Two area school districts say years of declining revenue from lower property values will force them to make cuts if voters don’t approve tax increases on Nov. 8.
The Francis Howell and Affton school districts have gone years without a tax hike. In Affton’s case, at least part of the money will go toward constructing and renovating class space for a growing student population. Francis Howell’s wish list is more focused on keeping programs and services afloat.
“Our academic excellence is going to be more and more difficult to maintain,” said Francis Howell Superintendent Mary Hendricks-Harris.
Francis Howell: Losing teachers
Francis Howell School District is trying to pass a 60-cent tax levy increase, a year after it tried and failed to pass a 90-cent levy. For a $200,000 home, that would mean $19 more a month.
The district currently ties with Ft. Zumwalt as the highest-performing district in St. Charles County, and one of the highest in Missouri.
Yet it has made $12 million in cuts in the past two years, most of it from personnel.
Officials worry those cuts will soon diminish the district’s scores and send the district on a decline.
Officials say they had to make the cuts primarily because of lower local tax revenue. Property values in the county had been on the decline for six years prior to 2015.
Since 2008, 190 staff have been cut, including counselors, interventionists and special and alternate education staff. The district has cut Advanced Placement course offerings and services for struggling learners such as tutoring. It has also cut sports, extracurricular activities and support for new teachers.
If the district’s proposition fails, officials say bus transportation will likely be the next item on the chopping block. About 12,000 of the district’s 18,000 students are transported by bus.
Last year, a citizen’s group organized to oppose the proposition. The measure failed by an almost 2-to-1 ratio.
While no group organized this year, the proposition faces a challenge in winning the votes of conservative residents who have no ties to the schools and who believe the district is hypocritical for making student programming cuts while raising teacher salaries.
Francis Howell’s average teacher salary, $64,109, is the highest in St. Charles County, up from $54,780 in 2009. The next highest is Orchard Farm, which has an average teacher salary of $57,779, while the average Missouri teacher salary is $46,070.
“Until they get their spending under control and until there’s some major changes on the board of education as far as who’s making the major decisions, I would oppose any tax increase,” said Stephen Johnson, a former Francis Howell board member who organized against the district’s proposition last year.
Officials said salaries are frozen this year. District spokesman Matt Deichmann said the district raised salaries to be able to recruit and retain “the best and the brightest.”
District officials remind the two-thirds of residents who have no tie to the district that, even if they don’t have children in the schools, property values are closely tied to how well a school district does.
“I think most people in this district could afford this,” Hendricks-Harris said.
Affton: Rising enrollment
Meanwhile Affton, a smaller district with 2,670 students, has made $2 million in cuts over the past three years. Officials say they did so because of lower property values, lower state funding and tax appeals by commercial property owners.
The district has cut human resources and technology support positions and reduced staff through attrition, said Superintendent Steve Brotherton.
It’s asking voters for a 38-cent tax levy increase under Proposition I and another 49-cent increase for a $25 million bond issue, under Proposition N. Officials say the propositions together would cost residents with the typical $139,000 home $19.15 more a month.
The district wants to use the bond issue to renovate buildings and add classrooms to its K-3 and 3-5 buildings to accommodate for an 8 percent higher enrollment this year. Brotherton attributes the increase to the closure of a couple of nearby parochial schools and younger families moving to the area.
If the propositions fail, officials say they will start to cut student services like buses for students within a 3-mile radius, as well as support staff and teachers.
Affton has quietly and gradually raised its performance from being about average to a high-performing district. Last year, it improved its state score to 96.8 percent of possible points.
Jennifer Bird, a St. Louis County Republican Central Committee member who represents the township including Affton, said a small group of residents has organized against the proposition but didn’t want to address the issue with a reporter.