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After double defeat, Webster Groves schools press on

In many ways, Missouri youth match the national averages in terms of lost opportunities to get ahead, a new study shows.
Judy Baxter, via Flickr

The Webster Groves school district is working to cut $1.6 million from its budget for the coming year and abandoning plans for free full-day kindergarten and other programs, but Superintendent Sarah Riss insists that education for its students will be as good as ever.

“As we make cuts,” Riss said in a recent interview, “we really try to make them as far away from programs that have a positive impact on children as possible.

“We’re not going to be able to do some of the things we were going to do, but we will certainly continue to work as hard as before and diligently and effectively to provide our kids a fabulous education. We’re devoted to that, we have a history of that and that will continue.”

The change in plans was forced by last month’s voter rejection of both a 65-cent increase in the district’s tax levy and a $28 million bond issue. Neither proposal even came close to passage on a night when bond issues in other districts, including Rockwood, Ferguson-Florissant and Maplewood-Richmond Heights, won big.

If both of the Webster proposals had passed, the district would have had the highest combined school tax rate in St. Louis County. Although Riss and Greg Mueller, who led opposition to the proposals, disagreed on the two ballot issues, they agree on the apparent reason why they lost.

Webster Groves superintendent Sarah Riss
Webster Groves superintendent Sarah Riss

“My best indication,” Riss said, “would be that the community felt that we were asking for too much at this point in time.”

Mueller said his group’s website, called SpendWisely, tried to make that point clearly by laying out the history of the district’s money propositions that have succeeded in recent years.

“There’s only a handful of us,” said Mueller, an attorney who sits on the Webster Groves city council. He said he used to have children in the Webster Groves schools but they are no longer there.

“We just created a website where we provided our information. It was a passive marketing campaign; we didn’t really advertise it. In a small town like ours, word of mouth travels quickly, and we found that our message was not only getting out but gaining ground. People looked at both sides and when they went to vote, they were informed.”

Voter turnout and tax rates

The district also had a website that spelled out its reasons in favor of the tax increase and the bond issue, which would have boosted Webster’s tax rate by 28 cents beyond the rise in the operating tax levy.

The tax increase, Proposition S, would have helped keep educator salaries competitive; maintain small class sizes; provide free full-day kindergarten; and pay for scholarships for children from low-income families to attend the district’s preschool.

The bond issue, Proposition W, would have eased overcrowding, due to a steady increase in Webster’s enrollment. Had it passed, the district would have converted its sixth-grade center into an elementary school; built a wing on the middle school for sixth-graders; made elementary schools more accessible for students with disabilities; and upgrade Moss Field, the high school facilities that the district said had not been renovated since it opened in 1948.

Riss said that the district’s long-range plan, from 2000, projected the need for bond issues on a fairly regular basis. She noted that Webster had passed propositions 2006 and in 2010. Neither of those required a tax increase, unlike this year’s Proposition W.

Riss said state law had helped Webster schools keep its tax rate lower in the past, but that advantage was absent this time around because the recession stopped the increase in property values which had allowed the district to roll back the rate. But, she added, the lower home values made raising the rate now more vital so the budget could keep pace with expenses.

Mueller said that the district’s history of bond issues, and his group’s efforts to make that history known, appears to have triggered a large voter turnout that he thinks was key to the defeat of both the tax and the bond propositions.

Webster Groves city councilman Greg Mueller
Greg Mueller

“The voter turnout was similar to that of a presidential election,” he said. “It approached 40 percent. Of course, the results were something that no one could have predicted, but the fact that we had voter turnout of close to 40 percent shows that our educational efforts succeeded. People were informed. They knew about the election. And they turned out.”

As far as the district’s growth in enrollment, Riss said it’s hard to determine exactly where it is coming from, since no new housing is going up in the areas covered by the Webster schools. While enrollment has steadily increased over the past seven or eight years, she added, the district’s budget has had the same sources of revenue.

Noting that only about 8 percent of the district’s budget comes from the state and another 2 percent comes from Washington, Riss said:

“Our taxpayers consistently pay about 90 percent of what it costs to educate children in the community. That really is a hard situation. We also have limited commercial property, and we also have a large amount of the property in our school boundaries that is not taxable. That puts a lot of the burden on homeowners in terms of tax revenue generated to support the school district.”

Layoffs and other cuts

What happens to that budget now?

Webster officials say the failure of the tax increase means an immediate budget cut of at least $1.6 million. Since most of a district’s spending goes for salaries, and teacher contracts had to be sent out by the middle of April, the board voted the week after the election to notify 11 teachers that their contracts would not be renewed. This week, an improved revenue picture cut that number to a projected 7.5 staff members to be eliminated.

A final budget vote is expected in June.

At the April 13 board meeting, Riss said she would be retiring as superintendent at the end of the 2015-16 school year, though board members noted that her intention to retire had been announced long before the election and was not tied to the results.

She also said that in light of the budget crunch, she would give back a $4,000 raise she has been granted for the coming school year.

What propositions may be coming to help Webster schools raise more money? Riss said the board is studying that question, but there are no answers yet.

“We really have to focus on balancing our budget, closing out the school year and putting great plans in place for the start of school,” she said.

“I just know that we believed strongly that this is what we needed, and we felt like this would be best for our school district. Now that the community has said no to that, we will do our best to move forward and create excellent plans for our kids with the budget that we have.”

For his part, Mueller said he doesn’t lack confidence in those who are in charge of the district.

“I don’t think there’s any takeaway regarding the administration,” he said. “They are hard-working, diligent, highly capable. There certainly is no judgment cast on any person involved.

“It’s strictly a vote at that time. It cannot be read as anything else beyond that.”

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.