Prop P review panel’s report accepted by Mehlville board

Chambers pleased matter put to rest; district officials can learn from the past

By MIKE ANTHONY

The Mehlville Board of Education recently voted 6-0 to accept the Proposition P Review Committee’s final report regarding the districtwide building-improvement program.

Phil Barry and Kurt Witzel, Proposition P Review Committee co-chairs, presented to the Board of Education the panel’s report that answers roughly 100 questions about the districtwide building-improvement program and includes policy and procedural recommendations for future building projects.

Voters in November 2000 approved Proposition P, a nearly $68.4 million bond issue funded by a 49-cent tax-rate increase. However, a final budget revision approved by the board in December 2005 raised the Proposition P budget to $89,137,440 — a roughly 30.3-percent increase — more than $20.7 million over the nearly $68.4 million building-improvement program originally envisioned.

The Board of Education voted unanimously in June to approve a motion by Vice President Karl Frank Jr. and seconded by board member Tom Diehl to establish the Proposition P Review Committee. In September, board members appointed committee members, including former school-board members Barry and Witzel as co-chairs.

Other members appointed included: Lori Gleason, Greg Hayden, Al Kirchhofer, Lisa O’Donnell, Ed Ryals, Dave Thompson and Debra Selinger.

The committee began meeting in September and concluded its work in February. Barry and Witzel presented the panel’s findings to the school board March 22 at a meeting that also was attended by several committee members.

Witzel said, “On behalf of the committee, I want to thank the board for allowing us to undertake this endeavor. The two charges we really had were to take any question from any citizen of the district and try to answer it, and to then come up with recommendations or ideas or suggestions to the board on if this comes back again and we do a major building proposition like this of some things we might improve upon or ideas to make it better the next go-round …”

“… I think we actually enjoyed it and I think it was good for the community,” Barry said, adding that he hopes the published accounts of the board’s work and its final report put to rest questions that have been raised by the community about Proposition P. “If there’s more you want us to do, I guess we’d be willing to do that, but I think this answers everything. We went through I think close to 125 questions. We tried to the best of our ability as a committee to answer every single question in there …”

Board President Ken Leach later said he was pleased with the committee’s hard work and final report.

“… From the very beginning, I know that I didn’t want it to be a witch hunt and it wasn’t, which is good,” he said. “Even if there were mistakes made, people make mistakes. I don’t think that there should have been anything like that called out. The only thing that I would really like to see out of it and I think we got that is we don’t want to make the same mistakes in the future over and over again …”

Board member Rita Diekemper said, “… I know some of the recommendations in here probably have already been implemented at some point throughout the last five or six or seven years. So I guess the next step would be for the administration to take this back, if we accept this report, and they should come up with any procedures, any new procedures that we need out of this or plans of communication or things like that. I think a lot of this boils down to communication, don’t you? …”

Witzel said, “A big part of it.”

Diekemper asked if the committee’s report had been reviewed by the district’s legal counsel.

Witzel said, “No. We’re presenting it to the board. Where the board wants to go with it from that point is really up to the seven of you.”

He later said, “… I guess having been on the board, I feel that the board is the bottom line. I mean whatever happens in this district, if the board signs off on it, that’s the end of the story. And some of the — like the change-order process, I really feel strongly that that needs to be looked at because the board in that process was really sort of an afterthought. It was recommended, done administrative and then reported to the board. And I know that there’s — timing is an issue, whatnot, but without having somebody as a representative of the people in that process I think that’s a process that could be improved.”

Interim Superintendent Jerry Chambers said, “… One thing that hit me right between the eyes when I first heard about all this and Rita mentions communication, is that the difference between a tax levy and a bond issue, and somehow that was 49 cents? … (It) suddenly became a $68.4 million bond issue. On the ballot I think it was a 49-cent levy. So somehow, I don’t know if it was communication or what, but I thought when I first came in and one of the reasons I was dragging my feet … the reason I was dragging my feet, I thought: This was not a bond issue. This was a tax levy, not a bond issue. Why isn’t everybody who loves Mehlville happy that it produced $88 million? And somehow that got lost, didn’t it? …”

Witzel said, “… It really did get lost. I mean if we went back and looked at the very first piece of sort of communication from I guess it was the CACF (Citizens’ Advisory Committee for Facilities) or one of the groups that was promoting the Prop P election explained it and basically said 49 cents and connected that to $68 million, which I guess was the estimate at that time of what it would generate.

“That was published in the newspapers and sent out to the community, so people in their mind got $68 million, and it broke down that $68 million so much for this school, so much that school, so much for this. And the total was $68 million. So people went into it with that — you’re right, what that 49 cents would generate based on what the bond rates were going down the road, who knew?”

Referring to bond-like certificates of participation that were issued to fund a majority of the Prop P work, Diekemper said, “Well and the COPs, that concept …”

Witzel said, “Was new.”

Diekemper said, “Were we the second school district in the state that even did that? So people in their minds associated building needs with bond issues I think. They make that jump.”

Witzel later said, “One other thing. Rita brought up the COPs, which were a new concept and we were talking about processes, and one of the things that we found out that was sort of surprising was, is that there were bills that were paid for construction that never came through the board, that went right to Bank of America and were paid out of that and the board really never had a view of that. So we were sort of shocked by that. But it was the process of — sort of a new process of the certificates of participation … That’s the way it worked. But it led to that sort of who knew what was being spent and the board didn’t really have oversight of that just due to the way it was constructed, to a certain extent.”

Diekemper made a motion to accept the panel’s report and request the administration to formulate policies, procedures and communication methods based on the committee’s policy and procedural recommendations. The board voted 6-0 to approve Diekemper’s motion. Secretary Tom Correnti was absent.

Chambers told the Call he is pleased this matter has been put to rest and district officials can learn from the past.

“Shortly after arriving on the job in July ’06, it was clear to me that there had been a poor job of communication with the public, with the CACF and with the press and media. When it was clear that the Prop P levy would bring in much more money in excess of $68.4 million, it was imperative that school officials notified the public and the very people who had fought hard to help pass Prop P.

“From everything I’ve learned, that wasn’t done. Instead, it was perceived that these financial figures were not revealed and openly communicated to the public. We cannot repeat that mistake. If a levy is passed and more money is brought in than projected, that news needs to be shared. I also think it’s important that the very groups that helped design a proposal and assist in its passage be given an opportunity to give feedback about what to do with excess funds. As far as I know, that was never done either.”