Published Monthly at the Lake of the Ozarks
LAKE OF THE OZARKS
Tempers flare over Eldon school tax levy
by Monica Vincent
In 1993, the State of Missouri passed their new Foundation Formula and named "hold harmless" school districts whose state funding would be frozen at their current levels. Districts whose assessed evaluation was high enough fell into this category, and the districts who did not were subject to any and all increases and decreases in statewide funding. (See June issue of Lake of the Ozarks Business Journal) Eldon has been a victim of decreases in the last three years to the tune of $1.3 million in cuts. Those losses have been felt in every area including facilities, staffing, programs, security, test scores, and graduation and dropout rates.
Certainly not alone in this statewide funding crisis, what differs in the Eldon school district is the emotional upheaval that has taken place with voters over the school’s upcoming August 2nd request for more local support.
On Friday, July 1st, Mayor Ron Bly of Eldon called an emergency city council meeting to address the situation between citizens on both sides of this voting levy and a conflict that appeared to have grown out of control. Earlier that day a group of ‘Vote No’ picketers sporting signs with Nazi swastikas had gathered outside the Capital Regional medical offices of Dr. Scott Griswold, a ‘Vote Yes’ supporter.
Bystanders and picketers exchanged words, television news crews and newspapers took interviews, and the police were called. Soon after, ‘Vote Yes’ adults and children sporting banners took up residence on the sidewalks outside of the home and business of ‘Vote No’ supporter Gene Bauer, Professor of Business and Economics at State Fair Community College.
Chief Rodney Fair reported to the city council that the organizers of the Griswold picket had called beforehand to make sure they were legal to picket. Fair said the picket was initiated over a disagreement between Jim Ferguson, a ‘Vote No’ supporter, and Dr. Griswold wherein Griswold chose to decline his medical services to Ferguson, an existing patient.
As reported, the decision was based on the conflict of interest between the two and potential liability. Fair said the pickets ended peaceably.
Mayor Bly felt the emergency meeting was necessary because he was "afraid things could escalate and get ugly." The council released a press statement at the conclusion of their meeting:
"We’re confident that the police department is prepared to keep peace regarding this matter and we urge cool heads to prevail on both sides of the argument. We support any necessary actions of the Chief of Police to maintain peace in the community."
Rumors of harassment on both sides had been surfacing since well before the school’s first unsuccessful request for an increased tax levy in April. The so far unsubstantiated rumors range from phone calls to property damage, and the incidents of verbally abusive public exchanges have continued to rise. Along with such, has come opinion in the form of paid advertisements in the local newspaper, predominantly from the group Citizens Against the Tax Levy.
The use of these often accusatory ads may prove to be the undoing of those responsible. On July 25, the school district received a letter from R.F. Connor, the Executive Director of the Missouri Ethics Commission stating: "Please be advised that at the July 21, 2005 meeting of the Missouri Ethics Commission, the complaint filed against Citizens Against the Levy, Jim Ferguson, Treasurer, was considered. The Commission found sufficient evidence to refer this case to the Office of the Attorney General for the preparation of the filing of a formal complaint and possible hearing before the commission."
For every emotionally charged and often misleading accusation, there are also valid arguments on each side of the issue.
Said City Councilman, Greg Sullens (First Ward), "The animosity is ill-founded. People who are violently opposed to the levy need to look at how they were able to raise their own children and the shortfalls they faced. The world is a much more competitive place today, and we can’t afford to continue letting our children fall behind."
The tax levy in question was denied in April. The district had requested an additional 39¢ to add to the school’s operating levy of $2.75 – among the six lowest in the state. Missouri established a state performance levy recommendation of $3.43. The current average levy is $3.26.
The August 2nd request has been lowered to 30¢ in response to increased property assessments for the counties and residents who fall inside the district. Said Eldon school Superintendent C.J. Huff, "We’re trying to be sensitive to Morgan Co. residents because we knew they were taking a hit. The increased property assessment will give us approximately $600,000 in additional funds, but this comes on the heels of $1.3 million in cuts."
For Eldon that has meant a loss of 40 positions and 11 programs. Huff continues, "Things are not getting cheaper either. Operating costs, fuel, health insurance, everything goes up."
Said Huff, "We are also applying for several grants – healthy schools, preschool, volunteer, but the problem with grants is that there is a stopdate on them and then we have to figure out where to come up with the money to continue the programs they were funding. The levy would generate $1.9 million in state money over 7 years. That’s a little better than dollar for dollar."
Despite the obvious need for funding, a tax levy in this school district is no small thing. Even though the district has an average assessed evaluation, the poverty level here is 55% — double the state average of 26%.
The district also has a large number of retirees. Ken DeBoer, a 73 year old Eldon resident, and ‘Vote No’ supporter is one of them.
Says DeBoer, "I retired 10 or 15 years ago and everything was cheaper. Now everything just keeps getting more expensive. They want raises, while as a retiree I have to do with less. Sure, I could go out and run some more cattle and try to raise my income, but at 73 I shouldn’t have to and don’t want to." He continues, "I’ve spent 30 some years in Eldon and I’ve voted for every levy the school ever had, but I can’t see that it ended up doing them any good."
One option for retirees like DeBoer may be the Missouri Homestead Preservation Act which enables senior citizens and disabled persons to obtain a credit against their property taxes for an increase to their taxes that exceeds 5% in a reassessment year and 2.5% in a non-reassessment year. Some of the qualifications include a minimum age of 65 for at least one spouse, and income cannot exceed $70,000. Property owners who fall into the correct age category should consult their accountant for qualifications.
If the issues were money alone, things may not have grown so heated in this district. However, there are many more incendiary concerns.
The following text is an edited version of a letter provided by Mr. Gene Bauer, Professor of Business and Economics at the State Fair Community College, and a local business owner. Mr. Bauer has been a driving force behind the efforts of the Citizens Against the Tax Levy. The edited portions of the letter contained accusations and/or anecdotes, involving unnamed parties, which were unable to be verified. Other repetitive portions were edited for brevity.
"We the people, the concerned citizens opposing the school tax levy, want to improve the total educational experience for ALL of our children. Our priorities revolve around our children’s immediate and long-term scholastic needs.
Our previous and current school board, and current administration, have made some serious blunders in fiscal and personnel management, thus creating our current situation. The School District is top-heavy in all levels of management, as well as being extremely over paid. Our schools are lacking responsible, ethical and moral leadership from some school board members and our schools present administration. We demand accountability! We are losing our good teachers because of their lack of staff management! We must hold our school board and administration accountable for their lack of supervision and inadequate attention.
They must not be allowed to continue to ruin our schools. We entrusted to them our most precious possession – OUR CHILDREN. And look what is happening! We have a 27% drop-out rate and our children barely score higher than a monkey! Our pleas have been ignored too long! We must replace the incumbent board members and school administration with new blood - forward thinking people. Remember that we are in this position because of personal agendas, narrow-mindedness, and inept fiscal management by this administration and previous boards!!!
It is my belief that the following are true facts...
1. Our administrators are inadequate and lack integrity. They are responsible for recent alleged cheating and other improprieties on the states MAP testing program.
2. Because of our administrations ineptness concerning state guidelines and rules regarding curriculum, we are being placed on probationary status by the state board of education. Our administrators (not our children) are responsible for scoring an unacceptable 75 on the states last district audit!
3. A few weeks ago, one of our teachers was issued a warning citation for endangerment to a minor by the Eldon police for having school children in the back of a pickup truck dumping good computers and school desks in various dumpsters throughout town – THESE CHILDREN WERE SUPPOSED TO BE IN SUMMER SCHOOL at the time of the occurrence! Why didn't they hold an auction for this good equipment, or donate them to the needy?
4. I do not believe that giving the teachers a $500 raise, a $1355 increase in benefit pay, a .5% increase in the retirement (approximately $250) totaling about $400,000 (thus gobbling up the lions share of the reassment tax monies) is going to make them CARE for our children. Is this going to bring up our test scores? I think not. And what did our secretaries, janitors, kitchen staff and bus drivers get?...NOTHING! Confused priorities!
5. Our tax dollars are supposed to be spent for kindergarten through 12th grade. Why then is our administration taking $500,000 of our tax dollars and spending it on head start programs? Could it be because they have preschool children that they want us to pay for? We are having enough trouble funding what we already have!
6. I have not seen a 3 year or 5 year plan. WHY? Don't they have a plan?
7. Why have they already abandoned the priority list that came out last month?
8. Did anyone mention that this tax levy isn’t going to fix the problems?
9. Our administrators have not been awarding bids to the low bidder, thus damaging our schools integrity and wasting the tax payers hard-earned money!
10. Why are some school employees the highest paid people in Miller County? Did you know the approx. pay package of some of the school support staff?
Asst. principal $61,000
Asst superintendent $94,650
(2) Asst. to the Asst. superintendent $55,000
Kindergarten Guidance counselor $58,000
Transportation director $55,000
Special education director $62,500
Nurse teacher $66,000
Mr. Bauer attributes his list of problems to 3 things:
1) CARE! If more of our teachers really cared about the education of the kids and took a positive, proactive approach to try to accommodate the childrens hierarchy of needs, we wouldn't have the problems in our school today.
2) Greed - A majority of the teachers are only interested in what we can do for them, and not what they can do for our children and/or the rest of the community. Our community at large is making half of what the teachers make (on a 9 month contract) and being asked to tighten up their belt even more so the teachers can have a raise!
3) Self interest - Good teachers see that our community is struggling as a whole. The bad ones blame us for why our school is disfunctional and have taken NO RESPONSIBILITY for our children scoring at an unacceptable 38 percentile on state testing!
We don’t have a revenue problem – we have wasteful spending problem and an apathy problem!"
These are examples of the arguments the school must overcome in order to be successful in their quest for funding on August 2nd.
We present an examination of the validity of the arguments made above in the accompanying article beginning on page five.