August 28, 2013 - The Mehlville Board of Education voted 5-2 last week to authorize spending up to $76,000 on transportation for Riverview Gardens students attending Mehlville who want to participate in after-school activities.
State law requires that the Riverview Gardens School District provide transportation to school for students who want to leave the unaccredited district, but does not require them to pay for buses after school so the children can participate in extracurricular activities.
The board will pay for the buses and transportation from roughly $1.5 million in payments Riverview Gardens owes the district for its 215 students who are now attending Mehlville.
"We're talking about spending potentially $76,000 of what should manifest as $1.5 million-plus coming our way, just so the community understands that," Superintendent Eric Knost said at the Aug. 22 board meeting. "It is calculated based on money we believe is coming and we believe, to an extent, is protected by the state of Missouri."
Riverview Gardens has reserves of $30 million, or 50 percent, a percentage of reserves more than twice as high as Mehlville, a district twice its size. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, or DESE, has said that if an unaccredited school district fails to make monthly payments to accredited school districts for its students for two months in a row, DESE will withhold the unaccredited district's state aid to make the payments.
Riverview should make its first payment to Mehlville within 10 days after receiving its September state aid payment, around Sept. 20. Each of its monthly payments will total more than $100,000, so even if Riverview only made one payment for the entire year to Mehlville the cost for after-school bus service would be covered, board member Larry Felton noted.
Board President Mark Stoner, who voted for the plan, said he was torn over whether spending the money on after-school buses was the best move on the part of Mehlville taxpayers, but he believes it is best for students and will increase their engagement in school, which is a priority of the board.
"I struggled with it, but I think it's the right thing to do," Stoner said. "I think it's unfortunate that Riverview Gardens hasn't stepped up to deal with this situation, and I think it really should be their responsibility, but once again — we're a leader in the community."
Knost recommended a plan that would run two bus routes daily. The buses will take students to their schools in Riverview Gardens, not to their door.
The district's 10 elementary schools are not included in the plans for now, but at the administration's discretion, funds could be used to send a student home from an elementary school by taxi if needed.
"I know I would hate to find out that we've got grade-schoolers who need tutoring services and are being denied because they can't catch an activities bus," board member Kathleen Eardley said.
Rather than ratifying Knost's more specific plan, the board agreed to spend up to $76,000 on transportation options of the administration's choosing, depending on demand and ages of the children who want the transportation.
Some Riverview Gardens students who applied to attend Mehlville decided not to attend after they learned their district would not pay for activities buses. Some of the activities Riverview students are participating in at Mehlville include sports, clubs and possibly tutoring, and Knost estimated that perhaps 15 students might use the service every night.
As of now, Riverview parents are coming to Mehlville to pick their children up from sports practices after school, Knost noted.
"They're our kids. There may be people that disagree with the process that made them our kids, but for educators to say we're not going to treat them the same because technically we don't have to?" he said. "To me it's just, if we claim we're student-centered, then we're student-centered and the mission's the same for all students that are under our guidance."
Since the district will use its own bus drivers and buses for the transportation, the plans can easily be changed if the funding fails to arrive as promised.
Board Vice President Lori Trakas and board Secretary Rich Franz voted against the measure, with Franz saying that the payments from Riverview Gardens are not guaranteed to arrive and, if they do not, the state and ultimately taxpayers will be making the payments.
"A comment was made earlier that it would be a shame for any of the Riverview Gardens kids to miss an opportunity if we didn't provide transportation. This school district and this community have gone above and beyond, over anything anyone can expect them to do for the Riverview Gardens kids ... and we're glad to have them here," Franz said. "But to suggest that somehow we would be responsible for a missed opportunity? The failure here is the failure of the Riverview Gardens School District, their school board and their community. It's not at the feet of Mehlville."