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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Call Newspapers Serve up the Year's Most Misguided Quotes

Plenty of candidates for 2010 edition of Most Misguided Quotes of the Year

December 29, 2010 - Former Call staffer Burke Wasson a few years back began selecting gems uttered by elected officials and others throughout the course of a year and called them the Most Misguided Quotes of the Year.

The Most Misguided Quotes of the Year column now has become a Call tradition in which we chronicle the most misguided, misinformed and sometimes just downright asinine statements of the year. So without further ado, we offer the Most Misguided

Quotes of 2010.

The annual retreat conducted by the Mehlville Board of Education typically is a raucous affair and this year's gathering was no exception, offering a treasure trove of candidates for inclusion in this year's column.

We'll offer just cream of the crop of the board's discussion in August of whether to seek a 94-cent tax-rate increase in the November election — and whether reducing that amount would help or harm the chance of a referendum succeeding.

Board President Tom Diehl said, "... 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 ...''

Board Vice President Venki 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," then-board member Karl Frank Jr. 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."

Despite pleas to place a reasonable measure before voters in November, six members of the Mehlville school board — Palamand was absent — voted to place an 88-cent tax-rate increase called Proposition C on the Nov. 2 ballot. With many eerie parallels

to Mehlville's failed 97-cent taxrate increase in 2006, voters overwhelmingly rejected the 88-cent taxrate increase.

Less than a week after the defeat of Prop C, Frank announced his intent to resign from the school board at its Nov. 18 meeting.

Frank, who was elected to the board in 2005, initially said he decided to step down to devote more time to his family and his computer consulting business, but also because of a "disconnect" between the direction he and the community believe the district should go.

But in an e-mail to board members and Superintendent Terry Noble on Nov. 15, Frank gave another reason: He doesn't want to serve on a school board that doesn't have Noble as its superintendent.

Frank wrote that he is "sick and ashamed of the majority of the Mehlville community." 

"I do not want to serve it and I do not want to be elected by it," he wrote. "Quite frankly, the fact that I was ever elected at all by this community makes me wonder what in the world people are thinking."

He added, "After the failure of Proposition C, I was strongly encouraged as a board member to take responsibility for its loss. For years board members have been pointing fingers at each other and others for (failed) ballot initiatives. Screw that. I am not taking responsibility for something I have dedicated my life to for no pay and no glory ...''

Frank apparently knew something the public did not as Noble announced Dec. 1 he would retire at the end of the current school year — another eerie parallel to the district's failed 2006 tax-rate increase when then-Superintendent Tim Ricker announced his retirement two days after voters rejected Proposition A.

Another event providing much fodder for this column was a 90-minute forum in which Democratic County Executive Charlie Dooley and Republican challenger Bill Corrigan debated such issues as a St. Louis city-county merger, trash districts and crime. At one point during the forum, Dooley went after Corrigan for frequently referencing and holding up his economic development, tax reform and ethics plans when answering questions.

"Let's be clear. Leadership means making difficult decisions in difficult times ... not holding up a piece of paper, talking about what you think you have on paper, which you have absolutely nothing," Dooley said. "If you had something on paper that was meaningful, you'd be a swami.

"We're talking about real issues that impact people's lives. And it's insulting that every time you speak, you've got some four-point plan, six-point plan, eight-point plan that's not real, it's a fabrication in your own mind."

"I've been called a lot of things in life," Corrigan quipped in response, "but never a swami before.''

Given that exchange, it's astonishing Corrigan lost to Dooley in the November election.

Corrigan has handled his defeat much better than former Sunset Hills Mayor Mike Svoboda, who lost his re-election bid in April to Bill Nolan. Given his post-election comments critical of Nolan, Svoboda apparently was a little bitter over his defeat.

"I don't have any hopes for him. I had hopes for me," Svoboda told the Call after the election. "He was wrong about everything he was talking about, but he fooled the people and there's been a change. But that happens in politics ...''

We believe Nolan was the right choice for Sunset Hills and as mayor he has done much to restore the lack of transparency that existed under Svoboda's administration. Just consider what was done in 2008 when the newly elected Mayor Svoboda tapped Patricia Fribis to fill his vacant Ward 4 aldermanic seat. Her appointment was approved unanimously during a special meeting in May 2008.

"What he (Svoboda) proposed we do is meet over at O'Leary's (Restaurant & Bar)," Fribis told the Call earlier this year of her pre-appointment meeting with the board. "All the current aldermen and himself then met me. We talked for a couple of hours. They asked me any question they wanted to. It was a very comfortable situation."

And consider Ward 1 Alderman Frank Hardy's misguided interpretation of the Sunshine Law, "As long as there's no votes taken, you can meet socially. We were just meeting someone in another part of the city ... We didn't take any votes. It was simply a social gathering ... no different than me meeting a neighbor."

Yet Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster's Web site notes that a public meeting is any meeting of a public governmental body where public business is discussed, decided or public policy is formulated.

We believe those on the public payroll have an obligation to treat residents with respect. But that's not what happened last summer when resident Martha Duchild questioned Crestwood City Attorney Rob Golterman of Lewis, Rice & Fingersh about the political activity section of the city's civil service rules.

Mrs. Duchild, who was on the Civil Service Board when it undertook a review of the rules in 2006 and 2007, said while Golterman now believes the civil service rules' political activity section could infringe upon an employee's constitutional rights as a private citizen, he did not have a problem with it during the document's review.

"Fortunately, Mrs. Duchild, I don't stop learning, OK?" Golterman replied. "Fortunately I'm open to enhancing my legal abilities. And fortunately I continue to educate myself in the area of municipal law and constitutional law, and I don't close my mind off. So occasionally I become smarter and more educated, and that may have been the case here. And if the board wants me to provide an explanation, I'd be happy to do so. Whether you think I owe the board an explanation, I really don't care."

Finally, no Most Misguided Quotes of the Year column would be complete without a comment from Crestwood Mayor Roy Robinson. While Roy has been on his best behavior this year, he did make one comment that we couldn't ignore. During a discussion about Pulaski Bank's desire to negotiate a new development agreement for a retail center it owns, Roy was told that aldermen opposed to a new pact were not going to change their position.

"Well, can't pistol-whip people I guess," Roy responded. We don't disagree with Roy's assertion that you can't pistol-whip people. But until now we've never heard an elected official work the words "pistol-whip'' into the official proceedings of a governmental body. For that reason alone, Roy's comment merits inclusion in the 2010 edition of the Most Misguided Quotes of the Year.

MFPD boasts lowest blended tax rate from '06 to '10

Board plans to keep tax rate lowest in county, Hilmer says

December 29, 2010 - Of the 24 fire protection districts in St. Louis County, the Mehlville Fire Protection District has had the lowest blended tax rate from 2006 to 2010, according to MFPD Chief Financial Officer Brian Bond.

An analysis of blended tax rates for county fire protection districts performed by Bond also found Mehlville had the second lowest blended tax rate for 2005 — within 1.3 cents — and the district had the fourth lowest blended tax rate for 2004 — within 2.3 cents. Mehlville's blended tax rate for 2004 was 90.4 cents.

The blended tax rate is not assessed, but is a combination of four tax rates — residential property, commercial property, agricultural property and personal property.

Board of Directors Chairman Aaron Hilmer and board Treasurer Bonnie Stegman first took office in April 2005 after running a reform campaign in which they pledged to eliminate fiscal waste and roll back Proposition S, a 33-cent tax-rate increase approved in November 2004. At that time, the district's tax-rate ceiling was $1.22.

During a recent interview, Hilmer told the Call he was pleased with Bond's analysis, saying, "I think the numbers speak for themselves, but if one wanted to look into the numbers a little more, then the key number to look at is 2005. If you would add the 33 cents that the voters approved in November of '04 and the then-board had already begun to spend — they set a budget in December of '04 for '05, predicated on spending that 33 cents — and they had begun on that path.

"And then in April of '05 after Bonnie and I were elected, in August of that year we did not levy the 33 cents. So if that would have been levied, instead of being the second or third lowest, they'd have been the ninth or 10th lowest,'' he said. "And No. 2, while we were 1.3 cents in second place in 2005, we'd really only been in office for less than five months before we set that rate. We really didn't have a chance to get in there and start our reforms. So if you'd given us another month, we'd have been No. 1 for 2005.''

In an effort to make permanent what the board had been doing on a voluntary basis since it set the the district's tax rate in August 2005, board members voted in January 2009 to place Proposition 1 and Proposition 2 on the ballot that April. Proposition 1 asked whether the district's general-fund tax-rate ceiling should be permanently reduced by 36 cents per $100 of assessed valuation while Proposition 2 asked whether the district's pension-fund tax-rate ceiling should be permanently reduced by 4 cents per $100.

A previous effort to place a measure before voters to reduce the district's general fund tax-rate-ceiling was removed from the ballot in February 2007 after a legal challenge from Dennis Skelton of Concord, who later ran unsuccessfully as a write-in candidate for the Board of Directors.

A legal challenge by Skelton to remove Proposition 1 and Proposition 2 from the April 2009 ballot was unsuccessful.

District voters overwhelmingly approved the two propositions, resulting in the district not being able to collect more than $10 million in tax revenue annually.

"... We're sitting here today talking about how the Mehlville Fire Protection District the last five years has had the lowest tax rate of any fire district in St. Louis County and I'm not using that as an excuse to ask you for more money. In fact, we're saying we're really proud of that,'' Hilmer said. "In fact, we were so proud of how we were able to bring spending under control and increase your services that in April of '09 voters actually took 40 cents off what we could levy — a $10 million a year tax decrease — forever. And that is tremendous.

"So when people see that Mehlville's tax rate is the lowest in the county, it will forever be the lowest in the county unless voters approve any more increases, and that's something comforting. Certainly the current board will never have any plans to put a tax increase on the ballot.''

Mehlville's blended tax rates, by year, are:

• 2004 — 90.4 cents.

• 2005 — 86.5 cents.

• 2006 — 70.1 cents.

• 2007 — 60.9 cents.

• 2008 — 56.3 cents.

• 2009 — 59.2 cents.

• 2010 — 67.1 cents.

In his analysis, Bond found the gap between Mehlville's blended tax rate and the average blended tax rate for all county fire districts has steadily increased over the past seven years — the difference was 42.4 cents below the average in 2004 and increased to 70.2 cents below the average for 2010.

"While other districts have gone for tax increases and bond increases, we've lowered our tax rate. Now we can hold ours steady and what you can see is our tax rate is half of the county average tax rate. And I think that's pretty telling that we've been able to hold it steady,'' Hilmer said.

"If somebody wanted to look deeper into those numbers, what have we done with the money that we have brought in? And I think that's what really separates us from not only other fire districts, but school districts or any government entity in St. Louis County — the tremendous improvements we've had in service and infrastructure we've done in the last five years while maintaining the lowest tax rate. I would challenge anybody in St. Louis County to show me a government agency that's done it, but not just in St. Louis County, the state of Missouri or the United States, to show us someone who's done the kind of improvements we have while we've cut our tax rate in half.''

Mehlville's tax revenue has gradually decreased from roughly $16.79 million in 2004 to $15.75 million in 2010 — a 6.2-percent decrease over the 2004 revenue, according to Bond. During that same period, Bond calculated that the average tax revenue of all county fire districts has increased to roughly $7.09 million in 2010 from about $5.86 million in 2004 — a 21-percent increase over 2004 revenue.

Specifically citing the fact that lower interest rates have impacted the district's ability to earn money off its reserves, Hilmer said, "We have accomplished a lot with basically flat revenue and people will wonder: How have you done that? Because we went in there and made tough structural reforms. Reforms that made a lot of — I don't want to say a lot of people mad — a lot of employees mad, but those reforms we did, we were ahead of the curve. Work comp, health insurance, pension — all cutting-edge things that at the time in 2005 and 2006 were decried as Draconian cuts. But history has proved us correct in those and now taxpayers can reap the fruit of them.

"Look at the environment in which we accomplished them. This wasn't some Pollyannaish walk through the park. I mean we went through the toughest opposition possible be it through multiple lawsuits filed by the firefighters' union and still to this day you have a faction of employees out there who are hellbent on destroying the district and tearing it down. But I will say at this point there are so many employees who have bought into our system and they're seeing the fruit from it and so are the residents. So it's a real good collaborative effort going on now I believe.''

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Former Firefighter Files for MFPD Board Seat

Robinson files for third term as mayor of city of Crestwood.

Staff Reporter - Call Newspapers

December 22, 2010 - A former Mehlville Fire Protection District firefighter (Keith Floyd) filed last week to run for a seat on the Board of Directors that fired him.

Candidate filing opened Dec. 14 for the April 5 election. It will continue until Tuesday, Jan. 18.

Besides the MFPD board seat, seats on the Mehlville and Lindbergh boards of education are up for election in April.

Also up for election are the Crestwood mayoral seat and mayoral and aldermanic seats in Green Park as well as aldermanic seats in Sunset Hills.

Two candidates have filed for the MFPD board seat held by Chairman Aaron Hilmer since 2005. The seat carries a six-year term.

Michael Klund, 560 Lind Road, 63125, and Keith Floyd, 7120 Caddie Way Lane, 63129, filed Dec. 14.

Board members voted unanimously during a Sept. 17, 2009, closed session to fire (Keith) Floyd for "violation of district policy, including the district anti-harassment policy,'' according to Matt Hoffman, the district's legal counsel.

Floyd, who'd been a Mehlville firefighter since 1995, demanded the board conduct a hearing so he could appeal its decision.

The district said he was not entitled to one as an at-will employee.

Floyd brought the matter before St. Louis County Circuit Court, where a judge on Nov. 1 of this year said the board's decision to dismiss the firefighter without an appeal hearing was "an abuse of discretion."

The judge ordered the district to give Floyd a hearing. Hoffman said last week the district has informed Floyd's attorney the board agreed to conduct a hearing, but a date hasn't been set.

Klund in April 2009 filed a complaint with the Missouri Ethics Commission against the district and the board. He alleged taxpayer resources were used to promote board Treasurer Bonnie Stegman's re-election campaign and two tax-rate-decrease measures the board placed on that month's ballot.

Stegman, elected to a four-year term on the MFPD board in April 2005, was elected to a six-year term in April 2009.

The two tax-rate-decrease measures, called Proposition 1 and Proposition 2, were overwhelmingly approved by voters that month.

The Ethics Commission in June 2009 dismissed Klund's complaint, calling his allegations "unsubstantiated."

Five people have filed for three seats on the Mehlville Board of Education that are up for election.

Marea Kluth-Hoppe, 5315 Oaklawn Drive, 63128; John Roland, 3715 Pinon Pine Court, 63129; Deborah Langland, 2823 Spring Water Drive, 63129; Elaine Powers, 5123 Suson Oaks Court, 63128; and Rich Franz, 4937 Lockbriar Court, 63128, have filed for seats currently held by Drew Frauenhoffer and Erin Weber, as well as a vacant board seat formerly held by Karl Frank Jr.

All Mehlville school board seats carry three-year terms.

Frauenhoffer and Weber, elected in 2008, have said they do not intend to seek re-election.

Frank, who was elected in 2005, resigned Nov. 18.

Kluth-Hoppe served on the board from 2002 to 2005, when she was defeated in her bid for a second term by Frank.

She ran unsuccessfully for the board in 2008, as did Langland.

Langland and Kluth-Hoppe are the president and vice president, respectively, of the Mehlville-Oakville Foundation.

Franz is a founding member of the Mehlville Community Taxpayers Association, which campaigned this fall against the district's unsuccessful 88-cent tax-rate increase proposal, Proposition C.

Five people have filed for four seats on the Lindbergh Board of Education that are up for election.

Seats held by board Secretary Kathleen Kienstra, board Treasurer Mark Rudoff and member Don Bee that carry three-year terms will be up for election. Also up for election will be a seat vacated earlier this year by Janine Fabick that will carry a one-year term. Larry McIntosh currently is serving in the seat.

Kienstra; Bee; outgoing state Rep. Vicki Lorenz Englund, 4539 Valmeyer Drive, 63128; Joseph Sartorius, 10315 Grant Forest Lane, 63123; and Leslie Weiss, 10757 Roanna Lane, 63128, filed for the three seats that carry three-year terms.

Rudoff filed for the seat that carries a one-year term.

Englund was elected to serve the 85th District in 2008, but the Democratic lawmaker was defeated for re-election last month by Republican Cloria Brown.

Sartorious is a former Sappington Elementary School principal. He also was a candidate earlier this year for Fabick's board seat, to which McIntosh was appointed.

Weiss this fall co-chaired the committee that campaigned for Lindbergh's successful 65-cent tax-rate increase proposal, Proposition L.

Missouri law states no school-board election will take place in a district if the number of candidates who file is equal to the number of board seats to be filled by the election.

Looking at April 5 municipal races, Crestwood Mayor Roy Robinson on Dec. 14 filed for re-election and so far is unopposed in his bid for a third term.

The Crestwood mayoral seat carries a three-year term.

In Green Park, the mayoral seat held by Tony Konopka will be up for election. Also up for election will be aldermanic seats held by Tony Pousosa of Ward 1, Tim Thuston of Ward 2 and Joe Monteleone of Ward 3.

Konopka has filed for the mayoral seat.

Pousosa and Monteleone have filed for their respective board seats.

All of the Green Park seats carry two-year terms.

In Sunset Hills, aldermanic seats held by Dee Baebler of Ward 1, Scott Haggerty of Ward 2, Jan Hoffmann of Ward 3 and Pat Fribis of Ward 4 are up for election. The seats carry two-year terms.

The four incumbents all have filed for their respective board seats and so far are unopposed for re-election.

In Grantwood Village, seats on the Board of Trustees held by Building and Streets Commissioner Robert Bess, Village Clerk Rich Muraski and Communications Director Mike Jones are up for election.

All three were appointed earlier this year following the resignation of Trustees Glenn Biffignani, Mike Boone and Bob Prebil.

The seats carry two-year terms.

Filing for the Grantwood Village seats opened Tuesday — after the Call went to press.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Former Mehlville Superintendent Tim Ricker SUED for Alleged Concealment and Financial Mismanagement

UPDATED: District 113A Board Being Sued By School Board Candidates, Current Member
Two lawsuits were filed Friday in Cook County by the Center for Open Government at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law against former and current school board members.
By Amanda Luevano | December 17, 2010

Two lawsuits alleging concealment and financial mismanagement were filed Friday against former and current members of the Lemont-Bromberek Combined School District 113A.
Filed by the Center for Open Government at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, the lawsuits claim District 113A school board members "engaged or aided in illegal spending, and then took steps to conceal expenditures by draining funds legally appropriated for other purposes, all in violation of Illinois law," which allegedly resulted in the loss of $12 million in taxpayer money, the complaint said.
One lawsuit was filed on behalf of current school board member Janet Hughes, while the other was filed on behalf of Lemont residents Laura Reigle, Louis Emery and Duane Bradley. Reigle, Emery and Bradley filed candidate petitions Monday morning for the four open District 113A Board of Education seats in the April 5 consolidated election.
Listed as defendants in the lawsuit are: Superintendent Tim Ricker; Assistant Superintendent Mary Gricus; former Business Manager Robert Beckwith; current Board President Lisa Wright; current Board Vice President Kevin Doherty; current Board Members John Wood and Sue Murphy; and former Board Members David Leahy, Gwen O'Malley and Al Albrecht.
Also listed as defendants are Lloyds Illinois Inc., an insurance company, and Knutte Associates, an accounting firm responsible for the district's financial audits from 2007 to 2010. According to the complaint, defendants also include "other persons whose names are not known." However, current Board Secretary Andreas Taylor and Board Member Karen Siston were not named in the suit.
Wright said in an e-mail Saturday morning that she and other board members have yet to be served the lawsuit.
"As this involves litigation—and we have not yet seen or been served the actual suit—no one from the district has or will have a comment," she said.
Reigle declined to comment, directing all questions to her attorney, Clint Krislov, of Krislov and Associates, and Terrance Norton, director of the Center for Open Government.

Monday, December 13, 2010

County Property Values Drop, But Taxes Continue to Rise

By PAUL HAMPEL |  314-727-6234 | December 13, 2010 

Taxes are regarded as one of life's certainties. But in St. Louis County, one of them has proved more certain than others, even during bad economic times.

While revenue from income and sales taxes has wilted during the recession, many governmental entities in the county have remained flush because of a hardier source: property taxes.

On the property tax bills that are due at the end of this month, almost all county residents will owe more this year to school and fire districts, municipalities and other agencies.

The reason: Even as the value of St. Louis County's real property dropped by about $1 billion since 2007, most governmental entities were able to roll up their tax rates and bring in more money while remaining below their tax ceilings.

The result is that taxing entities in the county will collect an additional $67 million, or 4.6 percent, this year in real estate taxes over 2007, the year before the recession began.

For school districts, which account for more than 60 percent of the average tax bill, the increase over that period was about $60 million, or about 6.2 percent.

The largest percentage increase over that span was for fire districts, which will collect an additional $12.5 million, an increase of about 10 percent. Meanwhile, revenue for municipalities has grown 8.8 percent, or $4.1 million, over the last four years.

"Property taxes have proven to be a very dependable way to fund governmental growth," said Michael Podgursky, an economist with the University of Missouri-Columbia. "Income taxes are the most volatile, sales taxes next. But even as the bubble popped with the housing market, you see increases in St. Louis County in terms of (government) revenue."

Indeed, sales tax revenue in the county fell to $148 million this year from $167 million in 2007. Income tax collections are not broken down by county, but statewide they dropped to $6 billion this year from $6.4 billion in 2007.

Podgursky said the upward pressure on property taxes, especially in school districts, comes from rising salaries and pensions.

And over the last five years, county school districts have added 1,058 jobs, including teachers and nonteaching staff, according to the Cooperating School Districts. "On top of that, we're seeing sharp increases in health care costs and unfunded pension liabilities," said Podgursky, who often does research for the conservative Show-Me Institute. "So, by taking this labor-intensive approach, schools have created huge costs to the public sector."

Of the county's 23 school districts, only Bayless, Ferguson-Florissant, Lindbergh and Riverview Gardens have seen a decrease in property tax revenue since 2007.

The rest collected more property tax revenue over that span.


Some fire districts saw marked increases in revenue, such as Community (up 25.7 percent); Metro West (12.4 percent); Monarch (19.3 percent); Spanish Lake (15.8 percent); and West County EMS and Fire (11.1 percent).

Last year, the Community Fire Protection District staff signed a three-year contract that gave them 3 percent raises each year. Those raises followed a 10.5 percent increase in salaries over the course of the previous three years.

In 2008, Community district residents approved a 15-cent tax increase to fund firefighter pensions.

"A pension tax was something that we didn't get much sympathy for around here, because half the residents in this area don't have a pension themselves," said Chuck Coyne, chief of the district serving several north-central county municipalities. "But the voters passed it, and that helped us a lot because we had 60-year-old guys who could not afford to retire. And now we can bring in some younger guys."

In a few other fire districts, and four school districts, voters have approved tax increases or bond issues requiring tax hikes since 2007.

Inflation is another factor that affects tax rates. All taxing districts are allowed by state law to raise rates each year to produce enough revenue to match the inflation rate.

County Executive Charlie A. Dooley has long lamented a shoot-the-messenger tax mentality toward county government: Many residents blame the county for higher taxes simply because the county sends out the tax bills, and the checks are written to the county.

But the county's share of tax revenue has dropped by 10 percent, or $11.3 million, since 2007.
That's because while other taxing districts raised their tax rates to offset the drop in property values, the county lowered its rate. Last year, the County Council agreed to Dooley's request to cut the county's 55.8-cent property tax by 3.5 cents.

"It wasn't easy, don't get me wrong," Dooley said. "We had to tighten our belts, but taxpayers made a lot of sacrifices, as well. It only seemed fair that we should share in that sacrifice."
The county accomplished the cut, in part, by freezing all county wages the last two years. It plans to do so next year, as well.

School districts, on the other hand, took a different approach. Contracts in every district called for teacher raises every year since at least 2007, according to the Cooperating School Districts. And most teachers got annual raises long before that.

County school districts haven't avoided the pains of the recession entirely. State spending on the Missouri school funding formula has stagnated, while money for transportation and summer school has been slashed. In the process, some districts have cut teaching positions and asked others to accept smaller pay increases. And those cuts could deepen as the federal stimulus money that has supported state spending runs out.

But school districts have been able to soften the blow, largely due to their own ability to set property tax rates, The reason that school districts have avoided some of the pain of the recession can be traced directly back to the local school boards that set tax rates, said William T. Rebore, an expert on school finance at St. Louis University and former superintendent in the Valley Park and Francis Howell school districts.

He said school board members, many of whom have children enrolled in the districts, develop close relationships with teachers and staff that pay off at contract time.

"It's easy to take a stand against employee raises if you're a corporate executive in Detroit who does not have contact with the autoworkers," Rebore said. "But that's not the case at the school board level. You get to become friends. And that's just human nature, to be on friendly terms with the teacher who is teaching your kids; you don't want to have a negative relationship with them (teachers). And that attitude does benefit teachers at contract time."

One longtime school board member agrees with Rebore's analysis.

Mark Behlmann has been on the board of the Hazelwood School District for 14 years.
In April, the board approved a contract giving teachers and staff a 3 percent raise for the 2010-11 school year. That followed a 4 percent raise for Hazelwood teachers and staff last year.

"What Rebore said is very accurate," Behlmann said. "There is a very close-knit relationship between school board members and teachers; it's like family."
Phil Sutin of the Post-Dispatch staff contributed to this report.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

School Board Moves Ahead With Plans to Determine Why Voters Rejected Prop C

Keeping Frank's seat vacant a 'mistake,' Franz tells board.

December 08, 2010 - The Mehlville Board of Education last week moved ahead with plans to survey the community in the wake of the school district's unsuccessful 88-cent tax-rate increase proposal.

Nearly a month after more than 62 percent of Mehlville voters rejected that measure — Proposition C — the board on Dec. 1 authorized the communications department to team up with to promote an electronic survey as part of a follow-up effort to gauge the community's opinions on the tax-rate increase.

The district will use the e-mail address database to notify residents about the survey, Director of Communications Emily McFarland said. E-mails will be sent to roughly 40,000 addresses in the database and will cost the district about $400, she said.

In-house channels such as Mehlville's website, its own e-mail database and press releases also will be used — at no additional cost to the district — to encourage residents' participation, McFarland said.

Use of the district's own e-mail database will add another roughly 10,000 addresses, she said.

The board did not vote last week on the use of to publicize the survey, but none of the six board members objected to the expenditure.

However, a group of residents said it did take exception to the board's recent decision not to fill its vacant seventh seat, contending that, from a communications standpoint, it was the wrong move to make after voters turned down Prop C.

Concord resident Rich Franz addressed the board during a period for public comments. He spoke on the behalf of the Mehlville Community Taxpayers Association, a group that believes the board is out of touch with the community. The MCTA strongly opposed Prop C and campaigned against the ballot measure.

"I imagine from some of you we won't be getting Christmas cards," Franz told the board. "I appreciate that. I understand that. But I do want to let you know in that context that the Mehlville Community Taxpayers Association does consider itself a representative of the taxpayers of the district, and as such we consider ourselves team members with you folks working together to solve the problems in the district.

"Something we do feel has been neglected — or maybe I should say overlooked — is the role the taxpayers play in the success of the school district. Our faculty, staff, physical facilities — everything we have here — would not be here if it were not for the taxpayers who are willing to do their part.

"Unfortunately," Franz said, "we feel that they have not always received the recognition and support from this board, or from the school district in general, that they deserve."

The board's unanimous decision to leave the seat formerly held by Karl Frank Jr. — who resigned Nov. 18 — vacant until the April 5 election was a "mistake," Franz said.

Frank's board seat, along with those held by Drew Frauenhoffer and Erin Weber, are up for election in April.

The MCTA — through outgoing state Rep. Walt Bivins, R-Oakville — has asked Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster to provide an opinion on whether the board is violating state law by leaving Frank's seat vacant.

Franz said while he appreciated board members expressing their feelings at last month's meeting on Prop C's defeat, "at no point during anyone's comments did they say, or did they explain, that they understood that the taxpayers were an integral part of what was happening, and that the taxpayers did not support the direction that Prop C would've taken the district.

"So we're simply saying: Let's consider those folks who make the district work. Let's consider those folks out here in the audience who are responsible for paying the bills," he told the board. "They're the ones who pay the salaries. They're the ones that make everything possible. And they're the ones who deserve to be represented on the board. And they're the ones who could've had representation up until April by filling Mr. Frank's seat.

"I believe there are numerous people in this community who would've been willing to step forward to fill that position," Franz continued. "Former school board members, people who have served in other governmental bodies or jurisdictions who could've applied their experience and knowledge to what you folks are going to be dealing with. Unfortunately, you missed that opportunity."

He concluded, "Maybe it's not too late. Maybe that decision can be revisited."

Franz's remarks evoked a rebuttal from board member Micheal Ocello, who said he resented the idea the school board wasn't communicating or listening to district residents.

He noted Prop C was the product of several years' worth of community engagement through the district's COMPASS program — Charting the Oakville-Mehlville Path to Advance Successful Schools.

The proposed 88-cent tax-rate increase was billed as the vehicle to fund nearly $106 million worth of recommendations outlined in the COMPASS plan.

"I believe that there is no one on this board that has not taken into consideration the voters," Ocello said toward the end of last week's board meeting. "We spent four years in a community-engagement program. We listened to what people had to say, and we gave voters the opportunity to make a choice, and they did. And I mentioned this at the last meeting, the fact that they made a choice not to approve an 88-cent tax increase doesn't mean they don't support the district. It doesn't mean they don't want to see us be a good school district or to go where we all hope we can go.

"What we are doing is listening, and the people who came to the community engagement and our survey — who knows about the survey — but our survey said people had an interest," he added.

A survey conducted in July by public relations consultant UNICOM•ARC showed a 94-cent tax-rate increase proposal had the potential support of roughly 51 percent of district voters. The board later reduced that amount to 88 cents before voting to put Prop C on the Nov. 2 ballot.

"So all we did was give them a choice; that's what school boards are supposed to do," Ocello said. "We didn't raise taxes; we gave them a choice. So they gave us their answer and now, tonight, we're addressing some of those things. And tonight we said that we're going to do another survey to try and get a clearer understanding of what's going on.

"So I think it's a complete misinterpretation. I think it's a complete misstatement, an effort to portray us in a way that is just not the case," Ocello continued. "We have listened and, in fact, to my knowledge we have gone above and beyond what a lot of places do in order to hear what people have to say.

"Now for the past year we had monthly meetings inviting the entire community to come talk to us. We shared what we thought made sense and asked for their response. So I don't know how someone can legitimately say that's not listening to the voters. The fact that we thought that all the information said: 'Try this,' because that's what the information is telling us, doesn't mean we're at opposite ends and we're not listening."

He added, "That's not fair, and that's not accurate.

"We're all in this together ...," Ocello concluded. "We're not enemies here, we're neighbors. Cutting each other up doesn't help our kids.''