Work session scheduled next week to discuss Mehlville’s financial future

Ocello urges Proposition C supporters not to ‘lose heart’ over proposal’s defeat.

By EVAN YOUNG

A Mehlville Board of Education work session on the school district’s budget and financial outlook will take place next week.

The board is scheduled to meet at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 1, in the Mehlville Senior High School library, 3200 Lemay Ferry Road. Board members will recognize students, staff and community members for roughly 30 minutes before convening the work session, according to Superintendent Terry Noble.

The overarching topic of discussion next week, Noble said, most likely will be Mehlville’s next steps following the defeat of its 88-cent tax-rate increase proposal earlier this month.

More than 62 percent of district voters rejected that measure, Proposition C, in the Nov. 2 election. Prop C received 13,988 “yes” votes — 37.4 percent — and 23,369 “no” votes — 62.6 percent — according to official final election results.

Of the district’s 64,611 voters, 38,439 cast votes Nov. 2 for a total voter turnout of 59.5 percent.

Noble said the board next week likely will discuss how best to survey the community to find out why so many residents turned down Prop C.

“I’ve heard from a lot of people who are supportive of our schools but they couldn’t support Prop C,” Noble said. “So we’ve got to figure out a way to engage everyone. That’s going to be part of our discussion on Dec. 1, how we’re going to do that.”

Some board members said last week while they are disappointed with the election results, they are willing to listen to Prop C opponents.

“(The community) had a position they took, and this is what American democracy is supposed to be, people debating issues from both sides,” Board of Education Secretary Larry Felton said during the Nov. 18 board meeting. “It doesn’t mean we like what the outcome was, but I think we heard that you’ve asked us to be more responsible, a little more visible with what we do, and we’re going to try to do that …

“We’ve had a lot of criticism, but the interesting thing is in the last week, people who were really critical are now coming forward with some pretty decent ideas … As long as the outcome is children, we’re going to be OK.”

Board member Micheal Ocello urged Prop C supporters not to “lose heart” over its defeat.

“I don’t believe for a second that this community said: We don’t support public schools. I think what the community said is that at this particular moment in time, this amount of money is not something that we can get behind. Does that mean they’ll support the same amount of money in the future? I don’t know…,” Ocello said. “Now I think the point we’ve arrived at is: OK, so what is the common ground? What are the things that we can agree on? …

“This is not the end of the conversation; this is the beginning of the conversation … Sometimes it takes a couple times to sit down to have a discussion before you get the right answer.”

Board Vice President Venki Palamand said he believes the community will support public education “if you give them a good reason to and you ask for the right amount” of a tax-rate increase.

Board President Tom Diehl said he wished the district’s critics would’ve been more involved with its community engagement effort, COMPASS — Charting the Oakville-Mehlville Path to Advance Successful Schools.

“I think people need to stop using clichés and stereotypes to refer to public education,” Diehl said. “Our books are open. You’re welcome to come and look anytime. If you’ve got questions on how our money is spent, our staff will be glad to answer your questions. We have no secrets.”

Board member Drew Frauenhoffer congratulated Lindbergh Schools, which is celebrating the successful passage of Proposition L earlier this month.

The 65-cent tax-rate increase will shore up the district’s finances and will, as supporters have said, “keep Lindbergh Lindbergh.”

“I guess Mehlville’s going to remain Mehlville,” Frauenhoffer said, “which unfortunately I’m not happy with that.”

The two school districts pursued tax-rate increases for “totally different reasons,” he said.

While Lindbergh wanted to maintain its programs and services and avoid additional cuts, Mehlville’s Prop C “was really about taking a leap forward as a district,” Frauenhoffer said. “As somebody who grew up in this district, who has kids in this district, we’re at the same place we were 25 years ago when I graduated it seems like, and we just can’t stay that way.”

The board next week also is expected to take another look at the district’s contingency plan, which contains roughly $7 million in budget items that could be cut in the event of shortfalls.

The school board earlier this year asked district officials to craft the plan after Chief Financial Officer Noel Knobloch predicted that, because of projected stagnant local revenues and potentially millions of dollars in state funding cuts, Mehlville would deplete its operating reserves by 2013.

Among the cost savings in the plan that officials say would be “least painful”: $75,000 by eliminating extra duty for the district’s resource officers; $30,000 by reducing local mileage reimbursement to 25 cents per mile from the Internal Revenue Service’s 2010 standard rate of 50 cents per mile; and $30,000 by centralizing the gifted program.

Among the cuts and reductions that would most impact instruction: $2,297,000 by eliminating free bus service; $1,005,000 by eliminating 30 classified staff positions; $900,000 by eliminating 20 certified staff positions; and $240,000 by eliminating two administrative positions.

No specific positions are identified in the plan, and some of those personnel cuts could be achieved by moving class sizes to state maximums through attrition, officials have said.

Members of the district’s Finance Committee told the board in July they believe Mehlville should maintain a 15-percent operating reserve while not allowing those reserve levels to fall below 10 percent of expenditures.

In an interview shortly after the Nov. 2 election, now-former board member Karl Frank Jr. said that besides funding the roughly $106 million first phase of COMPASS proposals, Prop C would’ve allowed Mehlville to “get through this rough economy” without making cuts.

“That’s why it was designed the way it was designed,” Frank said. “All the capital expenditures wouldn’t have happened all at once, so all of the funds would’ve been there to help us weather the storm as we needed.”

Frauenhoffer, however, contended at last week’s board meeting that Prop C was “about investing in the future.”

“This contingency planning is totally separate,” he said. “So when people ask: What are we going to cut if this doesn’t pass? That wasn’t the focus of Prop C. Again, it was taking that leap forward so that Mehlville could become more like Lindbergh and less like Mehlville was in the past.”

Both viewpoints are true, Noble said Friday. While the overall goal of Prop C was to move Mehlville forward, it was “understood” by the board that the measure could help stabilize the district’s budget, he said.

“Because it was going to take up to four years to implement everything if that levy had been approved, there would be some of that levy that could’ve been used to stabilize our budget until it would be dedicated to either the new buildings or new programs or new staffing,” the superintendent said.

Asked why that aspect of Prop C wasn’t promoted during the campaign, Noble said, “Some people would say it would be difficult for the district to ask voters to support a tax increase for a projected shortfall. It’s coming, but it’s not here yet to the extent that we’re anticipating.”

He added, “The conventional wisdom — and I’m not going to say whose conventional wisdom — that came out of the campaign was to not use scare tactics and to not try to ask voters to make up for a presumed, coming budget shortfall.”