School board moves ahead with plans to determine why voters rejected Prop C

Keeping Frank’s seat vacant a ‘mistake,’ Franz tells board.

By EVAN YOUNG

The Mehlville Board of Education last week moved ahead with plans to survey the community in the wake of the school district’s unsuccessful 88-cent tax-rate increase proposal.

Nearly a month after more than 62 percent of Mehlville voters rejected that measure — Proposition C — the board on Dec. 1 authorized the communications department to team up with STLtoday.com to promote an electronic survey as part of a follow-up effort to gauge the community’s opinions on the tax-rate increase.

The district will use the STLtoday.com e-mail address database to notify residents about the survey, Director of Communications Emily McFarland said. E-mails will be sent to roughly 40,000 addresses in the database and will cost the district about $400, she said.

In-house channels such as Mehlville’s website, its own e-mail database and press releases also will be used — at no additional cost to the district — to encourage residents’ participation, McFarland said.

Use of the district’s own e-mail database will add another roughly 10,000 addresses, she said.

The board did not vote last week on the use of STLtoday.com to publicize the survey, but none of the six board members objected to the expenditure.

However, a group of residents said it did take exception to the board’s recent decision not to fill its vacant seventh seat, contending that, from a communications standpoint, it was the wrong move to make after voters turned down Prop C.

Concord resident Rich Franz addressed the board during a period for public comments. He spoke on the behalf of the Mehlville Community Taxpayers Association, a group that believes the board is out of touch with the community. The MCTA strongly opposed Prop C and campaigned against the ballot measure.

“I imagine from some of you we won’t be getting Christmas cards,” Franz told the board. “I appreciate that. I understand that. But I do want to let you know in that context that the Mehlville Community Taxpayers Association does consider itself a representative of the taxpayers of the district, and as such we consider ourselves team members with you folks working together to solve the problems in the district.

“Something we do feel has been neglected — or maybe I should say overlooked — is the role the taxpayers play in the success of the school district. Our faculty, staff, physical facilities — everything we have here — would not be here if it were not for the taxpayers who are willing to do their part.

“Unfortunately,” Franz said, “we feel that they have not always received the recognition and support from this board, or from the school district in general, that they deserve.”

The board’s unanimous decision to leave the seat formerly held by Karl Frank Jr. — who resigned Nov. 18 — vacant until the April 5 election was a “mistake,” Franz said.

Frank’s board seat, along with those held by Drew Frauenhoffer and Erin Weber, are up for election in April.

The MCTA — through outgoing state Rep. Walt Bivins, R-Oakville — has asked Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster to provide an opinion on whether the board is violating state law by leaving Frank’s seat vacant.

Franz said while he appreciated board members expressing their feelings at last month’s meeting on Prop C’s defeat, “at no point during anyone’s comments did they say, or did they explain, that they understood that the taxpayers were an integral part of what was happening, and that the taxpayers did not support the direction that Prop C would’ve taken the district.

“So we’re simply saying: Let’s consider those folks who make the district work. Let’s consider those folks out here in the audience who are responsible for paying the bills,” he told the board. “They’re the ones who pay the salaries. They’re the ones that make everything possible. And they’re the ones who deserve to be represented on the board. And they’re the ones who could’ve had representation up until April by filling Mr. Frank’s seat.

“I believe there are numerous people in this community who would’ve been willing to step forward to fill that position,” Franz continued. “Former school board members, people who have served in other governmental bodies or jurisdictions who could’ve applied their experience and knowledge to what you folks are going to be dealing with. Unfortunately, you missed that opportunity.”

He concluded, “Maybe it’s not too late. Maybe that decision can be revisited.”

Franz’s remarks evoked a rebuttal from board member Micheal Ocello, who said he resented the idea the school board wasn’t communicating or listening to district residents.

He noted Prop C was the product of several years’ worth of community engagement through the district’s COMPASS program — Charting the Oakville-Mehlville Path to Advance Successful Schools.

The proposed 88-cent tax-rate increase was billed as the vehicle to fund nearly $106 million worth of recommendations outlined in the COMPASS plan.

“I believe that there is no one on this board that has not taken into consideration the voters,” Ocello said toward the end of last week’s board meeting. “We spent four years in a community-engagement program. We listened to what people had to say, and we gave voters the opportunity to make a choice, and they did. And I mentioned this at the last meeting, the fact that they made a choice not to approve an 88-cent tax increase doesn’t mean they don’t support the district. It doesn’t mean they don’t want to see us be a good school district or to go where we all hope we can go.

“What we are doing is listening, and the people who came to the community engagement and our survey — who knows about the survey — but our survey said people had an interest,” he added.

A survey conducted in July by public relations consultant UNICOM•ARC showed a 94-cent tax-rate increase proposal had the potential support of roughly 51 percent of district voters. The board later reduced that amount to 88 cents before voting to put Prop C on the Nov. 2 ballot.

“So all we did was give them a choice; that’s what school boards are supposed to do,” Ocello said. “We didn’t raise taxes; we gave them a choice. So they gave us their answer and now, tonight, we’re addressing some of those things. And tonight we said that we’re going to do another survey to try and get a clearer understanding of what’s going on.

“So I think it’s a complete misinterpretation. I think it’s a complete misstatement, an effort to portray us in a way that is just not the case,” Ocello continued. “We have listened and, in fact, to my knowledge we have gone above and beyond what a lot of places do in order to hear what people have to say.

“Now for the past year we had monthly meetings inviting the entire community to come talk to us. We shared what we thought made sense and asked for their response. So I don’t know how someone can legitimately say that’s not listening to the voters. The fact that we thought that all the information said: ‘Try this,’ because that’s what the information is telling us, doesn’t mean we’re at opposite ends and we’re not listening.”

He added, “That’s not fair, and that’s not accurate.

“We’re all in this together …,” Ocello concluded. “We’re not enemies here, we’re neighbors. Cutting each other up doesn’t help our kids.”