Results of Mehlville survey are extremely encouraging

‘Call the Tune’ by Mike Anthony: District’s financial crisis result of past boards’ poor decisions

By Mike Anthony

We’re extremely encouraged by the survey results released this week by the Mehlville School District.

Those results, presented to the Board of Education May 21, show support for a reasonable tax-rate increase. For example, 58 percent of respondents said they would support a 40-cent tax-rate increase to address the district’s budget deficit.

It’s no secret that the unreasonableness of former Board of Education members is to blame for Mehlville’s current financial crisis.

As voters made clear, the last two ballot measures placed before voters — in 2006 and 2010 — by the Mehlville school board were unreasonable.

Believe it or not, though, some former board members are still scratching their heads and blaming everyone but themselves over why their unrealistic tax-rate-increase proposals were overwhelmingly defeated.

In November 2005, the board voted to place a 97-cent tax-rate increase on the February 2006 ballot, completely disregarding a survey it had commissioned that concluded that only the passage of a 35- to 40-cent tax-rate increase was feasible.

Predictably, voters trounced Proposition A at the polls.

Then we had Proposition C, an 88-cent tax-rate increase proposal on the November 2010 ballot spearheaded by then-board members Tom Diehl and Karl Frank Jr.

In an email sent to the private email accounts of board members and then-Superintendent Terry Noble, Diehl, then board president, apparently had so much “confidence” in the results of the survey performed by UNICOM-ARC that he encouraged board members not to ask too many questions during the next public meeting. Oddly, Diehl did not send a copy of the email to the district’s custodian of records as required by the Sunshine Law.

“(UNICOM-ARC President) Rod Wright told me that the survey will be ready tomorrow morning. I will send you all a copy as soon as I have it. Since we won’t have time to thoroughly digest all the data, Rod will give us an overview of the hi-lights (sic) and will be available to meet with us individually or in pairs to answer more detailed questions next week. If we can stay out of the minutiae tomorrow night it would be appreciated. We need a story that won’t get bogged down in the wonkish data, but rather hit the big picture issues. There are a lot of positives in the survey,” Diehl wrote.

It’s not surprising that Diehl would say that, as he was adamantly opposed to pursuing any reasonable tax-rate increase — not even 47 cents, as suggested by then-board Vice President Venki Palamand, who is the current president.

“What if we go for 47 cents?” Diehl said at a 2010 board retreat. “Oh, we passed 47 cents, but we can’t do anything here. So, what’s the benefit? You can’t come back and say: Hey, we passed 47 cents, can you give us another 40 cents so that we can do what we actually need to do?”

What a shortsighted view, as that 47 cents would have generated $21 million for the district since 2011.

The reality was that the survey numbers were not good, and, in fact, were weighted to give the impression they were favorable.

But don’t just take our word for it. Here’s what current Vice President Larry Felton, the only board member remaining who voted to place Prop C on the ballot, had to say earlier this year about that survey: “I think unfortunately we got too aggressive and hired a firm (UNICOM-ARC) that not only cranked numbers but really went out and pressed for initiatives. As a board, we own this — we’re the ones who got us here.”

We credit Felton for taking some responsibility for the district’s financial crisis.

The same can’t be said of former board members who make ludicrous accusations about why voters rejected Prop C, but refuse to take responsibility for their damaging decisions.

Some might say, why continue to dwell on the past?

The answer is simple: We raise the issue so the same mistakes aren’t repeated. Quite frankly, the Diehl-led board that voted to place 88 cents before voters should have recognized the folly of the previous board that placed 97 cents on the ballot.

That didn’t happen, and the irony’s not lost on us that some who misguidedly consider themselves the school district’s biggest supporters are, in fact, the very ones responsible for bringing Mehlville to the brink of financial disaster.

As for the current survey, we have great confidence in the accuracy of the results, as does Superintendent Norm Ridder. Ridder, who truly has done an outstanding job this past year, said the results show “rock-solid” support for a tax-rate increase.

We agree. This time the “wonkish data” show residents are painfully aware of the district’s financial situation and are more than willing to support a reasonable ballot measure to benefit Mehlville.