City school officials spell out specifics for upcoming tax campaign | St. Louis Public Radio

City school officials spell out specifics for upcoming tax campaign

Mar 2, 2016

Updated 9:25 p.m. Tuesday with results of meeting: If the discussion Tuesday night between members of the elected board of the St. Louis Public Schools and the district’s superintendent and head of the appointed board is any guide, the upcoming campaign for a 75-cent tax increase will focus on a few key points:

  • Specific programs that the new money will pay for, but not so specific that the administration won’t be able to change course if new conditions arise
  • A pledge that the money will go into the classroom, not to administrative salaries
  • An emphasis on the success that pre-kindergarten programs lead to as children get older, and how the tax proceeds will expand those programs.

The seven members of the elected board met for more than an hour with Superintendent Kelvin Adams and Rick Sullivan, head of the Special Administrative Board, at the district’s headquarters downtown. The meeting came in the wake of some of the elected board members expressing doubts that they would support the proposal.

Others, like Bill Haas, said they would back the campaign, despite some concerns.

“I’d like to see this pass,” he said. “I understand some people have governance issues with it. But I’m going to put governance issues aside.”

Still, he asked several questions about how specific the campaign will be about how the money will be spent. In response, both Adams and Sullivan said the district has to strike a balance between letting people know what the priorities are now and making sure the system can shift gears if adjustments are needed.

“I’m trying to be really careful about what we say we’ll be doing,” Adams said, “because things can change so much.”

Sullivan said he wants to emphasize how student performance and the district’s financial situation have improved so much in recent years, and tie that improvement to programs that can be bolstered with the new money.

He said he knows that the public image of the district needs to improve in the eyes of many voters, but he thinks the campaign for the proposal, which begins next Monday, can achieve that goal.

“The perception for many people is something from the past,” Sullivan said, “or something they heard from their neighbor from 45 years ago. If people walked into a school and spent 10 minutes, they would come out and say, 'Yes, I support what you’re doing.'

Rick Sullivan, left, head of the Special Administrative Board, and Superintendent Kelvin Adams talk with members of the elected school board
Credit Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio

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Elected board member Katie Wessling, who had said she didn’t want the money spent by people who were appointed, not elected, appeared to be softening her stance. In an interview after the meeting, she said:

“It’s going to take a lot of hard thinking on this one, because I never want to do anything that’s going to be negative for the students of this district. They are the most important thing. There are things that our kids need, but there are also things that they need that could be done differently.”

Elected board member Bill Monroe, who also has expressed opposition, said he was pleased that he and his colleagues could get together with Sullivan and Adams to get answers to their questions.

“I would like to think that we will be back at this table again real soon,” he said, “and we meet again as a unit and make our decisions collectively.”

The tax hike, which will be Proposition 1 on the April 5 ballot in the city, would raise nearly $28 million a year. After the first two years, because of how the state counts school enrollment, nearly $9 million of that would go to charter schools in the city. The proposal needs a simple majority to pass. City schools last passed a tax increase in 1991.

Our original story (Feb. 29) -With nearly $28 million in annual funding at stake, members of the two school boards in St. Louis plan to get together in an unusual session Tuesday night.

The topic: Support for the 75-cent tax levy increase on the April 5 ballot in the city. The three-member appointed board that runs the district put the proposal on the ballot in January. Members of the elected board, which has no say over district operations, want to learn more about how the money will be spent before deciding whether to support it.

And others are raising questions about whether the school district is following campaign finance rules in the money it is spending to try to win its first tax increase in 25 years.

Superintendent Kelvin Adams and Rick Sullivan, head of the appointed Special Administrative Board, will host Tuesday night's meeting at the district’s headquarters downtown. Sullivan said in an interview that he views the session as purely informational, to answer questions that elected board members may have.

“They want to make a decision as a group,” Sullivan said, “which is great, their prerogative. Dr. Adams and I are meeting with them to answer questions and provide information so they are fully informed about the campaign.”

Based on comments from at least two elected board members, Sullivan and Adams will have to be persuasive to win their support.

Katie Wessling says she knows the district can use more money, but she wants to know how it is to be used and questions decisions being made by people who are not answerable to voters.

“Just more money alone is not going to be the answer,” she said. “The answer is how that money is going to be spent, and that’s where oversight and accountability come into play.

“I am not in favor of the tax when the person who is going to decide how it is going to be handled is not accountable to me as a city taxpayer. That’s just my personal opinion. I can’t speak for the rest of the board members.”

Credit Courtesy St. Louis Public Schools

Comments from another elected board member, Bill Monroe, were more pointed.

He says he and his colleagues deserve more say over district matters in general.

“What Rick Sullivan’s going to have to do is convene a meeting of both boards in the public eye,” he said, “for transparency, and let’s communicate issues regarding the St. Louis Public Schools. The tax levy is on the agenda, and we speak to that first.

“I say no to taxation without representation.”

Sullivan rejects that last stance, noting that he and his fellow SAB members are appointed by elected officials: the mayor, the president of the Board of Aldermen and the governor.

“I don’t understand the term taxation without representation,” he said. “I don’t think it applies here. That only confuses the issue. The state of Missouri took action several years ago, in 2007, to put in place a transitional school district. Then it followed state statute to put into place a Special Administrative Board.”

What the ballot says

The tax hike issue, which is Proposition 1 on the city ballot on April 5, reads:

Shall the Special Administrative Board of the Transitional School District of the City of St. Louis be authorized to increase the operating tax levy of the District by $0.75 per $100 of assessed valuation to continue offering early childhood education, to expand character and alternative education options, to improve safety and security equipment and personnel, and to offer competitive salaries to teachers and staff? If this proposition is approved, the adjusted operating tax levy of the District is estimated to be $4.50 per $100 of assessed valuation.”

The city schools last raised property taxes in 1991. The increase would require a simple majority for passage. If it wins voter approval, the district estimates that it would bring in $27.8 million a year and cost the owner of a $100,000 home $142.50 more annually.

City teachers recently ratified a new contract after lengthy negotiations and frequent demonstrations at SAB meetings over their pay. And expanding pre-school programs has long been a priority for the district.

Sullivan says ballot language on early childhood education, and its intent, are both clear.

“There’s finite funding currently for early childhood,” he said. “There is no long-term funding in place for that. This tax levy will allow it to continue on in perpetuity and even allow us to expand it. More people are interested in having their children in early childhood than we can provide.

“One hundred percent of this money is going into the classroom and the education of our students.”

More collaboration sought

But such assurances may not be enough to win over elected board members who have long felt shunned.

Wessling feels that even though the SAB members were appointed by officials who were elected, such secondhand accountability is pretty weak.

“That connection is just a little too far away from the people,” she said. “The aldermen, the mayor and certainly the governor are not going to be concerned about the constituents holding them accountable for something the appointed board does. People don’t see that connection.

I am not in favor of the tax when the person who is going to decide how it is going to be handled is not accountable to me as a city taxpayer. -- Elected school board member Katie Wessling

“It’s just one little piece of the job those people have to do. It’s not likely to affect their re-election campaigns in any way, unlike an elected school board, where if a tax increase is done, and people don’t like the way the taxes have been spent, they have someone they can directly hold accountable for that.”

The state school board has extended the SAB’s authority over the city schools for another three years. But Wessling, who heads a transition committee for the elected board, hopes she and her colleagues can gain some substantive say-so before then.

“We want things to be done in a responsible way,” she said, “with a gradual transition with increasing elected board voices and decreasing appointed voices. That’s the kind of process the elected board is going to be discussing and voting on and hopefully able to then speak as one voice.

“I have gotten many calls from city residents as well as from other elected officials wanting to know what we think. I don’t know how that will play out, but I do know that at least the people I’ve spoken to have some of the same concerns that I do, as far as tax money being in the hands of an appointed instead of an elected, accountable board.”

To Monroe, the issue is one of race as well as accountability. He feels that Sullivan, who is white, controls the other two members of the SAB, who are black. As a black education activist, Monroe wants more answers and more authority.

“Rick Sullivan has to know,” he said, “that black children ain’t for sale on some promise.”

Questions about finance

Meanwhile, questions have arisen over whether the city schools are following election law that prohibit public funds from being spent to advocate for passage of tax increase or other ballot measures. They can be used strictly for informational purposes.

Marie Ceselski, Democratic committeewoman for the city's  7th ward, first noted on a blog that a mailing last month from SAB member Richard Gaines, who heads the campaign committee for Proposition 1, sought her endorsement but did not include the required notice of who paid for the mailing.

Then she questioned the hiring by the SAB of Charlene Jones as a campaign consultant for $60,000, using school district funds, from Dec. 16 of last year through April 30 of this year.

“Let me be clear here,” Ceselski wrote. “This is not an ‘oops’ moment. It’s a ‘we got caught’ moment. Local government entities, particularly school boards, frequently have complaints filed against them with the Missouri Ethics Commission on use of public resources to advocate for ballot issues.”

In an interview, Ceselski said spending public funds for campaigns is the kind of violation that too often gets winked at but has actually sent some politicians to jail. When she pointed out the “paid for” omission on the letter from Gaines, the school district acknowledged its mistake, noted that it hadn’t had a tax election for a long time and sent out a corrected version of the letter a few days later.

But Ceselski wasn’t mollified.

“I am all for a money increase,” she said. “I am all for putting more money into the schools, especially for teachers’ salaries. But I am not going to support something that I’m not comfortable with.

“Considering that the Special Administrative Board was put in by the state because the state didn’t trust an elected board, this is just absolutely atrocious.”

Superintendent Kelvin Adams
Credit St. Louis Public Schools

In an interview late Monday, Superintendent Adams emphasized the fact that the earlier mistake omitting who paid for the letter had been corrected. And, he said, none of the work to be done by Charlene Jones that could be construed as advocacy for passage of the tax would be paid for by the district. Instead, he said, a political action committee would fund her salary for those items, and what she will be doing is neutral and factual only, not in favor of passage of the tax.

“She is only working with us under the district contract for information,” Adams said. “She’s only working for us on the information piece.”

Adams said the district had been notified by the Missouri Ethics Commission that it was investigating complaints made about these concerns.

Ceselski said she had filed such complaints.

On her blog post, Ceselski added:

“I will not, cannot, support a ballot issue for public schools that begins by breaking the law. I do not care who tells me this was all a series of mistakes now being corrected. The damage is done. I have no reason to believe that if I endorsed this school tax levy, another violation of state law will not happen. The best thing for everyone would be for the SAB to remove school levy hike from the ballot and start clean another time.”

Follow Dale on Twitter: @dalesinger

Note: In an earlier version of this article, Ceselski was misspelled in some cases.