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Riverview Gardens ends year under state supervision with less income, less uncertainty

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 15, 2011 - As its first year under state supervision comes to a close, the Riverview Gardens School District has a smaller enrollment, a shrinking fund balance, less money from Washington and Jefferson City -- and less uncertainty about who will work there and what policies they will follow.

Last summer, as of July 1, the old unaccredited district went out of existence, replaced by a new district governed by a three-member Special Administrative Board appointed by the state. And with the old district went all of its contracts and policies, setting up a whirlwind six weeks where the SAB had to hire staff, approve policies and contracts and get ready for a new school year.

Lynn Beckwith Jr., the former University City school superintendent chosen to head the SAB, said he would recommend to state officials that such a pressurized process never be used again.

Tuesday night, the SAB approved a budget for the coming school year, calling for spending of $56.6 million and revenue of $53.9 million. The district's reserves, which were pegged at $27.7 million as the 2010-11 comes to a close, are projected to drop to $25 million by the end of next June.

As Controller Carlton Brooks explained to the board before it approved the budget, several factors explain why the budget appears to be in weaker shape.

  • Enrollment is down. He said the budget is predicated on an enrollment in the fall of 6,000 students, down from 6,250 students this past year. Because state funding depends on the number of students in class, the drop in enrollment will lead to a similar drop in money from Jefferson City.
  • The Turner case threatens to decrease enrollment even further and also sap the district's finances in other ways. The ruling by the Missouri Supreme Court that allows students who live in unaccredited districts like Riverview Gardens to transfer to neighboring districts, with the home district paying the tab, could mean even less state money, plus dollars paid out by the district to wherever students transfer. Those transfers may not even be going to Riverview Gardens schools now but just have to live within the district boundaries to be eligible. (Read more about Turner and efforts to solve it.)
  • Jefferson City is not fully funding the foundation formula for schools. State money is the greatest single contributor to the Riverview Gardens budget, making up more than 58 percent. But state officials say that the formula will be funded at only a 91 percent level in the coming school year, down from 96.5 percent in the year just ended.
  • Money from Washington is drying up. Stimulus dollars that the district was able to spend in the past are no longer available, and money for schools from a jobs bill passed earlier this year will not be new money, Brooks said, but will instead by used to replace a shortfall in money from the state.
  • Property assessments in the district are down. Brooks noted that the zip codes that include Riverview Gardens are among the highest in foreclosures in the region. With the district hitting its tax-rate ceiling of $4.35 for each $100 in assessed valuation, it may soon have to go to voters to ask for a tax increase.

These facts and others, including a 3 percent salary bump for teachers and others, explain the graphic that Brooks used to symbolize the tough economic times that Riverview Gardens faces -- two figures playing tug of war over a dollar bill, stretching it as far as it can go.
To help guard against further erosion in spending, after the board approved the budget by a vote of 3-0, it also approved a motion by member Veronica Morrow-Reel that requires any additional positions that are not in the budget document to receive approval from the SAB before they can be filled.

Beckwith noted that the only new positions approved for the current year are eight library aides and one nurse's aide. But he also pointed out at a meeting of the district's Community Advisory Committee last week that several positions that had been filled by consultants during the past school year, hired to help the district conduct business as it made the abrupt transition to state control, have now been replaced with staff positions, including people in the areas of communications, human resources, safety and security and facilities.

The difference, he said, is that "consultants are paid by the hour. Employees work until the work is done."

Beckwith also announced that Superintendent Clive Coleman has been placed on medical leave following surgery and is expected to return in mid-July. Until his return, Darlynn Bosley, associate superintendent, will serve as acting superintendent.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.