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Prop Y fails, what’s next?

The question is what happens next for the Francis Howell School District in the wake of voter rejection on Aug. 4 of a 90-cent property tax increase

That discussion could begin as early as this week when the district’s Board of Education meets on Aug. 6. District officials said if the tax levy _ Proposition Y – failed, significant cuts would be made, including reducing teaching and support staff by as much as 200 positions in the next two years, along with cuts in technology and support for its struggling learner programs.

Well, tax payers rejected Prop Y by a wide margin. Unofficial results show that the proposition received 6,663 votes in favor or 33.77 percent to 13,065 votes or 66.23 percent against.  That’s far below the simple majority needed for approval.

“While we are certainly disappointed in the outcome, we respect the decision of our community,” said District Superintendent Pam Sloan in a statement released on Aug. 5. “Managing the budget in a fiscally responsible manner has always been a top priority for our board of education.

“The district administration and the board will be working to make some additional reductions for this coming school year to bring expenditures in line with declining revenue. As reductions are determined, we will share that information with you.”

The agenda for the board’s regularly scheduled meeting on Aug. 6 includes a discussion of district finances over the next several years.  The meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the district’s administrative office at 4545 Central School Road.

The district, which has more than 17,000 students, has been mulling what to do about its fiscal headaches since the recession started in earnest in 2008.  Six years of lowered property values, increased costs, a special use levy expiring, and continued underfunding in state aid have taken a toll on district finances.

After years of budget surpluses, the district found last year that it faced a $22 million budget during its 2015-16 school year starting in August. To help remedy the situation, district voters were asked to vote on Prop Y.  But even the board was divided about the tax increase, voting 5-2 in May to place the measure on the ballot.  Mike Sommer, one of two board members voting against the measure and Board President Mark Lafata who supports it, talked about why they disagreed at a county Municipal League meeting on July 29 in Cottleville.

Sommer, who called the August 4 ballot a “stealth election” because not many people knew a lot about it, noted that the vote to place the measure was not unanimous and the board voted 4-3 in favor of 90 cents as the amount.

Because the tax increase is the major issue on the ballot – the only other is in Foristell – the district’s bill for holding the election is expected to be more than $250,000, Sommer said.  The cost could have been cheaper if it were held during normal local elections in April where costs could be shared by other government jurisdictions.

Sommer said the district has been able to bring up salary and benefits for district teachers and staff over the last 10 years and the test scores and student performance has increased.  But passage may suggest that other nearby districts may have to follow suit with tax increases.

The proposed rate is too high for individual property owners, he said.

“I notice a lot of realtors here in the room, it’s going to be very tough to sell property in the Francis Howell School District when the levy in our school district is so much higher than all the surrounding school districts,” Sommer said.

Maintaining good quality schools is something that homeowners want in maintaining the value of their homes, Lafata said.  This was the first tax increase he has supported in 14 years as a board member, he added.

Lafata noted that the district’s three high schools are ranked among the best high schools in the state by U.S. News and World Report and that student standardized test scores are on the rise.

“What this levy means is if we want to maintain that –if you maintain your schools in our community — you’re going to have to have a quality place for kids to go to school and that’s what people want,” he said. People look at their schools in helping determine the value of their homes.

Lafata said without that community support, school districts can decline “just like Mehlville or Normandy.”

In earlier attempts to reduce expenses and balance the district’s budget, the board of education cut $4.2 in personnel expenditures – including 39 full-time teaching positions eliminated in a plan approved in January – and $4 million in other expenses.

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