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As autism diagnoses grow, Special School District seeks tax increase

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 24, 2012 - The Special School District of St. Louis County has lots of numbers to back up its request for a 19-cent increase in its property tax rate on the ballot next month, but Superintendent John Cary says one in particular makes the case pretty well.

In the year 2000, he says, the district served 500 students diagnosed with autism. Now, that number is 2,500, and it is projected to go much higher.

Why the increase has occurred is an open question, Cary says, but the effects are real.

“There is a national debate ongoing about why there seems to be kind of an explosion in that population,” he said. “At this point, there doesn’t seem to be any definite answer that I have seen.

“But those students are very expensive. We had a budget of about $5 million for them move to $22 million over that amount of time. We’re doing a much better job of diagnosis. We provide a high level of service. Sometimes I think we’re kind of a destination for kids who are diagnosed on that spectrum.”

The tax increase, on the ballot as Proposition S, would raise the district’s levy from its current $1 for each $100 of assessed valuation. The district said that for a home valued at $100,000, it would cost an extra $36.10 a year; if passed, it would raise $41 million a year for the district, which has an annual budget of $390 million and should cover its needs for six years.

Plans for the new money include updated technology, competitive salaries for staff, maintaining services for the growing number of autistic students and providing a safe environment for the needs of the district’s special student population.

With its dual mission, the district serves 24,000 disabled students and 2,000 more who are enrolled in vocational education. The disabled students are served in five district buildings and 260 more buildings in the county's other school districts. The voc-ed students attend classes in 35 programs at the district’s two high schools.

Emphasizing that officials have been fiscally responsible, Cary said that in recent years, as its budget tightened, the district has reduced 5 percent of its staff across the board – teachers, administrators and others – and 19 percent of costs beyond staff. The personnel cuts amounted to between 75 and 100 positions in each of the last three years, he said.

Still, the district projects a deficit of about $10.8 million in the current fiscal year and an even larger one of $15 million the year after that. It last sought a tax increase in November 2006, when an 18-cent hike won 62 percent of the vote.

The district has about $85 million in capital needs to improve outdated buildings; the rest of the new money would support student programs, Cary said. Without the increase, he added, the district would first reduce spending in areas that don’t directly affect student programs, but further staff reductions and no salary increases would most likely go into effect the following year.

Cary said that the cash crunch has come despite what he called close attention to spending and the bottom line.

“We feel like we’ve been pretty vigilant in trying to avoid this,” he said. “But the economy drives revenue, and in my 30 years of working with school budgets, I have never seen all three revenue streams – state, federal and local – go down like they have this time.”

He said that so far, class size has not been affected by recent staff cuts because the student population – in areas other than autistic kids – has dipped about 1.5 percent a year for the past four years. The reduction has helped manage costs, but Cary noted that it has also reduced revenue, which depends in part on enrollment.

Special School District got some budget help a few years ago when it sold its West County Tech building to Westminster Christian Academy, but Cary said that infusion only delayed the tight budget the district faces now.

He also said that changes in the way the district is governed have helped it overcome problems that were widespread in the 1990s and have provided more public oversight.

Filings with the Missouri Ethics Commission show that the campaign for Proposition S has raised about $14,000. No organized opposition has surfaced. Cary said the effort primarily has been an informational one with the people and agencies that the district serves. Compared with campaigns for other issues on the Nov. 6 ballot, the spending is pretty small.

“We’ve been trying to do a lot with Facebook,” he said. “The Vote Yes committee has been out trying to raise money to do some advertising. Obviously, it’s a hard environment in a political year like this, and with this economy, to raise a lot of money, so we’re not sure how much they will be able to raise.”

Cary said that because the district serves such a large area, he felt that putting the tax increase proposal on the November ballot, where turnout is expected to be larger, was the right thing to do. “It’s kind of different from when a local school district is running its own levy,” he said.

And though Proposition S will be competing with other tax increase proposals, such as the push for a higher cigarette tax statewide and the effort to raise the levy in areas served by the St. Louis County Library, he hopes that voters see the need to serve vulnerable children and cast their ballots accordingly. So far, he added, things look good.

“Hopefully,” Cary said, “children with disabilities and the services that we provide will win the day. It does in my mind, but it may not in everybody’s.”

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