Turf proposal sparks heated give-and-take at Mehlville meeting

By MIKE ANTHONY

A recommendation to replace the grass athletic fields at the Mehlville School District’s two high schools with a synthetic surface sparked a heated exchange among Board of Education members last week.

Carl Arizpe, a member of the Long Range Planning Committee’s Facilities Action Team, had presented to the board in De-cember the team’s recommendation to replace the grass athletic fields with synthetic turf, citing improved safety for students, reduced maintenance costs and better utilization of space, among other reasons.

Several people spoke in favor of the proposal during a period for public comment at the Jan. 12 Board of Education meeting as a standing-room-only turnout filled the boardroom of the Administration Building.

The item came up under old business on the meeting agenda, near the end of roughly four-hour meeting.

“I put the turf proposal update on there not as an information or action item because of the discussion and presentation at the previous meeting,” Superintendent Tim Ricker said, noting that he and Stephen Keyser, the district’s chief financial officer, met Jan. 9 with Arizpe and board member Ken Leach to discuss the proposal. “Mr. Keyser’s doing a financial analysis and is making contacts with the people that Mr. Arizpe talked with as far as the lease, and we’re checking with our attorneys on information related to that. So we’ll have something for you at the next meeting based on our analysis.”

At the December meeting, Arizpe had estimated the synthetic fields would cost roughly $950,000 for both high schools in which the district would reach a break-even point in 12 to 13 years.

But the district’s preliminary numbers differ from the estimate, Ricker said in response to a question from Leach.

“… At this point in time on the analysis from the discussion at the meeting, we’re about $45,000 a year off over the 10-year lease or depending on how you look at it, a lump sum of over $350,000 that will cover that additional money,” Ricker said. “The thing that Mr. Keyser has to look at is the inflation as well as double checking all the numbers …”

After further discussion, in which Arizpe reminded the board that a Jan. 31 deadline exists for this proposal, Leach asked to have the item placed on the board’s Jan. 25 agenda.

Referring to the residents who had waited for the board to consider this item, Leach asked if it could be considered earlier in the meeting on Jan. 25.

Noting that the board’s agenda stipulates the placement of unfinished business, President Rita Diekemper said, “But I hope that they are concerned about buses. I hope that they’re concerned about block scheduling … I really hope that they don’t feel like to sit here and listen to all that was a waste of time …”

Leach said, “I didn’t say that.”

Diekemper said, “Because that’s really important, good information …”

Near the end of the meeting, board member Cindy Christopher said, “I just have a process comment. Anytime there’s an ‘A’ or an ‘I,’ it’s for information or action. If it’s an update, it is only that, and I — if somebody didn’t understand that then it’s unfortunate. However, I think we were just set up, and I don’t appreciate that as a board member at all.”

Leach said, “This is the one thing I don’t …”

Christopher said, “… I have the floor.”

Leach said, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Go ahead.”

Christopher said, “Please don’t interrupt …”

Leach told Christopher not to “get smart” with him.

“Go ahead. I said I apologize. Go ahead,” Leach added.

Christopher said, “Please don’t interrupt me. I’m not out of line.”

Leach said, “Am I?”

Diekemper said, “Just proceed with what you were going to say, OK?”

Christopher said, “I sat through this whole meeting. It is unfortunate that a board member thinks — and I am assuming this is what you’re thinking — that you have to bring a pack of people to vote on something. That there’s not enough respect amongst the seven of us to make a good, solid educational decision that we can do that without people who are in a peanut gallery waiting for us to take a vote. I have never in my seven years experienced that — ever. I have never had disrespect amongst other board members at that level. I’ve never had anybody have that happen — I’ve never had it happen. And I have had angry parents in here at other board meetings with other boards about other things, but never like that. That was sabotage, in my opinion. And I am …,”

Leach interjected, “Are you saying I sabotaged it?”

Christopher continued, “I am saying that it appears they were set up to come here to breathe down our necks and force us into a decision …”

Leach said, “Who do you think did that?”

Christopher said, “I don’t know.”

Leach said, “Well, then don’t blame me.”

Christopher said, “I’m not blaming you.”

Diekemper said, “I told you, Ken, I told you two days ago that this was not going to be an item that there was going to be action on. I told you that the numbers were not available and that no action would be taken.”

Leach read from the board book, which stated the information “was unavailable at the time of this printing. At the Jan. 12, 2006, Board of Education meeting, Mr. Steve Keyser, CFO, will present an analysis of Mehlville School District costs for the current grass fields.”

Leach asked, “How come he did not present it?”

Ricker said, “Because the information was not available or ready.”

Based on the Jan. 9 meeting, Leach contended the information was available.

Ricker replied, “It was not totally ready. That’s not true, and I will not ask administrative staff to bring information on important issues to the Board of Education when it isn’t finished.”

Leach asked, “… Then why didn’t we update that?”

Ricker said, “Because that’s what an update is.”

Leach said, “So we didn’t change that? We let the people believe if they read the agenda that he was going to give a presentation?”

Ricker said, “That’s because that was printed a week ago.”

Leach said, “And we had that meeting Monday. You had that time to do that between Monday and Thursday.”

Ricker said, “Not enough time, Mr. Leach …”

Leach said, “Between Monday and Thursday, that’s more than 72 hours …”

Ricker said, “… I’m sorry.”

Leach said, “That’s very disappointing … that these people sat and they were waiting for something like that, a presentation, and they didn’t get it. But I’m sure that they’ll let you know in their own way.”

Diekemper said, “Well, I’m sorry. It is disappointing, but I don’t know what they expected unless someone told them to expect something else. I don’t know. I’ve never — like I’m with Cindy. I’ve never had people do that so I couldn’t imagine why there would be such a large group of people …”

Leach later said that he suggested district officials call Arizpe if they needed more information. “… I apologize if I offended you, Cindy. But I am upset about that, too …”

Diekemper said, “And we’re pretty upset, too.”

Leach said, “Then we’re all upset.”