Updated: Mehlville board to decide today whether to seek 94-cent tax hike

Originally Published on: 2010-08-18

Idea people will only vote for something under 50 cents ‘a lot of crap,’ Diehl says.

By Evan Young
Staff Reporter
news3@callnewspapers.com

The Mehlville Board of Education is scheduled to decide today — Aug. 19 — whether to place up to a 94-cent tax-rate increase measure on the Nov. 2 election ballot that would fund more than $107 million in proposals outlined in the school district’s improvement plan.

The school board is scheduled to meet at 7 p.m. today in the Mehlville Senior High School Library, 3200 Lemay Ferry Road. On the table is a proposal to fund recommendations compiled during the district’s community-engagement effort, COMPASS II — Charting the Oakville-Mehlville Path to Advance Successful Schools.

The first phase of the COMPASS II plan contains more than $107 million in proposals designed to make Mehlville a high-performing school district. Those include roughly $98 million in capital recommendations — such as the construction of a new Margaret Buerkle Middle School — and roughly $9 million in operational recommendations — such as funding for all-day kindergarten.

A 94-cent tax-rate increase is needed to fund all of the first phase COMPASS II recommendations. That breaks down to a 54-cent increase to fund all operating recommendations and a 40-cent increase to fund all capital recommendations. The COMPASS II recommendations were crafted during six community-engagement sessions that drew more than 1,200 participants. At the final community-engagement session in May, nearly 400 participants overwhelmingly recommended the board pursue the entire 94-cent tax-rate increase.

Board members discussed at length during their annual retreat last Saturday whether to seek the full 94-cent in-crease this November — and whether reducing that amount would help or harm the chance of a referendum succeeding. Superintendent Terry Noble said the board could put two COMPASS II recommendations on hold for future phases — elementary school foreign language and middle school eight-period days — and reduce the proposed tax-rate increase to 88 cents.

“Those are the only two line items I think we can take off and still be moving forward,” Noble said.

Board member Drew Frauenhoffer asked, “Do we try to go for everything now that we know we need, or do we take a risk-adverse approach and say: I’d rather have some money now to at least get things started?”

Dan Burns of communications firm UNICOM•ARC, with which the district has partnered throughout COMPASS II, told the board it shouldn’t think in terms of how many more “yes” votes it would receive if it reduced the 94 cents significantly.

“My sense is that’s not the correct question,” he said. “My sense is the question is: Will reducing the amount peel off ‘yes’ votes from what is your strongest ‘yes’ vote base? In my view, with a significant reduction of the amount, you begin to peel off the ‘yes’ votes from your support base.”

Burns referenced a recent telephone survey of the community conducted by UNICOM•ARC that stated 51 percent of respondents would support a 94-cent tax-rate increase. He said the proposed referendum received strong support from parents with children under the age of 18 in their household.

“What this says is you’ve got to do the right thing in terms of getting your parents to the polls,” he said. “And a good, aggressive program that gets parents to the polls I think you’ve got a really good shot.”

Board Vice President Venki Palamand suggested that if the board sought a 47-cent tax-rate increase — half of 94 cents — it could still generate $75 million for capital projects by dedicating 30 cents of that levy to capital expenses.

President Tom Diehl said, “But what would you cut out of the capital (recommendations) to get it down to $75 million?”

“That’s something we would all have to decide,” Palamand said.

“… So which age group do we lose when we cut 20 some-odd million dollars out of it?” Diehl said.

“We ask for the 94 (cents), the 88 (cents) and we lose, our decision becomes easy because we cut everything out,” Palamand said. “So my concern is do we go for essentially all of it …”

Board member Karl Frank Jr. interjected, “Did you not hear what (Burns) said about reducing (the amount) does not get you ‘yes’ votes? Do you not believe him?”

Palamand said, “You’re trying to tell me that a parent will not vote ‘yes’ because the amount’s not large enough of a tax increase? Is that what you’re saying?”

Diehl said, “If you have a child that’s 3 years old, and you’re not getting all-day kindergarten out of it because we’re cutting back to try and appease the people who aren’t going to vote for us, then they don’t have a reason to get out and vote ‘yes’ …

“When you start cutting out to try and meet this mythical idea that people will only vote for something under 50 cents — which is a lot of crap — you wind up giving the people who want to support us no reason to support us. And we’ve got a program here that’s been proposed and discussed for going on four years now and refined. The survey shows that there is support for it and the survey shows that if we do an effective education effort, we’re gonna win this.

“What if we go for 47 cents?” Diehl continued. “Oh, we passed 47 cents, but we can’t do anything here. So, what’s the benefit? You can’t come back and say: Hey, we passed 47 cents, can you give us another 40 cents so that we can do what we actually need to do?”

Palamand said later, “Well, what about reverse logic? Why don’t we try for $1.30? Do we get more people enthusiastic about it … just rationally thinking?”

“I think it passes with flying colors,” Frank said. “I think it really does get more ‘yes’ votes. I’m not just saying that. I mean, I think there’s legitimate reason to think that.”

Palamand said, “Just from a point of view that with the economy the way it is …”

Frauenhoffer interjected, “That drives me nuts — ‘the economy the way it is’ … Everybody keeps going to that as if it’s going to be that way 20 years down the road or even five years down the road. We are making decisions that are long-term decisions. And just because, yes, it’s going to be a challenge to get votes, I’m thinking long-term about what’s in the best interest for my school district, where I live, where my kids hopefully will move back to …”

Board member Micheal Ocello said, “… While it’s great for us to think that way, and that is our job, I agree with that — that we should be thinking long-term — we also have to question the people who are going to come to the polls … they may not be. And if we’re that disconnected with our community, we could potentially set ourselves up for failure.”

Board Secretary Larry Felton said, “I think we need to move from looking at the dark cloud and maybe look at the silver lining. Here’s an opportunity to do some education. Our job is to decide is this a reasonable representation of financing that would improve the ability of this school district to educate children? If we believe that, do we think it has a reasonable chance? Do we think there’s a reasonable opportunity for people to lead this effort?

“If you believe that, then I think our job is to put this on the ballot and let’s find out if there are people because all we’re risking is political suicide. How difficult can this be? This issue is: this is a great time to find out what our parent leadership is, what the passion is on this …”

But Palamand contended there would be a “real cost to losing” if a 94-cent increase did not pass in November. He said some Mehlville teachers who campaigned for Proposition A, a 97-cent tax-rate increase that was overwhelmingly defeated at the polls in 2006, have told him they wouldn’t canvass for a referendum this November.

“After the horrible experience with Prop A, they said, ‘We’re done here. We’re not canvassing.’ So there’s a lasting negative impression from what happened with Prop A — and I know that’s not anybody’s fault in here — but there’s a cost to that. If we appear … to be out of touch with the community and they don’t think …”

Ocello interjected, “But leaders do the things that other people don’t want to do. And that’s really the point. We’re supposed to be the leadership group that helps move this district forward … And there are going to be people in every building who are going to go: ‘Well I’m not gonna do it.’ Or there are going to be the naysayers that say: ‘Heck no, we’re not going to vote for this stuff with the economy.’

“But we’ve got to be the ones to inspire people to educate people to get people to follow us,” Ocello continued. “And if we can’t do that, we’re really not leaders. Because that’s what leaders do. They make those hard decisions. They ask people to see things the way that they can be.”

Felton said, “If this is done right, we’re going to have a much more educated community. They’re going to be better patrons. If they support us, they’ll come out and they’ll knock on doors. If they don’t agree with us, they’ll probably be able to articulate their differences a lot better and be a lot more constructive. And maybe we can work from there. There’s a terrible void of information out in this community.”

But board member Erin Weber said she shared Palamand’s concerns.

“I know I haven’t said too much, but I feel the same way as Venki feels right now … Obviously everybody in here has the district’s best interests in mind. I’m just trying to be realistic,” she said.

“I don’t want to get caught up in groupthink. I just feel like personally it’s going to be hard for me to vote for 94 cents at the polls for myself and my family. That’s a reality. So I feel like I have to listen to that part of myself, that I represent the people around me.

“I’m invested in this district, obviously, and I have the best interests of this district in mind. But when it comes down to finances, that’s another story.”

Weber cited the board’s unanimous vote in March to renew Noble’s contract and offer him a 24-percent raise in salary. The superintendent recently relinquished that agreement after the UNICOM•ARC community survey found roughly 82 percent of respondents said they’d be less likely to support a 94-cent tax referendum knowing he was offered the pay increase.

“I just feel like as far as we’ve come, we still can’t ignore the fact that we pissed a whole bunch of people off — a lot,” Weber said. “And even though Terry has done the right thing and tried to change that and make it better for us, I don’t think we can ignore how many people we’ve angered.

“And they’re going to show up just to vote because they’re angry.”

At the end of the retreat, Weber said even though she had concerns about the amount of the referendum, she would “get out of the way and let the community decide.”

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