Participants eye 94-cent tax hike at final session for COMPASS II

Up to board on how to fund COMPASS plan, Fowler says.

By MIKE ANTHONY

Participants at a community-engagement session earlier this week were scheduled to consider whether the Board of Education should pursue a roughly 94-cent tax-rate increase to fund recommendations designed to make Mehlville a high-performing school district.

A nearly unanimous Facilitating Team for COMPASS II — Charting the Oakville-Mehlville Path to Advance Successful Schools — last week agreed the recommendations totaling more than $107 million should be considered by stakeholders.

Facilitating Team members planned to present those recommendations Monday night — after the Call went to press — during the sixth and final community-engagement session at Bernard Middle School.

The plan includes most of the recommendations from the first chapter of COMPASS, including full-day kindergarten and moving staff salaries to the median for St. Louis County. Besides those recommendations, the Facilitating Team’s proposal also includes suggestions gathered at the COMPASS II sessions, such as funding for Parents as Teachers.

In addition, the updated COMPASS plan outlines renovations at Bierbaum and Trautwein elementary schools, significant improvements at Buerkle, Oakville and Washington middle schools and the addition of arts and technology centers to Oakville and Mehlville Senior high schools.

The proposed improvements to the middle schools are designed to give them parity with Bernard Middle School, which was constructed in 2003 as part of the Proposition P districtwide building improvement program.

Each recommendation is listed as either an operating or capital expense. To fund the roughly $9.37 million in operating proposals, the district would have to increase its tax rate by an estimated 54 cents.

To fund all of the $98 million in capital recommendations, the district would need to increase its tax rate by 40 cents. That breaks down to a two-cent increase for every $5 million in capital improvements.

Therefore, to fund the entire proposal of $107,377,800, the district would need to ask voters to increase its four property tax rates — residential, commercial, personal property and agricultural — by 94 cents.

Facilitating Team members last week discussed what to recommend to participants at the final community-engagement session, starting the discussion with a proposal for a 76-cent tax-rate increase and ending with a proposal for an 84-cent tax-rate increase. Since that May 17 meeting, Superintendent Terry Noble has tweaked the proposal — with input from Facilitating Team Co-Chairs Dan Fowler and Jim Schibig — resulting in the more than $107 million in recommendations.

During the May 17 Facilitating Team meeting, member Paul Goldak said, “… I think that if there were two fine arts centers — whatever you want to call them — in the school district, I would say: Wow, we’ve really improved the school district. We’ve taken a giant step forward in achieving parity with what we would consider to be a high-performing school district. I just worry about asking people to pay 76 cents or 83 cents — whatever number it turns out to be — in one fell swoop. I just don’t think that that’s going to happen, not in this time.

“It would be a stretch to get half that. We should be happy to get half that and come back for more later. But to go for 76 (cents) or 83 (cents) and get nothing is the option we’re facing here, and I think we need to take a hard look at what that number should be …”

Fowler said, “… Our job here is to present a plan to the Board of Education to be what it takes to be a high-performing school district. It’s the board’s decision on how much of that to go for and that will be based — my guess is from experience — on a community survey.”

Based on his discussions with representatives of UNICOM•ARC, which has assisted the district during both COMPASS chapters, Fowler later said, “… The amount is not what’s important. It is the message and what you’re delivering. We are the Show-Me state. I believe that if we do a good job of educating the community as to what the needs are to educate our kids for the 21st century, that the community responds. When we fail to do that, communicate that, we also fail at the polls and it’s not so much about the amount of the levy, it’s about getting out the message …”

Facilitating Team member Cathy Mayrose, a district teacher, asked if the survey should be done before deciding upon an amount of a potential tax-rate increase.

Dan Burns of UNICOM•ARC said, “… You don’t want the survey to tell you what’s right for kids.”

Mayrose said, “I agree with you. We know what’s right …”

Burns said, “… So there is some leadership responsibility of the school district to try to move forward with initiatives that are right for improving academic achievement and doing what’s right in terms of opportunities for kids. So part of what the survey will tell us (is) where some of those key priorities are in terms of improving classroom space, fine arts. We’ll be able to determine that … We ought not to let the survey dictate — tell you to do something that’s substandard for the community and for the kids.”

Mayrose said, “I agree with you, but really the survey’s going to tell us whether we have any hope of paying for any of this …”

Goldak said, “… If our job is to recommend to the Board of Education what it’s going to take to get us to be a high-performing school district, then I think we go with the 76 or 83, whatever, and say to get to a high-performing school district, we ought to have two fine arts centers.

“I feel a little squeamish in saying to the board that’s our recommendation when in my heart I know that that’s probably not the right number to go to the community with. Now that’s not my decision to make. That’s the board’s decision to make, but I express reservations in that number. I’ll agree with this plan to go to the board knowing full well in my mind that the board is going to have to make the hard decision on what the number is going to be …”

Facilitating Team member Deb Baker, publisher of Call Newspapers, said, “I think that we put ourselves in a hard spot by going to the public to ask for 84 cents myself. I go along with Paul (Goldak). I think we should take a hard look at how much is that, share with the community what is 84 cents on an average $200,000, $250,000 home, put that in front of them so they understand exactly the numbers you are talking about … I guess because I run a business and I see what’s happening every day because I deal with many businesses from many walks of life and see what’s happening with them, and I mean it’s everything from architects who are having to cut the days they work a week to your corporate people who are having their hours literally cut or they’re basically being told to take an extra week’s vacation that will simply be adjusted in their pay. So it’s basically go home without pay for a week.

“… I don’t think that’s it’s too much if I’ve got staff and other companies have staff that we have been holding the line on, to ask that school teachers look at that hard thing, too. And when Paul recommends that maybe the salaries or something that would help reduce what you’re going to the community for and maybe the response would be that you’d be reacting a little more like everybody else out who’s saying: We can bear this. We can get through this. We might have to hold the line, but we can get through it and by holding the line that is what is going to get us through it. I’m sorry, but that’s where I’m at.”

Mayrose later said, “… When I am thinking through all of this, if our job as making recommendations is to say: Maybe it’s not our job to worry about what will pass. It’s our job to say this is what we think is necessary for the best education. In that case, yes, the 83 cents would be it. I personally don’t think it’s going to pass. That’s just my opinion from what I’ve heard in the community and among the teachers and things like that, but maybe that’s not our worry at this point. Our worry is to say: Yes, these are the things we need to make us a top-notch district … and leave it to the board after a survey to decide. So yeah, I would say we need all these things.”

Facilitating Team member Ellen Woulfe, a district teacher, later said, “… Eighty-four cents would be hard for me to do as a homeowner in this district because my own salary has been frozen and raises I have gotten in the past have been eaten by my increased amount of money that I have to put in my retirement system, insurance.

“So even when I do get a raise, it — in fact, I have stepped backwards quite a few years because I have had the luxury of being at the top of the salary scale. The teachers around here have been, what, 22nd out of 23 districts …”

Noble interjected, “… We’re actually 18 out of 23, I think …”

Woulfe continued, “… It’s been a little hard. So personally I’d have trouble forking out 84 cents extra. Wouldn’t you know, I’d vote for it anyway …”

Burns asked, “Will the teachers work with us?”

Woulfe said, “Probably not.”

Asked why not, Woulfe responded by saying the amount was “a lot” and it would take a great deal of effort to educate the public about why it was needed.

Mayrose said, “I don’t want to say something that is really inappropriate here, but I think a lot of teachers have been frustrated for a very, very long time at the discrepancy between where the teachers fall in the county and where the administration falls in the county. There’s a big discrepancy there and I think that’s a source of frustration to teachers and has been for 10 years. So I think that may cause teachers to be skeptical of it.”

Citing Baker’s comments, Fowler later said, “… I could relate to her because I average about 50 people a day that I talk to on the phone … It is tough out there. It’s a tough economy. A lot of people in our community are hurting and a lot of people have seen jobs go and/or cutbacks. And she’s exactly right. It’s tough out there and everybody is trying to hold on.

“I do think when times are tough what really surprised me I guess in the last election in April is how many referendums passed. And that’s because a lot of times people have a tendency to go home to take care of the basic needs — your churches, your schools, your libraries, things of that nature close to home …”

He also noted that the first phase of COMPASS recommended a 37-cent tax-rate increase. But board members rejected the proposal after a survey found that 59 percent of 400 participants would oppose it.

That’s why Fowler said he believes a telephone survey will be critical to the COMPASS II proposal.

” … All my kids went through the school district and got a great education. Could they have done better? Yes. Were there things lacking? Yes. And if it were up to me, I would do it all even though I don’t have dog in this fight any more …,” he said. “I want Mehlville to be considered the best school district in St. Louis County. I want well-paid teachers. I want all the things that other kids have … I want all that, but I have to come back to reality and our survey will give us that … I certainly will not lead an effort in which we do not have a fighting chance of passing …”