Tax-rate increase by Special School District on ballot

Voters last approved tax hike for district in November 2000

By MIKE ANTHONY

Voter approval of an 18-cent tax-rate increase next week would provide the Special School District with “some long-term financial stability,” according to Board of Education member Terry Briggs.

Voters in the Special School District will consider the 18-cent tax-rate increase, called Proposition S, when they go to the polls Tuesday, Nov. 7. If approved, the district’s tax rate would increase to $1 per $100 of assessed valuation from the current rate of 82 cents per $100.

The Special School District has not had a tax-rate hike since November 2000, when a 24-cent tax-rate increase was approved by a 62-percent margin. At that time, district officials projected the 24 cents would carry the district five years. Before 2000, voters approved a tax-rate increase for the district in 1986, Briggs told the Call.

The Special School District is nearly 50 years old and serves more than 29,500 students — more than 27,500 special-education students and nearly 2,000 technical-education students.

If Proposition S is approved, the 18 cents would generate roughly $39.6 million.

“The issues and what we’re going to use the money for is first, the retention and attraction of teachers. We have a good teaching work force, and that’s really the key for any school district, the teachers,” Briggs said. “So we want to maintain that. We don’t pay at the Cadillac level, as I call it, but we are above the median. Now in the area, though, of starting salaries, we are pretty high on the top, and the reason for that is special education is not attracting a whole lot of students coming out of college. It’s not, in other words, a lot of them that make this their major.

“So the market’s kind of small, which means it’s very competitive in getting first-year teachers into the schools. We have to have a salary base that’s very attractive so we don’t lose them across the river to Illinois or down into Jeff County or into Franklin or St. Charles County because it is so competitive. So we need that,” he said.

In addition, revenue generated by Proposition S would be used for expanded programs for students with autism and behavior disorders, Briggs said, adding, “Autism, in particular, has seen triple-digit increases in the number of students.”

Chief Financial Officer Rich Carver said, “It’s gone from about 440 kids five years ago to over 1,200 kids now.”

Proposition S revenue also would be used to fund updated instructional and assistive technology for students and for capital im-provements to district buildings.

District officials are looking at a downturn in federal funding.

“… This particular year, we’re looking at close to $2 million less in federal money coming in. The state level has been fairly constant. It fluctuates a little bit, but we’re not too bad there, but there’s always a big question mark,” Briggs said, referring to a pending lawsuit involving the state’s foundation funding formula. “That could have major implications — not just on us, but all of the school districts in St. Louis County. If that went against us or anything, we could see a loss in state money or at least the level frozen on us where you couldn’t see it increase anymore.

“That’s one of our particular concerns in having to go back to the voters. What we’re trying to do is get some long-term financial stability to the district. This will provide that. We think that if this is approved — when it’s approved by the voters in November — that we could go probably anywhere from six to eight years conservatively without coming back. It all just depends on factors that are beyond our control like I mentioned — the lawsuit being one, the federal government being another one,” he said.

Asked about the current budget situation, Carver said, “As of June 30, ’06, the end of our last fiscal year, we’re in pretty solid shape. However, our revenue only went up by 1 percent this past year. This year, we actually are budgeting a slight decrease of about $1 million on about a $325 million budget, and that’s primarily driven by the decrease in the federal funding. We also have had an agreement with the St. Louis Public Schools whereby city students could come attend the North and South Tech schools and they paid tuition to us and likewise county students could go to their career academy. Well, there was twice as many coming from the city to the county, and we’re now phasing that out. St. Louis Public did not want to continue that, and so we’ve got a net loss of tuition over the last couple of years, including this year. So that’s impacting our revenue.

“We also sold the old West Tech building out on Highway 40 to Westminster about five years ago on an installment basis, and the last installment is due in February of ’07 of $2.8 million. So the combination of those factors affect us for next year. This year, we’re looking at a slight decrease. Next year, less than a 1-percent increase again …,” he added.

Oakville resident Aaron Hilmer, who also serves as chairman of the Mehlville Fire Protection District Board of Directors, told the Call he plans to vote “no” on Proposition S, saying approval of the measure would result in a roughly 70-percent in- crease in the district’s tax rate in six years.

“What resident has seen that kind of income increase in six years? This doesn’t even begin to include the millions of dollars they’ve received from reassessment and new construction over that same period of time,” he said.

Hilmer said that according to information he received from the district in response to a request he made under the provisions of the state’s Open Meetings and Records Law, 66 of the district’s nearly 5,000 employees have pay packages of $100,000 or more.

“So, 66 people with $100,000 pay packages or more — it sounds to me like the school district doesn’t have a money problem, they just have a spending problem,” he said. “In addition, in order to give the voters this chance to increase their taxes, it cost $315,000 just to place this issue on the ballot.”

Briggs, however, says the Special School District “has a tremendous reputation outside of the area” and the services it provides students are uniform throughout the county.

“Special (School) District, irregardless of what school district you’re in from Affton to Mehlville, if you’re receiving special-education services, that’s going to be a standard throughout the county,” he said. “Whereas in regular ed, people will tell you well, I think there’s a difference between if I’m going to the Wellston School District or Rockwood — those are two districts in St. Louis County. In special education, it doesn’t matter. The playing field is leveled for everybody … And I think that’s really one of the strong selling points of the Special School District. That continuum of services, you don’t have to worry about it or anything like that. It’s there.”