Some hope for more specifics on Mehlville tax-rate measure

District needs to look ahead, not to its past, Gaines says

Chris Gaines

Chris Gaines

By Gloria Lloyd

During the public debut last week of new Mehlville Superintendent Chris Gaines, the Board of Education’s initial discussion of a likely ballot measure this November ended with some board members hoping for more specifics on where money might go.

Gaines confirmed at the July 16 board meeting that the school district will use any new dollars to follow the Finance Committee’s recommendation to balance the $2.6 million operational budget deficit and begin to carry out the district’s strategic plan.

A vote on a tax-rate measure could happen as early as Aug. 17, but as board members pushed Gaines for full details of the proposal during his first full week on the job last week, the district’s new leader said he prefers a more general approach so that the district isn’t tied down to what could later become an ineffective use of money.

As residents learned more about the district’s financial troubles after $5 million in budget cuts, new fees and capital deferrals last spring, the majority of frequent Mehlville voters surveyed said they would support a 40-cent tax-rate increase.

The earliest the board would vote to place a measure on the ballot is Aug. 17, following another voter survey.

Though Mehlville voters approved a transfer of roughly 31 cents from the district’s debt-service fund to the operating fund in 2008, the district’s last tax-rate hike was Proposition P in 2000.

No board members or administrators who oversaw it are still with the district, and with Gaines’ arrival, the 49-cent levy for facilities was six superintendents ago.

After board President Venki Palamand noted that the 2013 construction of the district’s auditorium came in on time and under budget, board member Lori Trakas pointed to the Prop P cost overruns of the early 2000s as an example of how Mehlville has mishandled money.

In response, Gaines noted that especially as he takes over for a new era in the school district, Mehlville needs to look more to the future than the past.

“… At some point tonight, we’re going to adjourn, and I’m going to get in my truck,” he said. “When I back up, I’m going to look in my rearview mirror — but then I’m going to take off. And I’m going to spend most of my time looking out my windshield at what’s ahead.

“This is what’s ahead for the Mehlville School District,” Gaines continued, holding up a copy of the district’s strategic plan. “Lots and lots of people, I don’t see how they drive because they’re always looking in the mirror. We need to look forward.

“We cannot be ignorant of what’s in the mirror and we have to recognize what’s in the mirror, but it’s our duty on behalf of the nearly 11,000 kids that we serve to look out the windshield and follow through on the vision that this community has created for their school district,” the new superintendent said to applause from the audience.

Before interim Superintendent Norm Ridder left June 30, he took a draft plan of how to spend $8.3 million from a 49-cent levy to focus groups, and Palamand suggests a similar, specific “Contract with Mehlville” to counteract any lingering mistrust among voters.

Instead of restoring all the budget cuts slashed from this year’s budget, however, Ridder’s more academic-focused proposal begins to pursue the strategic plan.

Gaines said he views the strategic plan as a contract with residents that is already mapped out so voters can have confidence, but officials can also change course as needed.

“Being specific about what we’re going to fund today may not be the most effective thing to fund come May,” Gaines said.

Board member Jamey Murphy, who was elected in April, joined Palamand to ask exactly where the money will go, but said he is aware that at the same time the district needs to be able to “bob and weave.”

As Murphy spoke about needing to see a plan, Gaines held up the strategic plan.

“My problem is I just spent $5,500 running against the board, and the problems I could highlight in my campaign were what we did when we had that flexibility: ‘Let’s refinance that, now we have all this money, let’s build a theater,’ which granted, I realize is beating a dead horse at this point,” Murphy said. “Any time this board has gotten financial ability to move, we’ve tended to make the wrong decisions … My worry is that unless we start laying out a plan to the district …

“I’m just worried because our flexibility is where we get in trouble.”

Before coming to Mehlville, Gaines was superintendent in Wright City, where 57 percent of voters rejected a 49-cent tax-rate increase in April that specified in ballot language that it would fund computers, early childhood education and increasing salaries.

With its focus on academics, Ridder’s plan keeps the new $218 bus fee for students who live less than a mile from their schools, but some parents are under the impression that the bus fee will end if a tax increase passes, Palamand noted, and he wants a certain level of funding to be guaranteed in the new money so the bus fee is taken away for a set time frame.

“In my simple mind it would make sense to me that these would be the first things that would be restored,” board member Jean Pretto agreed, holding up the list of budget cuts.

“But it’s not documented,” Murphy noted. “Our concern is the vagueness draws more flexibility than I’m comfortable with.”

“We’re in a hole, it’s going to be a challenge to get out of that hole,” Gaines said. “So what we’d like is the flexibility and agility to move out of that hole around current conditions. I don’t think we would have an issue with broad categories, but we just don’t want to get super-detailed and box ourselves into something that as we investigate a little more may not be the most effective way to add dollars.”

Noting that one of the themes of his visits to Mehlville schools during his first days on the job is that students are on waiting lists to learn to read, Gaines said that his first take is that adding reading coaches would take top priority.

“The thing that I think that everybody feels is our needs are way up here,” Gaines said, holding his hand above his head. “But the reality of what the board may ask is not going to be at that level because the needs are a little bit distasteful in what it would cost.”

Ridder’s draft only directs $1.3 million to facilities, which Trakas said is not nearly enough out of a $108 million budget.

“Capital’s the biggest need we have in this district, because their needs have been punted for far too long,” she said. “Part of this should be addressing those issues — that’s where your public wants a solution.”