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Fort Zumwalt faces first opposition for ballot propositions

Karl Schroeder was succinct when asked why he’s against two separate propositions – a bond issue and property tax increase – before Fort Zumwalt School District voters in April.

“It’s too much money,” Schroeder, a district resident who is a local printer, said.

But not having the money now to keep the district’s class sizes low, student achievement high, facilities in good shape, and quality teachers on staff can lead to lowered property values, said Fort Zumwalt Superintendent Bernie DuBray.

“That’s not a situation you want; you want to keep property values as high as you can,” DuBray said in response to Schroeder’s concerns. “That’s what happened in Ferguson and the Ferguson-Florissant School District where property values went into the ground.”

Schroeder is one of the few residents so far who have publicly come out in opposition to Proposition A – a $25 million bond issue – and Proposition B – a 48-cent property tax increase, both on the April 7 ballot. He said he was so upset that he was contacting news media outlets.

The property tax increase requires a simple majority vote for passage and the bond issue requires 57.1 percent voter approval.

Schroeder, who said he has talked to some who agree, said he may put out some of his own research on yard signs before the election.

He said he’s worried about the district’s mounting bond debt. He fears that the district eventually will not be able to pay back millions of dollars at a time if the country faces another economic downturn.

“It’s not going to stop, another 20 years is added on here,” Schroeder said. “Somewhere it has got to stop.”

Schroeder said he believes the district should pay down its debt and cut costs before asking voters for more money.

Proceeds from the bond issue would pay for a district-wide early childhood education facility for 600 to 800 students and upgrade lighting at 15 buildings as well as technology throughout the district and other building repairs.

DuBray said the district’s bonding capacity is more than adequate at 15 percent of its assessed valuation. But the situation is different with its operating budget, funded largely through property taxes.

The district has to look at another tax increase because it has gone about as far as it can financially to maintain the district’s facilities and quality of education, DuBray said. He said the district has been able to use its balances to meet its operating expenses. But those balances are projected to drop to 16 percent of its operating budget. The district is currently projecting a $2.9 million operating deficit for its 2014-15 budget.

If passed, funds from the tax levy increase will be used to eliminate that deficit, hire more specialty teachers, add more technology for one-to-one initiatives, address class size, improve curriculum and programming, and improve salaries for all staff. Specialty teachers would include 16 technology teachers for all elementary schools. In terms of its effect on taxpayers, Prop B would increase annual taxes on a $200,000 home by $182.

A no vote on April 7 could mean the district may have to cut staff through attrition and increase class sizes, DuBray said. He noted that the district finds itself now lagging behind other neighboring school districts in teacher salaries and student achievement based on state testing.

“We’re trying to keep up with the Joneses, so to speak,” DuBray said.

Since 2008, the district also has lost $187 million in assessed property valuation, which translates into $9 million in lost tax revenue and has suffered. The district’s last operating tax hike was in 2004.

But Schroeder isn’t swayed. He says looking at the future is frightening at a time many area residents still face financial difficulties.

“I’ve got to look at my wallet too,” he said.

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