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On the April 5 ballot: St. Louis Public Schools seek first tax increase in 25 years

Aimee Clay of Sumner High School
Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio

Aimee Clay, a member of the Sumner High School ROTC Drill Team, began playing the national anthem on her violin at the start of the campaign kickoff for the St. Louis Public Schools 75-cent hike earlier this month.

Suddenly, clearly upset by an errant note, she stopped.

Campaign chairman Richard Gaines stepped up to put his arm around her shoulder. The crowd applauded encouragingly. Aimee regained her composure, started over and played the majestic tune flawlessly to the end.

Later in the program, Becky James-Hatter, head of Big Brothers Big Sisters, said a vote to raise taxes for the city schools for the first time in 25 years would do for all 27,000 students in the district just what Gaines did for Aimee: Show care and concern for their efforts to succeed.

“This is what Prop 1 is about,” she said. “It’s about putting our arms around our children, in the best of times, and in tough times, to let them know that we are there for them.

“If we invest in great inputs, we will get great outcomes for children.”

The district says the tax increase, on Tuesday’s ballot as Proposition 1, would result in about $28 million in additional revenue each year. After the first two years, charter schools in the city would receive about $9 million of the new funds, based on current enrollment rates.

The tax requires a simple majority for passage. District officials say the hike would raise the annual property tax bill for a $100,000 home by $142.50.

With other money-related issues crowding the city ballot — two from the Metropolitan Sewer District, one to keep the earnings tax and another on a bond issue for municipal equipment — the school campaign is running a targeted effort to get out the vote by those who have backed the school system in the past.

The increase has been endorsed by a wide spectrum of city officials and others, but support is not unanimous. Even the elected school board, which met with top officials from the district a few weeks ago to talk about the proposal, decided not to take a stand one way or the other.

What the money would pay for

School officials say the proceeds from the tax increase would be designated for four purposes:

  • Expanding early childhood education
  • Increasing options for character and alternative education
  • Improving safety and security equipment and personnel
  • Offering competitive salaries to teachers and other staff members.

Even with the increased tax, city school officials say their rate of $4.50 would still be the lowest in the St. Louis area when the $1.26 rate of the Special School District is added to the levies of St. Louis County districts. The city schools pay for their own special education classes.
As far as teacher salaries go, the district says it ranks last in the area with an average of $46,163. As a result, the district says the average years of experience for its teachers gets smaller each year, as more veteran teachers move to other districts. Half of the district’s teachers have less than five years of experience, and half of that group has been on the job less than three years.

Superintendent Kelvin Adams has said that none of the money would go for additional administrative salaries.

He points to the district’s recent record of financial management as a big reason voters should support the tax increase.

“The district has proven over the last seven years especially that they have been good stewards of dollars that the public has entrusted us with,” he told St. Louis on the Air earlier this month.

“We started with about a $65 million deficit and presently have a $20 million surplus. So that did not occur by not being responsible with the dollars that we receive.”

And, he said, the campaign for Proposition 1 is a low-budget affair with a specific audience.

“We have a targeted campaign, looking at a targeted group of voters that we have asked to support the district in the past. We have a really strategic campaign. We’re not spending a lot of money to do this. Obviously there’s some persons who are spending a lot of money to get the vote out that taxes are not appropriate. But we think we have the ear of the voters in terms of the progress that has been made.”

Pro and con

Charlene Jones, a longtime political and education strategist in the city who helped steer the district’s $155 million, no-tax-increase bond issue to an overwhelming victory in 2010, is also managing this year’s tax campaign. At the kickoff event March 7 at the district’s downtown headquarters, she ran through a long list of who had endorsed the measure and the strategy she had mapped out to win.

To maneuver through the ballot clutter and pass Proposition 1, Jones’ battle plan included targeted mailings, ice cream socials at senior centers, rallies for various groups, visits by top school officials to churches on this coming Sunday and vans traveling through neighborhoods on Election Day, with loudspeakers reminding everyone to vote.

Jones said that last part is particularly important.

“Strategies are necessary. But strategies alone are not sufficient. What we need are strategies that are necessary and sufficient. What makes them sufficient is when a person hears a radio ad or sees a newspaper ad and they remember on Election Day, to get up, go and vote. That’s what makes our strategies necessary and sufficient.

“There will be some challenges, but we believe that we can overcome those challenges, if we tell our story.”

The story told by Adams and Rick Sullivan, head of the district’s Special Administrative Board, in their recent meeting with the elected board apparently was not persuasive enough to win the board’s endorsement.

Rick Sullivan (left), president of the city schools' Special Administrative Board, and Superintendent Kelvin Adams attend the campaign kickoff for Proposition 1
Credit Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio
Rick Sullivan (left), president of the city schools' Special Administrative Board, and Superintendent Kelvin Adams attend the campaign kickoff for Proposition 1

Susan Jones, head of the elected board, said in an email that board discussions revealed the lack of a consensus on the issue, “and the vote at the meeting reflected that by deciding not to take a stance at all.”

She added:

“We look forward to working the community, students, teachers, and staff in the near future once full governance is returned back to local control.”

That issue, the fact that the SAB is not elected, also fuels opposition by some officials, like Marie Ceselski, Democratic committeewoman from the 7th Ward. She said complaints have been filed with the state ethics commission about whether money has been spent properly on the campaign. State law bars the school district from using public funds to advocate for passage of Proposition 1.

Ceselski said it’s a matter of trust.

“We think they’re walking a fine line on that,” Ceselski said. “We’re fine for money going for more teachers salaries. For all we know, the money is going to go to pay for the next campaign manager.”

She also raised the issue of a non-elected board, echoing a complaint about “taxation without representation.”

Ceselski said she could have backed a tax increase “if this had been a different proposition, if this had been from the elected board, if the scenario had been different. It’s not that we’re against the tax hike for the schools. It’s wrong proposition at the wrong time by the wrong people.”

Adams counters that even though SAB members aren’t elected, they make sure that the district is responsive and responsible to city taxpayers.

There's not a kid in the city of St. Louis that I've spoken to that's concerned about the governance structure. — Superintendent Kelvin Adams

“The SAB holds us accountable for making sure that the public is aware of what’s going on. So I think we take an extra step to try to do that. I understand the notion of why the SAB is in place and voters not having the ability to exercise their democratic right. But this is the hand that we have been dealt.

“We work incredibly hard to be as transparent, really even more transparent than an elected board might be because I think that notion is out there.”

Besides, he added, when it comes to education, what matters is what happens in the classroom, not in the political world.

“There’s not a kid in the city of St. Louis that I’ve spoken to,” Adams said, “that’s concerned about the governance structure. They’re concerned about what kind of support teachers provide to them.”

Other school money issues on the ballot

Besides St. Louis Public Schools, five suburban school districts an one in St. Charles County have measures on Tuesday’s ballot. They would pay for big projects, like a multimillion-dollar revamp of the high school in Ladue, and smaller ones, like tuckpointing, swimming pool grout and restroom sinks in Jennings.

In Jennings, voters will decide Proposition S, whether to borrow $3 million for a variety of capital projects throughout the district. They include playgrounds at elementary schools, gym floors at the junior and senior high schools, upgraded technology, roof repairs and security cameras. If the proposal is approved, the district’s tax levy is expected to remain unchanged. The bonds require a four-sevenths majority to pass.

In Ladue, an $85.1 million bond issue will be on the ballot as Proposition R. Most of the money will pay for renovations at Horton Watkins High School, which the district says has not had significant changes since it was built in the 1950s and 1960s. Plans include adding classrooms and upgrading existing facilities. The bonds would require a property tax increase of 39 cents. The proposition requires a four-sevenths majority for approval.

In Maplewood Richmond Heights, voters will decide Proposition Y, a 55-cent property tax increase. The additional money would primarily pay for hiring more staff to handle a growing enrollment, plus general operating expenses, with the rest paying for capital improvements. The district says it has nearly 38 percent more students than it had 10 years ago. The proposal needs a simple majority to pass.

In Mehlville, a 4-cent increase in the district’s operating tax levy will be on the ballot as Proposition A. The added money would pay for repair or replacement of roofs and HVAC systems. The district says passage of the proposal would not result in increased costs to taxpayers because it expects to reduce its debt service levy by 4 cents. The proposition requires a simple majority to pass.

In Fort Zumwalt, a 48-cent tax increase is on the ballot as Proposition K. The districts says it needs the money to stop dipping into reserves, strengthen technology and raise teacher salaries to a more competitive level. A similar proposition fell short of the simple majority needed for passage last year, losing by 267 votes. This year’s hike requires a simple majority as well.

Follow Dale on Twitter: @dalesinger

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.