True cost of Proposition P goes beyond dollars, cents

By Mike Anthony

Mehlville School District administrators and Board of Education members expect students to strive for academic excellence.

Given that, shouldn’t the community expect administrators and school board members to strive for excellence in performing their duties, particularly their stewardship of the Proposition P districtwide building im-provement program?

But when it comes to Proposition P, neither Mehlville’s highly paid ad-ministrators nor the public’s elected representatives merit a passing grade.

It’s true that buildings are being built and long-overdue renovations are being made. When the Proposition P work is completed, the Mehlville School District’s facilities will be among the finest in St. Louis County, perhaps even the state.

Without question, district voters in November 2000 made the right choice when they approved Proposition P — a nearly $68.4 million districtwide building improvement program funded by a 49-cent tax-rate increase.

But as we know today, the actual cost of Proposition P will be at least $18.3 million more than the original estimated cost and probably more. A revised budget recently approved by the board projects the total cost of Proposition P will be $86,725,000 — the original budget of $72.4 million approved by the board in October 2001, plus an additional $14,325,000 in district capital funds.

Current projections indicate the 49-cent tax-rate increase approved by voters will generate more than enough revenue to retire the bond-like certificates issued to fund Propo-sition P and all the other costs associated with the project. However, while projections indicate the 49 cents will generate nearly $26 million more over 20 years than what is required to retire Prop P obligations, that amount dwindles to roughly $11.5 million as a result of the revised budget.

Yet, the true cost of Proposition P goes beyond dollars and cents as the actions of administrators and board members have undermined the public’s confidence in the school district.

Over the past few months, this newspaper has documented how administrators have dragged their feet in revealing all the facts about Proposition P funding. We’ve also reported their questionable claims about how up front they’ve been about the true cost of Proposition P and its fund-ing, particularly their lame excuses re-garding the use of district capital funds for “Prop P-related projects.”

In fact, administrators have not been up front about Proposition P, specifically with regard to how much the 49-cent tax-rate increase is generating and the amount of district capital funds being spent.

Just when did administrators plan on telling the public that the 49 cents will generate nearly $26 million more over 20 years than is needed to retire the district’s obligations? As far as we know, that information became public last spring only after this newspaper asked Randy Charles, assistant superintendent for finance and the district’s chief financial officer, how much revenue the 49 cents was generating and how much revenue was needed to retire the bond-like certificates.

Mr. Charles obviously had the information, but the public did not. Certainly the Proposition P Oversight Committee was kept in the dark about the true cost of Prop-osition P.

In June, Oversight Committee Chairman Chuck Van Gronigen, a former Board of Education member, contended administrators had not provided full disclosure to the panel of the total estimated cost of the districtwide building improvement program and related projects. At that same meeting, Mr. Charles told committee members that administrators knew more than a year earlier — spring 2002 — the 49 cents would generate far more revenue than would be needed to retire the certificates.

And despite what some board members might now contend, we believe they also were unaware of how much revenue the 49 cents is generating and the amount of district capital funds being spent on Proposition P. Don’t forget that as recently as April 24, Board of Education Presi-dent Cindy Christopher told 500 people at the district’s Recognition Night that Prop-osition P was on time and on budget.

With administrators using such euphemisms as non-Proposition P funds or being funded outside of Proposition P funds, it’s no wonder no one could connect the fact that the district capital funds being used for Proposition P-related projects were coming from the 49-cent tax-rate increase.

Mr. Charles has contended that poor communication resulted in the misunderstanding about the source of district capital funds being used to finance Proposition P-related projects.

Perhaps it was poor communication that resulted in the administration’s handling of contracts for construction management and architectural services for Proposition P. Those two contracts total more than $10.8 million, yet never were presented to the board for final approval. The administration contends that when the Board of Education voted to select the McCarthy Construction Co. as construction manager for Proposition P, the board’s action also approved the contract with the firm even though the motion to do so directed the “administration to negotiate and develop a contract with McCarthy Construction …”

As reported last week, when asked if the negotiated contract — $2.835 million in fees, plus an estimated $3,321,212 in general conditions — had to come back to the board for approval, Superintendent Tim Ricker said, “My assumption is no.”

If that’s not bad enough, consider the fact that the contract, signed by former Superintendent John Cary, does not contain the date it was signed.

The administration didn’t do much better with the contract for architectural services with Dickinson Hussman Architects totaling $4.491 million in fees, plus an estimated $200,000 in general conditions.

We believe the district’s policy for the selection of architectural services makes it very clear that the board is responsible for ensuring a request for proposals is issued, selecting a firm and then negotiating a contract with that firm. We don’t believe any provisions of that policy were followed.

In contrast, while a contract for nearly $5 million in architectural services never went before the Mehlville board for ap-proval, the Pattonville Board of Education voted April 22 to approve a contract with Schwetye Architects for $8,600.

But that’s not all. As we reported last week, the Dickinson Hussman contract is dated April 1, 2001, and signed by Mr. Charles. However, on April 1, 2001, Mr. Charles still served as principal at Mehlville Senior High School, and Tom Foraker was the district’s assistant superintendent for finance and the district’s chief financial officer. Mr. Charles did not assume his duties as assistant superintendent and chief financial officer until July 1, 2001. After researching the discrepancy, Mr. Charles told the Call that the contract actually was not signed until Jan. 8, 2002.

Given the discrepancies, sloppiness and questionable compliance with district policy, there’s plenty of blame to go around. Yet Superintendent Ricker, who began his duties July 1, wants to bury his head in the sand as he believes administrators have been forthright in their handling of Propo-sition P. We disagree and believe that while Mehlville administrators have been sloppy and far less than forthright, the responsibility for holding those administrators ac-countable falls to our elected representatives, the Board of Education. Since the pas-sage of Proposition P, board members who have been elected or re-elected have touted their abilities to do just that.

But, quite frankly, they have failed miserably in their duties, as board members regularly approve payments for construction management and architectural services based on contracts that were never presented to them. Even when board members did have the good sense to ask specific questions about Proposition P, they certainly weren’t given straightforward answers by administrators.

The passage of Proposition P and its implementation perhaps should be the greatest chapter in the history of the Mehlville School District. Instead, administrators and board members have paid a very steep price for Proposition P — the loss of public confidence in their ability to properly manage the district’s affairs. While that might not be readily apparent today, we believe any funding measure placed before voters in the immediate future is destined to fail — no matter how great the need.