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Education

Will city school bond issue get warm reception or cold shoulder?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 20, 2010 - St. Louis school officials hope their track record in bringing air conditioning to city school buildings will result in a warm reception for next month's $155 million bond issue.

But lingering resentment over the fact that the schools are being run by a state-appointed board is prompting some to give the proposition the cold shoulder.

Proposition S, on the Aug. 3 ballot, would let the St. Louis Public Schools take advantage of bonds that were included in last year's $787 billion federal stimulus program. For $28 million of the bond issue, buyers of the bonds would receive federal tax credits, so the issuers of the bonds are able to borrow the money without having to pay interest.

Overall, school officials say, the bond issue would result in no tax increase, so the system would be able to pay for construction, renovation, technology, security and removal of lead paint from school buildings.

Richard Gaines, part of the three-member Special Administrative Board (SAB) that is running the district, hopes voters will be able to recognize a good deal when they see it and give the bonds the four-sevenths majority they need.

He says the SAB's previous experience with bond issue money should give voters confidence that the money would be well-spent. He recalls that when the SAB first took over in 2007, money from a bond issue approved earlier to air-condition schools had remained unspent, leaving some voters hot under the collar.

"People were yelling and screaming about the fact that certain schools were not air-conditioned," he recalled. "We inherited a situation where $60 million from the earlier bond issue was just sitting in an account. Within six months, we had put all of those dollars into the construction arena and we did it in a different way, a design-build process that allowed us to air-condition four additional schools from that money. That is substantially done."

Gaines, who also had previously served as an elected school board member, acknowledged another problem -- that some school buildings that were air-conditioned with earlier bond issue money were then closed or sold, including Stowe, Mark Twain and Baden schools.

When residents of the district bring up that issue, Gaines explains that the closures came because of reduced enrollment, but that student drain appears to have subsided.

"The school system was decimated by the number of kids who were leaving and going into charter schools," he said. "But we just went through an elaborate planning process, so we have a better handle on where school buildings need to be located.

"We worked extensively with the city and with urban planners to determine where the population is like to be moving in the city. Given that, and the greater stabilization of pupils, we're in a much better position to talk about what schools need to be air-conditioned, not just now but in the foreseeable future."

Proceeds from the Proposition S bonds would be spent with three priorities in mind: Improving student achievement, with more computers, more pre-kindergarten classrooms, better science labs and more gifted education programs; student safety and security; and healthy lifestyles, including better school kitchens and improved athletic facilities.

Those plans came out of a process known as FACTS -- the Facilities Advisory Committee for Tomorrow's Schools. Part of the proceeds would be used to repay money that has already been spent in an emergency effort to remove lead paint from schools.

The campaign for Proposition S will kick off with a rally on Tuesday. Charlene Jones, a former assistant superintendent with the system who has managed two dozen campaigns for the system over the years, said the effort will cost about $120,000, with money raised from various segments of the community, including business, labor and others.

The campaign will feature radio ads with messages from politicians such as former Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. and Comptroller Darlene Green. To reach the city's large Bosnian community, newspaper ads and radio spots in their language will be included. The campaign will also target senior citizens, who Green says have been among the school system's strongest supporters.

One of her biggest worries, Jones said, is apathy, with a turnout of only 20-25 percent expected. So on Election Day, she plans to canvass areas to remind people to get out and vote.

Two other concerns are another ballot issue of the day -- a statewide proposal against the mandates of the federal health-care law -- and worries that people who are still angry over the state takeover of the schools will express their resentment with a "No" vote at the polls.

On a more general note, she is concerned that with the sluggish economy, people might hesitate to vote for any financial proposition, even one that carries no tax increase. Still, she is cautiously optimistic that Proposition S will pass.

"There has always been a strong level of support for this issue," Jones said. "I would think it would be real difficult for people to oppose it. No. 1, it will not increase their taxes. No. 2, it would bring at least 3,100 construction jobs, so even if people don't like kids, they should certainly like to see additional jobs.

"Even if people are on separate sides of the issue about the SAB, they all profess that their major concern is the welfare of the children. So I would be surprised if they would publicly oppose it, knowing that the money would directly benefit our kids."

That reasoning doesn't impress Percy Green, the longtime activist who is urging people to vote against Proposition S. His flyer appeals to people still upset over the elected School Board being supplanted by the SAB, saying:

"Mayor Francis G. Slay and his bunch messed up the St. Louis Public School's (sic) money and NOW they want you to pay."

He also highlights language in the ballot wording that says the proceeds of the bond issue may be used for "including but not limited to" certain projects, worried that such language is a blank check that would let school officials spend the money as they see fit.

"The language in Proposition S is proof of the Special Appointed Board's deceit and deceptive intent of using $155 millions (sic) dollars if it passes. A NO VOTE on Aug. 3 will teach to our kids how to say NO to a bully."

In an interview, Green called the SAB "an affront to the elected board. The citizens of St. Louis elected the board to carry on these functions. I know it went through the courts and it is accepted, but not in the eyes of the majority of the people."

Asked whether the children would be the losers if resentment against the SAB resulted in defeat for Proposition S, Green replied:

"The kids are losing by having this state-appointed board spending their money, when in fact the taxpayers and the citizens of St. Louis voted in a school board."

Gaines, the SAB member who has shepherded Proposition S, is familiar with such rhetoric. But he says it's time to leave it behind and look at what the SAB has accomplished.

"We were not elected," he said. "We were appointed. There is a great deal of discussion and dissension because of that. I understand the reasons for that. But I have also served as an elected member of the school board, so I understand the importance of an elected school board to the electoral process."

He noted that the elected school board, which still meets on a regular basis to monitor activities of the SAB, last week failed to approve a motion to oppose Proposition S.

"There is some opposition," he said. "There always will be. The greatest degree of opposition is that people are against the notion of an appointed board that has effectively usurped the authority of the elected board. But it's a pretty difficult sell not to support the beginning portion of efforts to rebuild the school system from a facilities standpoint."

Another perspective comes from Peter Downs, who until recently was president of the elected School Board. In an e-mail, he also expressed concerns about Proposition S, particularly the use of capital funds to upgrade school kitchens:

“Elementary and at least some middle schools do not have kitchens to prepare meals. The meals come in pre-cooked and are just unwrapped and distributed at the schools. It is mainly high school that have kitchens to fix meals, and a third of those are newer schools with new kitchens. The others may need new equipment (but does the existing work?), but it doesn't take $155 million to renovate those.

“The bigger question for me is the quality of the food. SLPS food is widely regarded as having too much fat, salt, and sugar and as contributing to an unhealthy lifestyle. Again, I wonder if the district shouldn't address the operations issues – the quality of the food – before addressing the capital issues that will be associated with them?”

On recreation equipment, Downs wrote:

"The district abandoned new playground equipment at several schools when they were closed (Wilknson was one of the more recent ones). Private donors renovated 12 high school athletic fields a few years ago. With the state pointing out that the district is lacking in even providing academic support to academically struggling students, and with the district cutting back P.E. hours and recess for everyone, should new sports facilities had the list of things the district wants?"

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