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Three candidates differ over most important issue facing Mehlville

The three candidates seeking two seats on the Mehlville Board of Education in the April 6 election differ over what they believe is the most important issue facing the district.

Tom Correnti, incumbent Rita Diekemper and Karl Frank Jr. are vying for seats currently held by Diekemper and Richard Huddleston, who did not file for re-election. The two seats carry three-year terms.

Tom Correnti
Asked to identify the most important issue, the candidates gave these responses:

• "Enhancement of our students' educational opportunities,'' Correnti said.

• "The most important issue facing the Mehlville School District is continuation of academic excellence in the face of impending state budget cuts. The district had its state funding reduced by more than $1 million last year. Next year's funding cuts are expected to be worse. We must plan very carefully and make smart business decisions so that these cuts do not jeopardize the Distinction in Performance status of the district,'' Diekemper said.

• "I would say that the single most important issue in this race is the hands-off approach the Mehlville Board of Education has taken over the last three years. It is the responsibility and the duty of the directors of the Board of Education to be as active and involved in every single issue that comes before them as possible and they should demand that the issues not brought before them are done so. This includes the good and the bad. Nearly 12,000 students are under the Board of Education's charge and it is the board's duty to lay their egos aside and do what is best for the children and for the taxpayers,'' Frank said.

Correnti, 49, 2133 Telford Drive, is a customer service analyst for the U.S. Postal Service. He and his wife, Mary Jane, have four children, one of whom attends a Mehlville school.

Rita Diekemper
Correnti, who is making his first bid for elective office, said he is running because he would like to "continue the success of the Mehlville School District."

He serves as vice chairman of the school board's Proposition P Oversight Committee and is a member of Concord Trinity United Methodist Church.

Diekemper, 43, owns Gardens of Grace, a garden design and installation company. She and her husband, Gregory, have three children who attend Mehlville schools.

Diekemper, who is seeking her second term on the school board, said she is running because "I want to bring to the board my unique and specific financial skills, as well as the experience I have gained from my past activities with the district ... Additionally, as a concerned parent, my decisions are made in the best interest of the community and will positively impact our children's education experience."

Diekemper also serves on the Homes for the Holidays House Tour Committee and previously served as chairman of the district's Citizens' Advisory Committee.

Karl Frank Jr.
Frank, 28, 5682 Winter Garden Court, is a personal technology consultant and owner of Emoticon Computers. He and his wife, Elaine, have three children, one of whom attends a Mehlville school.

Frank, who is making his first bid for elective office, said he is running because, "I am a third-generation Mehlville graduate and 17-year resident of Mehlville, who has three children that are and will be attending schools in the Mehlville School District. It is for this reason that I want to see that they have the same, if not better opportunity than I did by being an active participant in the decision-making process. I am an avid supporter of the public school system as a whole and I want to see the process implemented in the most ideal way that will allow our children to have a competitive advantage in choice of college and career. I believe this is accomplished by practicing — among other things — fiscal responsibility and ethical accountability while using innovative thinking to solve current and future challenges."

Frank serves as the treasurer/secretary-elect of the Rotary Club of St. Louis County and is an active participant of the South County Chamber of Commerce.

Correnti, Diekemper and Frank gave these responses to a Call questionnaire:

Do you believe the Mehlville Board of Education has faithfully adhered to the letter of the Missouri Open Meetings and Records Law, also called the Sunshine Law? What would you do as a board member to ensure the board's compliance with the law?

Correnti said, "Yes, I will study the Sunshine Law and be a committed advocate of the laws and its principles."

Diekemper said, "The school board is bound to comply with the laws of the state. Our attorneys continually monitor our board compliance with this important law and have found that we are in compliance. As an individual board member, I have received special training regarding the Sunshine Law on at least two occasions, most recently within the last two months."

Frank said, "No, the Mehlville Board of Education has adhered to neither the letter nor the spirit of the Sunshine Law. There have been numerous instances in the press of inconsistencies on what was discussed during these meetings. These inconsistencies would be a non-issue if they would have been discussed in a standard open meeting.

"One specific example is the hiring of Lechner Realty. While the specifics of the property can be legally discussed in closed session when announced, the hiring of any contractor should be done under public scrutiny. The Sunshine Law does not allow the discussion of anything other than 'what is directly related to the specific reason announced to justify the meeting or vote.' The Law is not meant to cloak what may be a controversial decision. If I were on the board, I would recognize it as my duty to educate myself and obey the law. If I thought a possible violation of the law was upcoming, I would warn the board of the violation and if the board chose to proceed, I would exit the meeting, as I will not participate in the unlawful actions of an unapproved closed session meeting,'' he added.

In your opinion, who bears the responsibility of the cost of Proposition P budget escalating from nearly $68.4 million to the current budget of $86.7 million? Do you believe the cost will be even greater than that?

Correnti said, "I think the construction company, architects, administration and the Board of Education bears some responsibility."

Diekemper said, "There are three reasons that the cost of Proposition P has increased from the original estimate of $68 million.

"1. An architect was hired by the district during the CACF (Citizens' Advisory Committee for Facilities) process to prepare the initial estimate. McCarthy, who was hired after the passage of Prop P as the construction manager, has prepared budgets based on far more details. The McCarthy budgets are $9 million higher than the initial estimate. This amount is 10 percent of the total project and within reasonable limits per industry standards for renovation work of this kind. Additionally, furniture and fixtures for new buildings were not included in the initial budget, these items total $2.2 million.

"2. There were certain safety and regulatory requirements that had to be met with respect to the actual construction that were not known by the CACF. For example, sprinkler systems and asbestos removal, which, in the aggregate, have added $2.2 million to the cost.

"3. During the course of construction, significant deficiencies were noted with the hidden infrastructure of our buildings that good business judgment said should be fixed while these items were exposed and while school was not in session. For example, the boilers and hot air exchangers at Mehlville High School and Trautwein Elementary, both of which were over 30 years old. Roofs throughout the district needed more extensive work to prevent further structural damage. These and other similar items are being replaced at a cost of $4.8 million, far less than (what it) would have cost had these items been replaced when they were not exposed and while school was in session.

"The board, CACF, Oversight Committee and administrators are giving the voters and community the quality project that was promised completely within the 49-cent tax levy as passed by the voters,'' Diekemper said.

Frank said, "I do believe the cost will get greater and I have a hunch that the board and the administration are afraid they are going to run out of money before the end of the project, hence the possible sale of the St. John's property. I believe the ultimate responsibility lies with the board. As Harry Truman once said, 'The buck stops here.'

"The board has made a practice of accepting incomplete and erroneous documents presented to them by the administration mainly for the purposes of pacification. It is the board's responsibility to require complete and totally forthcoming documentation so that they can make an educated decision. Spending decisions are the responsibility of the board and the buck stops on their desk right underneath their microphones,'' he added.

Do you believe Superintendent Tim Ricker and his administration are doing a good job?

Correnti said, "Yes. From what I have seen and learned I believe in their handling of our district needs."

Diekemper said, "Dr. Ricker has been the superintendent for only six months, which makes it difficult to fully evaluate his performance. I can say however, that I believe he brings to the position a wealth of knowledge regarding child learning, construction, finances and school environments. He is able to understand the history of Mehlville because of his prior experience here, and he is able to combine that with experiences from other school districts."

Frank said, "From the perspective of a taxpaying citizen, academically they are fine — financially and administratively they (are) doing a pretty undesirable job."

Two contracts totaling more than $10.8 million for architectural and construction management services related to the Proposition P districtwide improvement program never were approved by the Board of Education. Though the board since has approved a revised contract with Dick-inson Hussman Architects and McCarthy, should these contracts have been brought to the board for approval?

Correnti said, "I believe that all contracts should be approved by the board so that we are in keeping with current laws and policies."

Diekemper said, "In an open board meeting on Nov. 13, 2000, the board in place at that time accepted the recommendation of a Construction Manager Selection Committee. This committee, comprised of business people from our community, recommended that the board accept a Prop P construction management proposal from McCarthy Brothers. At that same meeting, the board also directed then-Superintendent John Cary to 'negotiate and develop a written contract with McCarthy for construction management services.'

"The terms and scope of the initial McCarthy contract are essentially the same as the approved and recommended McCarthy proposal. Further, after he began his position in July 2001, district CFO Randy Charles continued to negotiate favorable contract terms for the district. In July 2003, the board made a formal request for Mr. Charles to finalize re-negotiated contracts with both McCarthy and Dickinson Hussman. The two re-negotiated contracts have recently been analyzed and approved by the board.

"Therefore, through the actions described above, the previous board approved the initial contracts and the current board approved the final re-negotiated contracts."

Frank said, "Absolutely. The failure of the board to require this to take place was a lapse of the fiduciary responsibilities of their post and has resulted in what is pretty much an open-ended contract where just about anything and everything can and has been charged to the district."

If cuts are needed to balance the budget, what would you propose?

Correnti said, "Attrition first, quasi-administration positions next. Anything first before we have to cut teachers. Line-by-line item scrutiny, reducing recurring expenditures, cut out food/beverages at meetings, freeze new hires, re-visit service contracts for cuts."

Diekemper said, "Our district currently operates on a lean budget. We have the third lowest per-pupil-expenditure rate in St. Louis County, translating into $2,200 less in per-pupil annual spending or $26,400,000 less for our 12,000 students than the average St. Louis County school district. Yet our Distinction in Performance rating places us in the top state category when it comes to student academic performance. We are achieving significant academic results with below average spending. Any future spending cuts would have to be made in such a way as to have the least impact on the student in the classroom."

Frank said, "Cuts in administration, directors and coordinators would come before any cuts to the classroom. I believe that the majority of our current set of administrators are overpaid for what they provide to the district and there are just flat out too many of them. I also would work to roll back administrative salary increases to their 2000 levels and at the very least, would vote to freeze the administrative salaries where they are currently at for the foreseeable future. I also would like to investigate and improve the system for the bidding. There are better services and goods out there and there are better prices out there than what we are currently paying."

Given the current funding outlook, would you support placing a tax-rate increase on a ballot in the near future?

Correnti said, "No. I would first work on taking away MSD's hold-harmless status and possibly become a funding formula for our district. If this is not possible, then a very studied levy should be considered."

Diekemper said, "Additional revenue needs should be addressed on two fronts. First, when we do our job effectively, district property values increase and we will benefit from economic development. The increased development will provide additional tax revenues.

"The second issue to be addressed is the state funding formula. As stated earlier, I will continue in my work with other board members and administrators to visit Jefferson City to educate legislators about the harmful effects of the funding formula on districts like Mehlville, which has frozen our per-pupil state funds since 1993. Our community is generous with regards to public school financial support. Sixty percent of the state's tax revenues are generated in St. Louis County, yet our school district receives only 12 percent of its operating revenues from the state.

"A lawsuit has been filed by 250 other Missouri school districts, seeking more education revenues from the state for their budgets. Many people within the education community believe that if additional state revenues are not found for the 250 districts that filed the suit, then they may seek to get even more of the tax revenues generated in St. Louis County. I promise to be a strong voice for our community and our children to ensure that any potential changes made to the state formula are beneficial and have a favorable effect on the Mehlville School District."

Frank said, "In the case of the Mehlville area, it is extremely important to gain back the trust of the community and to engage them and make them feel like part of the process once again before a tax levy or bond issue is attempted. Since Proposition P was passed, many great accomplishments have been made. Unfortunately the lack of oversight by the current school board has led to open-ended contracts and fiscal irresponsibility. This has caused a basic distrust in the community that must be obtained once again. It is far too costly and expensive to propose a tax levy or bond issue to have it fail. I am for raising local taxes to provide better wages and educational opportunities that are currently not available, but we must be sure that the time is right to do so."

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