October 19, 2005 - By MIKE ANTHONY
A 50- or 75-cent operational tax-rate increase would stabilize the Mehlville School District's budget, but provide little or no funding for a revised Comprehensive School Improvement Plan, Board of Education members were told last week.
The district's Long Range Planning Committee presented the revised Comprehensive School Improvement Plan, or CSIP, to the Board of Education during an Oct. 13 meeting at Wohlwend Elementary School.
The Long Range Planning Committee was established last fall to propose revisions to the CSIP for the Board of Education to consider. The 25-member panel is comprised of district employees, a retired teacher, students and parents. Nearly 300 community volunteers who served on 14 "action teams'' assisted the committee in formulating its recommendations.
The plan encompasses four areas — academic achievement, technology, facilities and finance — and the committee recommended a 50-cent or 75-cent operational tax-rate increase to purchase textbooks, replace buses, lower class sizes, retain staff and improve technology.
A 50-cent tax-rate increase, if approved by voters, would generate roughly $7.5 million. As proposed, the 50 cents would be used as follows: 5 cents for textbooks, 4.2 cents for lower class sizes, 2 cents for bus replacement, 15 cents to attract and retain high-quality staff, 17.2 cents to replace lost Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corp. revenue from the 2006 to 2009 school years and 6.6 cents for inflation.
Kay Cappos, a fifth-grade teacher at Blades Elementary, discussed the tax-rate increase options. She is a member of the Long Range Planning Committee and also served on the Finance Action Team.
The plan's finance strategy has eight result statements, including, "Propose/submit a well-defined tax levy increase."
Regarding that statement, Cappos said of the tax-rate increase options, "... This just really stabilizes the current budget and will reinstate some of the things that we've lost the last couple of years. Having been on both of the committees as things were presented, when I'm sitting at the Long Range Planning and hearing what all of the things that you've heard mentioned before this, I know from being on finance that there isn't money even for what we might term as some of the basics. And here I hear these committees have come up with these wonderful things that are realities in many other school districts and yet I know that we're lacking in things that haven't even been thought of because it's just assumed we have all those.
"And then when I'm sitting on the Finance Committee, I know what the Long Range Planning Committee has heard and I know that when we present these two levy ideas that we had, they barely touch the things that you've heard presented here, that I hope you were thinking these are things that the kids of the Mehlville School District deserve ... We didn't do this just on our own. We had surveys that helped us make the decisions that we did ...,'' she said, citing a telephone survey conducted last spring of district registered voters and parent and staff surveys.
"... The Finance Committee has met several times since school has started and we were given the charge of coming up with some tax-levy ideas, and we really — we decided we'd do 50 cents because the one survey said that that's what the voters would support. So we thought that was a good place to start,'' Cappos said.
She later said, "One thing that we thought: We have got to put more money into textbooks and I can really speak about that as a elementary teacher. I was sitting in the back trying to remember when is the last time we got a new textbook and I wasn't sure, but I know it doesn't have 2000-something in it. I know it's from the 1990s ... At this point, there's not science books. The communication arts is funded mainly by the teachers and sometimes by the parent groups. And we need more textbook money ...
"Lower class size would mean hiring more teachers. The amount that we quoted here would hire 14 more teachers. As you probably know, in the last two years we've reduced our staff by approximately 50 teachers. So that doesn't even get us back to where we were before we made those cuts,'' she said.
Regarding the 15 cents to attract and retain high-quality staff, she said, "This means staff in all areas. We value every employee of the Mehlville School District. Just to give you an idea of that figure: With the teaching staff, it takes about $1.6 million just to meet steps and channels. Steps are for when teachers have an extra year of experience. Channels are when they've taken their time and money and completed more education. So, of course, they bring more to the classroom. So that's something that we really want to value and encourage. And that's how we do it, through salaries. So I would hate to lose that. So this would amount to steps and channels, which is what most people think we should have and a 1 percent raise — just to let you know where I got that figure.
"I will tell you at this time, our base — beginning salary — of the 24 districts (in St. Louis County), we are No. 22. We are $2,000 below the base. At the top end, we raise up to No. 19 out of 24, and we're $6,000 below the median, to give you perspective,'' Cappos continued. "Of course, that's a moving target as well. Most districts give between 2 and 5 percent raises every year, so when you think if we would just add $2,000, they're all going to jump ahead a little bit ...''
The school board voted unanimously in May 2004 to reduce voluntary transfer student enrollment by 15 percent annually beginning with the 2005-2006 school year, accepting a recommendation made by a board-appointed committee, the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corp. Committee.
Regarding the 17.2 cents to replace the lost VICC revenue, Cappos said, "Our district has become very dependent upon that money, and if we're going to phase out, we need to find that money some place else. So that's part of what that is.''
She said, "So when we started with the 50 cents, we thought: 'Oh great. There's so much that we can get and then you can see, in reality, it's not all that much. So then we decided we would try 75 cents.''
A 75-cent tax-rate increase, if approved, would generate an estimated $11.2 million. As proposed, the 75 cents would be used as follows: 5 cents for textbooks, 4.8 cents for lower class sizes, 4 cents for bus replacement, 26.6 cents to attract and retain high quality staff, 17.2 cents to replace lost VICC revenue from the 2006 to 2009 school years, 6.6 cents for inflation, 7.5 cents for technology replacement and technical support staff and 3.3 cents for instructional supplies.
Regarding the 7.5 cents for technology, Cappos said, "Then we decided to add to that technology because there's no sense having all this technology if we're not going to maintain it. Keep it up to date. Replace it as it needs to be replaced. Most of that figure ($1.125 million) would go into a replacement cycle and then a smaller portion of it would go into getting more staff.''
Referring to the 3.3 cents for instructional materials, she said, "In the last three years we've lost a million dollars that we apply toward instructional materials. In my building, we had parents donate copy paper. We've had our PTAs and Mothers' Club buy construction paper. Otherwise, we would have no construction paper in our building at all. And there's many other supplies besides that ... I'm not saying that this can't be changed. We realize that this is just a suggestion. It was very difficult for us to come up with the numbers, and I don't think we felt like they had to definitely stick there forever. It's just our suggestions.''
Regarding an additional 11.6 cents to attract and retain high-quality staff, she said, "Just doing steps and channels and the 1 percent raise, we didn't think that was really enough for our staff, and I have more figures, of course, about the teaching staff, but whatever our teaching staff gets for a raise, our classified gets as well. And we really value them and think that they deserve those raises, too. So we put some more money into that.
"Then we did a little more to lower class size,'' she said, referring to an additional 0.6 cents, which would generate $90,000 annually. "This would now give us 16 new teachers with the 14 we had before, which would be one teacher per building. So, again, it helps, but one per building is not too much ...''