Schools rule Call’s list of top 10 stories of the year

News Analysis 
By Gloria Lloyd
News Editor
glorialloyd@callnewspapers.com

You know it was a huge year for news when Lindbergh got tuition-free full-day kindergarten, St. Anthony’s Medical Center changed its name, Affton got a new precinct while Tower Tee closed and Fitz’s and The Shack announced they are coming — and those didn’t even make it into the top 10 stories in south county.

But while political discord reigned at the county, the top story was local school districts advancing innovation and achievement.

1. At the top of the list, Lindbergh kicked off 2018 with a huge announcement: Tony Lake, chief operations officer for a Kansas district, would take over after a decade of unprecedented academic success under retiring Superintendent Jim Simpson. Only the sixth superintendent in Lindbergh history, Lake made nearly 90 stops on his “Listening and Learning” tour and went to work on a strategic plan, tuition-free full-day kindergarten and a potential $105 million bond issue for a new Lindbergh High School that will likely be one of the top stories of 2019.

2. Stability comes to Mehlville. Longtime Mehlville School District observers may recall wilder days when Board of Education members disguised themselves in wigs to spy on fellow members and protesters streaked through meetings dressed as Cousin Itt. But things have noticeably settled into stability in Mehlville under the low-key, steady leadership of Superintendent Chris Gaines, who revealed he hopes to stay at least four more years.

After a whirlwind first two years when Gaines seemingly changed everything about the district, this year he let things settle a bit while still making gains — no pun intended.

The district reached 1:1 laptops for all K-12 students ahead of schedule by primarily using existing technology budgets, finished up a successful first year at new school of innovation Mosaic Elementary, hired math interventionists to focus on student achievement and added police cars and cameras to beef up school security.

As Gaines took office as president of the national superintendents’ organization, officials from across the country came to Mehlville to study its innovative options.

The district may no longer be in the headlines every week, but in this case, that’s a good thing. Sometimes quiet successes can be overlooked, but no one should underestimate Gaines. Or Mehlville.

3. Discord becomes norm for County Council and County Executive Steve Stenger, but Stenger is re-elected anyway.

The County Council changed its starting time for the first time in nearly two decades, and any other year that would have been big news. But that was barely a blip on the radar of this council, which set its sights on Stenger and never let up in that pursuit — opposing him through lawsuits, hearings and confrontations at meetings that led Stenger to stop attending altogether. With the council solidified 6-1 against Stenger, his lone ally, 5th District Councilman Pat Dolan, D-Affton, was defeated in the Democratic primary.

Stenger argued he gets more done with a hostile council. Voters appeared to agree, choosing him over Mark Mantovani.

4. New hope for the Crestwood mall and new leadership for the city. The year started out with the city’s longtime planner saying he was “puzzled” by the lack of development at the mall site. And hopes for the mall faded as the mounds of “Mount Crestwood” became a very public symbol of the lack of actual development.

A dirt racing track was the best hope for the site, some residents joked.

But as the mounds came down, Creve Coeur-based developer Walpert Properties announced that it might buy the mall.

On that hopeful note, Ward 3 Alderman Grant Mabie overwhelmingly won a special mayoral election after Mayor Gregg Roby resigned due to health reasons.

5. Crestwood loses its lawsuit. The city first sued the Affton Fire Protection District in 2017 in an attempt to stop paying $550,000 each year to the fire district for fire service for annexed residents. This year, the city funded an Affton taxpayer to sue the fire district. A judge ruled against Crestwood on all counts, pending appeal.

6. Sunset Hills development. The year started out with the county declaring the city’s house of ill repute, the Econo Lodge — home to meth labs, prostitution and a parking lot of getaway cars — “unfit for human occupancy.” That shut it down for good. But it was only the beginning of the site’s story as neighbors objected to its replacement, a luxury gas station and car wash with a Smoothie King and a Kaldi’s Coffee. Others wanted the eyesore gone. Mayor Pat Fribis broke a tie for it.

7. Trakas shakes off attempts to remove him from office. In between his showdowns with Stenger, 6th District Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-Oakville, triumphed in several challenges that appeared serious but then faded out: County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch asked for a special prosecutor to investigate whether Trakas violated the county Charter with his work as an attorney for school districts.

The special prosecutor, St. Charles County Prosecuting Attorney Tim Lohmar, a fellow Republican, believed Trakas violated the law and recommended that he be removed. But a judge ruled for Trakas.

And a recall effort that appeared to gain steam against Trakas in 2017 stalled in 2018 amid allegations of ethics violations.

The lesson: Trakas is a formidable foe who isn’t going anywhere.

8. Mehlville Fire comes up with first-of-its-kind program and gives a large raise.

It was a year of successes for the Mehlville Fire Protection District, with its firefighters appearing in “The Wall Street Journal,” rolling out a first-of-its-kind program in St. Louis County in which specialized paramedics tend to the special needs of the highest ambulance users and giving the largest raise to firefighters in 17 years.

9. Prosecutor McCulloch defeated by reform challenger Wesley Bell. It was unthinkable in county politics, but it happened: Seven-term incumbent McCulloch lost to Bell, probably due to Ferguson.

Whatever the reason, this election will reverberate for years to come.

10. New legislators at all levels for south county. After the death of Rep. Cloria Brown in office and the departure of longtime Oakville legislator Rep. Marsha Haefner, newcomers Jim Murphy and Michael O’Donnell rode a “red wave” to office in November. Rep. Mike Revis, D-Fenton, made national news by winning a February special election in the 97th District, Jefferson County-based “Trump country,” but he lost in November to Republican Mary Elizabeth Coleman.

Two of the three south county legislators on the council will be new after 3rd District Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger, R-Huntleigh, retired and Dolan was defeated. They were replaced last week by former police Chief Tim Fitch and Lisa Clancy.

Locally, Crestwood said goodbye to longtime Ward 1 Alderman Darryl Wallach, and Sunset Hills Ward 1’s Richard Gau and Ward 2’s Tom Musich stepped down.