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Fort Zumwalt, Francis Howell consider tax rate increases for April ballot

By BRIAN FLINCHPAUGH

with Lauren Whan

Fort Zumwalt School District officials are expected to decide in the next several months whether to place another property tax increase proposal on either the April or August 2016 ballot.

District Superintendent Bernard DuBray said on Sept. 24 that a tax hike would help to insure that the district’s salaries for staff and employees would remain competitive and that the district can add staff.

“We’re starting to fall behind the other districts in the county by quite a bit,” DuBray said.

The concern is that, without competitive salaries, the district may lose qualified teachers and staff to other school districts. DuBray said the district’s teacher salaries now may rank behind the Francis Howell, Wentzville, St. Charles and Orchard Farm school districts.

The district is running at a $2 million deficit and can shift some of its $16 million in balances to address the current situation, DuBray said. “But we can’t keep doing that very long.” He said the district may examine its options over the next two months.

In April, district voters defeated a proposed 48-cent property tax hike with 6,311 voters or 47.97 percent voting in favor and 6,846 voters or 52.03 percent voting against. Voter approval would have allowed the district to cut its deficit, hire between 25 and 35 employees including 15 new technology teachers, lower class sizes, improve curriculum and increase salaries.

Despite the defeat, the district’s board agreed later in April to provide a salary increase averaging about 2.5 percent for teachers and to add 19 new teachers to meet federal and state requirements for special education students. Work also continues on projects funded from a separate $25 million bond issue that passed last April.

District voters split on the ballot measures with the bond issue receiving 66.22 percent of residents voting in favor of it. The bond issue, which required a 57.1 percent approval, did not involve a property tax increase. It is being used to build an early childhood education center and for upgrades to buildings and technology.

“It (the 48-cent property tax proposal) lost by just two (percentage) points,” DuBray said. “You have to get the story and information out and you have to have credibility with the public.”

Meanwhile, the board approved a property tax rate of $4.75 per $100 assessed valuation this year at their Sept. 21 meeting. The rate is down from $4.85 last year. By state law, tax rates are lowered to offset any windfall from an increase in the district’s assessed valuation of about 3.6 percent this year.

Most local government entities have until the end of September to set the tax rates that appear on tax bills and are due by the end of December.

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Just two months after St. Charles County residents voted against a property tax hike in the Francis Howell School District, the district’s Board of Education has voted to give a tax levy a second chance to succeed.

In a 4-3 vote on Sept. 17, the board took  first steps toward putting a tax levy, similar to Prop Y,  on the April 2016 ballot. Francis Howell is currently facing a $10 million budget deficit.

Concerns from an overflow crowd poured out during the public comment session. Parents said they were fearful that transportation would be reduced starting in the second semester of this school year, requiring parents who live within a 3.5-mile radius of the school to provide their students with transportation to and from school.

Referring to Prop Y, parent Heidi Fuentes said, “I think its failure has brought awareness to the community that I think we all needed.” Fuentes went on to say she believes the community needs a tax levy of some sort to benefit the district for the children’s sake.

But not everyone shared her enthusiasm. Board President Mark Lafata said he felt strongly that it was too soon to bring a tax levy measure back to the ballot. And, while the divided board took initial steps toward approving another ballot measure, the tax initiative will not officially be added to the April ballot until the board decides on the dollar amount of the tax increase. Meanwhile, to the relief of distressed parents, the board voted to cease proposed cuts for the current school year.

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