drew Frauenhoffer and Erin Weber, who were elected to their first terms on the school board.