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April 2017 Election Results

4 Apr

Headlines (results here):

  • Ron Counts re-elected as Arnold mayor by 177 votes over Phil Amato. Candidate William Denman, probably a stalking horse, gets 276 votes. Fulbright, Owens, Hood, and Cooley win council seats (all but Hood are incumbents). With these results, and with Amato off the council, the Counts-Shockey-Sweeney cabal is only strengthened.
  • All three Byrnes Mill tax hikes fail (one ended in a tie, which means it failed by one vote).
  • Pevely alderman candidate Linda Hahn wins Ward 2 by one vote; Steph Haas re-elected as mayor.
  • Rock Fire’s large tax increase wins with 52% of the vote.
  • Fox school board incumbent Dawn Mullins wins while Vern Sullivan loses. Steve Holloway returns to the council after a one-year absence, while Scott Stewart also won a seat. Stewart joins Carole Yount and Sherry Poppen as part of the Jim Chellew clique on the board. Chellew was once Fox superintendent and was a mentor to a young Dianne Salsman Brown Critchlow (who indicated her support for Stewart on Facebook).
  • Jefferson County Library tax hike wins.
  • In the “every vote matters” category, along with Hahn and the BM tax, there was a tie for the second director seat at Valle Ambulance District between Steven Bergner and Nathan Myers.

April 4 Ballot Chock Full ‘O Taxes

19 Mar

April 15 is usually thought of as tax day, since that’s the deadline for filing your federal income taxes. But tax day in Jefferson County might come 11 days early this year. There are many tax proposals on the municipal election ballot. Obviously, each of these taxes only pertains to people living within the boundaries of the listed political entity. Let’s take a look at the proposals:

We will start with Byrnes Mill, which is swinging for the fences with three tax increases, one property tax hike of 40 cents per $100 valuation and two half-cent sales taxes.

byrnestax

Byrnes Mill’s current tax rates are as follows:

  • Property tax:
    • 40.35 cents per $100  – so they want to DOUBLE it. If passed, Byrnes Mill would go from second lowest to second highest property tax among cities in the county, behind Pevely’s 88.77 cents.
  • Sales tax:
    • 8.35% – total sales tax (including state, county, ambulance district, etc). If Props R and I both pass, Byrnes Mill would have the highest total sales tax rate in the county outside of a special taxing district (CID, TDD).

Byrnes Mill makes its case for the tax hikes here. The property tax is intended for police, and requires 2/3 approval to pass (this could be intended to make up for lost traffic ticket revenue thanks to SB5).

Jefferson County Library

The library is requesting a 8 cent increase in its 20 cents/$100 property tax. The library makes it case here. Districts like to forecast dire scenarios if tax proposals fail, and the library does that here, stating that one of its three locations could need to close in 5 years.

Windsor School District

This is one of those “no new tax” bond issues that keeps the tax levy the same, but extends it for additional years in the future, in this case 8 years for a $14.75 million bond issue. The district makes it case for the proposition here. The Leader reports that Windsor voters passed bond issues in 1998, 2001, 2006, and 2011.

Hillsboro School District

Another “no new tax” bond issue, this one for $12 million. Here is their campaign literature. Bond issues require a 4/7 majority for approval.

Festus School District

Festus is looking to convert 35 cents/$100 of debt service levy (which has an expiration date) to operating levy (which is permanent). Festus’ overall property tax rate, lowest among JeffCo school districts, would remain at $3.7407/$100 valuation. Plans for the tax proceeds are found here. Festus did something very similar just two years ago (page 3); it passed by a wide margin.

Rockwood and Meramec school districts, which cover small pieces of JeffCo, also have “no new tax” bond measures on the ballot for $95 million and $11.75 million, respectively. Rockwood voters passed a $68 million no tax bond issue just two years ago.

Festus Fireworks

Increase the business license fee on sellers of fireworks and firecrackers from one hundred and forty dollars ($140.00) plus three percent (3%) of the gross receipts to one thousand, five hundred dollars ($1,500)?

$1,500 minus $140 equals $1,360. By my calculations, $1,360 is 3% of $45,333. So if a fireworks stand in Festus brings in less than that amount, this is an increase in cost. It could just be a simplification rather than a revenue raiser.

Rock Fire

I talked about this a bit here. Rock Fire wants to increase its property tax by 50 cents/$100 valuation. Rock Fire’s current levy is 76.32 cents per $100, so this is a large increase. Rock Fire has the 10th lowest tax levy of 14 JeffCo fire districts (though Rock also has a sales tax); if this measure passes Rock would be 3rd highest. Rock Fire is pushing this really hard through mailers and door-to-door visits by firefighters. Here is their Facebook page, and here is the letter the chief sent out. A Facebook page called Whole Truth is examining with a critical eye Rock Fire’s claims that it needs more revenue.

Saline Valley Fire

Saline is asking for a 25 cents per $100 valuation increase in its property tax. Saline already has by far the highest property tax among fire districts in the county, at $1.575 per $100. The next highest is Cedar Hill Fire at $1.3826, and the majority of JeffCo fire districts levy less than $1. Saline does not have a sales tax, however.(Note: Saline Valley is the product of the merger of two fire districts. In 2008, by a simple majority, voters approved this merger. I think we need to see some more mergers). I was unable to find any campaign materials for this tax online.

I have not mentioned all of the local Proposition V listings on the ballot. These props, which every entity in the county is trying to pass, allows them to keep collecting sales taxes on private and out-of-state vehicle purchases. All Prop V votes to date in the county have passed.

Low Turnout, High Taxes

By my count, there are 13 tax proposals on county ballots this year, not counting Prop V. In 2015 there were 15 tax props, 12 of which were successful. In 2016 four of six were successful. Republicans have taken over most county elected offices, but in the nonpartisan local districts, tax hikes are still being requested quite frequently.

Turnout for the last two April elections was about 15%. In addition to these tax measures, city council, school board, and fire/ambulance board seats get filled in April. The candidates that get elected are the ones that put these taxes on the ballot. With the low turnout, it is city employees, teachers, firemen, and paramedics who make the difference in these races with their endorsements and their votes. Then you end up in a situation where the pocketbooks of residents are a secondary priority. With all these tax votes, as well as school board elections in two districts (Fox and Grandview) where employees have been investigated by the FBI for wrongdoing, it behooves JeffCo residents to go vote on April 4.

Critchlow was Reckless, But Prosecutors Feckless

19 Jan

Once again, an area prosecutor has declined to bring charges against disgraced former Fox C-6 superintendent Dianne Critchlow for her use of taxpayer funds as her personal piggy bank. This time it was St. Charles County prosecutor Tim Lohmar, who took over the case from JeffCo Prosecutor Wafflin’ (Forrest) Wegge, who first looked at the case, but then later decided to recuse himself.

Though none of us believe our justice system is perfect, we like to think, in the case of egregious offenses against the public trust, that people will be held accountable, and that those in powerful positions will be held to a higher standard. We trust that the many checks and balances that exist in our system will not let someone who commits public offenses get away with it.

But the system has failed here.

“The review of the investigation is now concluded,” Lohmar said in a statement, “with a finding that there were no violations of the criminal laws of the State of Missouri, and consequently, no criminal charges will be filed.”

Well hell’s bells. What does a superintendent have to do to get some jail time? Lohmar could not find any law that Critchlow had broken? I refuse to believe that our legal code is so inadequate that a prosecutor, who, as the saying goes, could indict a ham sandwich, could not find reason to charge Critchlow with anything. Back in June I, admittedly not a lawyer, perused the statutes and found several infractions that I think apply to Critchlow:

  • Felony stealing (B felony if over $25,000 stolen – multiple counts possible here)
  • Official misconduct (misdemeanor)
  • Fraudulent use of a credit device (felony if over $500 stolen within 30 days)
  • Fraudulent use of facsimile signature or seal (felony, 2-10 years jail). I’m not sure if this applies. We know she made unauthorized use of facsimile signatures on her contracts, but did she do so on “a public security or an instrument of payment?”
  • Tampering with physical evidence – felony in this case. Fox CFO John Brazeal said that several district employees destroyed electronic records and that former CFO Mark McCutchen shredded documents. Did Dianne do this or order others to do so?
  • Probably something securities related, having to do with the misuse of bond proceeeds that Brazeal reported in August 2014. While it noted the district’s failures in bond issuance, the auditor’s report did not mention anything about how bond proceeds were used.

A Review of the Audit

Let me pull a few of the more damning findings out of the state audit report on the Fox school district, via the Post-Dispatch, to see what kind of actions that Lohmar found to be not worthy of charges:

  • She manipulated her own salary without board approval, the audit states, by drawing up contract adjustments and signing them with the board’s electronic signature to net about $20,000 over two years beyond what the school board had agreed to pay her. Her husband received about $89,000 in compensation that was never approved and wrongly paid.
  • Over two years ending in 2014, she racked up about $100,000 in questionable expenses on three school district credit cards for things such as iTunes gift cards, shampoo, watches, wedding gifts and a garlic press.
  • Critchlow’s two sons were awarded about $7,000 collectively in scholarship money through three district scholarship programs that she personally oversaw.
  • Logging equipment was purchased on Amazon and sent to Critchlow’s home. She and her husband were trying to start a land and timber improvement/sales company.

But hey, nothing to see here. Carry on. No laws were broken. The former superintendent at St. Joseph, Dan Colgan, has to wonder why he ended up in jail for his theft. Maybe they just have better prosecutors over on that side of the state.

State Auditor Nicole Galloway stands by her office’s audit findings:

My office stands by the facts included in the independent audit report. The former superintendent used taxpayer dollars to personally benefit herself and a select few individuals close to her at the expense of the students, families and staff of the Fox School District. Whether those facts rise to the level of a criminal prosecution is at the sole discretion of the prosecuting attorney.

Too bad we can’t rely on our prosecutors.

Critchlow to Sue?

Critchlow’s lawyer, Brandy Barth, said they’re now going to sue:

Barth said Critchlow plans to file a lawsuit. Critchlow is no longer working “because of the defamation,” Barth said. “She couldn’t get hired to do anything.”

(Note: she was working for international education conglomerate Pearson before this blog made that news public.)

Now, normally I would laugh at this. Filing a lawsuit would open up Critchlow to discovery. She would have to answer questions under oath about her actions as superintendent. She would not want to do that, and as such, a lawsuit would be too risky.

However, such a lawsuit would be filed against Fox school district. The board there has not given us any indication they would want to fight this. I have little doubt that they would roll over and quickly agree to a settlement with Critchlow to make this go away. I predict such a settlement would be in the $50-100,000 range.

Any More Hope?

The only possible avenue remaining for justice here is the state attorney general. I’m not sure if the AG can act in this situation; if not, then Critchlow is free to spend her ill-gotten gains as she sees fit with no fear of legal repercussions. If that is the case, it is indeed a sad day in Missouri.

House Bills Sponsored by JeffCo Reps

15 Jan

The Missouri legislative session is underway, and with GOP supermajorities in both houses and a GOP governor, we should expect a lot of big items to be passed in the next few months. I’m going to take a look here at what bills our local representatives are pushing. I will look at the activities of the two state senators that cover Jefferson County in a separate post.

Shane Roden, R, 111th district, Cedar Hill –  He has a bill allowing adult motorcycle riders to go helmetless if they have proof of health insurance (motorcycle helmet freedom is a big issue with him) and another bill concerning firefighters and cancer and hazardous duty. On another interesting note, he is cosponsoring a medical marijuana measure. Roden is a paramedic and firefighter.

John McCaherty, R, 97th, High Ridge – He also has a motorcycle helmet law, but it requires everyone under 21 to wear a helmet, while Roden’s bill only requires helmets for those under 18. McCaherty has a bill regarding custody of in vitro human embryos and one about school library media services programs. He is co-sponsoring a bill to add crimes against police to the hate crimes law.

Rob Vescovo, R, 112th, Arnold – He is the most active local rep as it pertains to bill filing, and has several significant bills. One would require public entities to issue bonds via public sale, or competitive bidding. I wrote here about a state auditor’s report that stated that this change would save Missouri taxpayers millions of dollars by forcing the financial companies that work with public entities to get the best deal on bonds.

Another Vescovo bill would prevent political subdivisions from giving preferential treatment to unionized companies in public construction projects (aka project labor agreements, which drive up costs to taxpayers). This bill was introduced last year but did not come to a vote.

Another bill requires written contracts for school superintendents and assistant superintendents, and limits the amount of  severance pay that these officials can receive. This will stop the outrageous payouts to disgraced superintendents like Fox’s Dianne Critchlow.

Vescovo is also co-sponsoring the hate crimes against police bill, and is cosponsoring a bill to modify rules about expert witness testimony at trial (implementing the Daubert standard).

Dan Shaul, R, 113th, Imperial – No bills at this time.

Becky Ruth, R, 114th, Festus – She is trying again this year to create a Waterways Trust Fund to divert money to ports. She also wants to add two new genetics diseases to newborn screening requirements (she has added other diseases in the past) and add a teacher to the State Board of Education. Finally, she has a bill to create a tax deductible First-time Home Buyer Savings Account. Ruth is a former teacher and a current realtor.

Elaine Gannon, R, 115th, DeSoto – She is sponsoring a resolution urging the creation of a Joachim Creek Joint Task Force to battle repeated flooding in DeSoto, and she has a bill making some minor adds to high school equivalency degree testing programs. Gannon is a former teacher.

Ben Harris, D, 118th, Hillsboro – No bills at this time.

Who Will Replace Boyer on the County Council?

13 Jan

Jefferson County Councilman Bob Boyer, a Republican from the Arnold-area district 3, was elected in November to be the next county assessor. While other officials elected in November are taking office now, Boyer will not do so until September 1, so that the current assessor can complete the biennial reassessment cycle that is currently underway.

According to the county charter, section 12.3.4, it is up to the council to fill a vacancy on the council. One would think that the county executive would make the appointment in such a situation, but that is not the case. He would do so if a county office, like treasurer, became vacant, but not for a council vacancy. Boyer’s term expires after the November 2018 election, so the person the council chooses to replace him would serve for about a year before having to decide whether to run for re-election (assuming this appointment will take place in late summer/early fall).

Since the council, minus Boyer, consists of 4 Republicans and 2 Democrats, we can assume that a Republican will be appointed to the seat (sorry, Phil Amato). But who might that person be? Let’s engage in some wild speculation by looking at Republicans who have recently run for Arnold-area elected office:

EJ Fleischmann – Current Ward 1 city councilman in Arnold, elected in April 2016. He is active in local GOP politics and has ties to state Representative Dan Shaul and state Senator Paul Wieland. These ties make him a serious competitor for this seat. He is young, at only 24 years of age. Odds of being appointed: 3/2

Jason Fulbright – The other Arnold Ward 1 city councilman in Arnold. He was first elected in April 2013 (unopposed). He ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination for state representative against Shaul in 2014, but won the Arnold township GOP committeeman position. Last year he was elected to the water board for the Arnold area (after that board painted the water tower blue). His party connections are growing, but I don’t think he lines up as well as Fleischmann ideologically with those who will make the appointment. He is currently signed up to run for re-election to the Arnold council in April. Odds: 4/1 He has ruled out being appointed to this seat

Dan Smith – He lost to Democrat Jeff Roorda in the 2012 race for state representative in District 113. He currently serves on the county Planning and Zoning Commission. But most importantly, he served on the Fox School Board from 2008-2014, while disgraced former Fox superintendent Dianne Critchlow was stealing from the district. Here’s what I wrote when he was appointed to P&Z:

Anybody who has served on the Fox school board over the past six years is, in my mind, automatically disqualified for any elected or appointed office, because it was the board that allowed all of this to happen, through a combination of neglect, naivete, or coziness with Critchlow.

I cannot fathom that the Jefferson County Council would actually appoint this guy to join them. Given that Critchlow has yet to experience any repercussions for her actions, I think the uproar among county residents would be quite significant if Smith was entrusted with another public office. But he still has friends in GOP circles, as indicated by his appointment to P&Z. Odds: 12/1

Phil Hendrickson – He challenged Boyer in the 2014 GOP primary for county council, losing 58-42%. He serves on the Jefferson County Code Commission. Odds: 20/1

Anybody else?

2016 APR Rankings and School Poverty Rates

7 Jan

I am a bit behind here on posting the results of local schools in the 2016 Missouri Annual Performance Report (APR) rankings, which came out in November. So you may have already read about this. In order to add a little value, I am including the percentage of students in each district eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, which is the proxy for poverty rate generally used in the education business (income eligibility table here – it’s a Texas link but the numbers are the same). This will give us an indication of how poverty plays into the JeffCo school rankings.

For review, APR is a method of ranking schools in Missouri that takes into account test scores (and their changes over time), graduation rates, attendance, and college/career readiness. Here is my table:

2016-apr-table

The top three districts in the county for APR are unchanged this year, except that Windsor is tied for 2nd instead of being in 3rd place. Jefferson continues to improve, moving up to 4th this year while Northwest remains 5th. Hillsboro and Dunklin are slowly getting better. Sunrise and Desoto had bounce-back years, returning to their score from two years ago after big drops last year. Crystal City is stagnant, and Grandview dropped big; the district went from 4th in the county last year to 8th this year.

For statewide comparison, the Post-Dispatch reports that “about 67 percent of districts in the state got at least a 90 percent score, which is similar to last year.”

Free/Reduced Lunch Rates

There is definitely a correlation between APR score and free lunch rate in JeffCo; the five districts with the highest free lunch rates occupy the bottom five spots in the rankings, though not in order. Dunklin has the highest free lunch rate at 55.9%, followed by Sunrise and Desoto (which has the lowest APR). The statewide percentage of students eligible is 51.7%. Free lunch rates and other data are available here.

Interestingly, Festus, the best district in the county by the APR and MAP measures, has only the fifth-lowest free lunch rate. Facts like this show that a district can overcome a higher poverty rate, at least to some extent. The lowest free lunch rate is at Fox, at 32.6%, 23 percent less than at Dunklin.

Comparing Small School Districts

5 Jan

The Post-Dispatch had a story on New Year’s Day about the Strain-Japan School District in Franklin County, which consists of just one elementary school but has had great academic success:

The school is one of about 70 elementary-only, mostly rural, single-school districts in Missouri that receive little attention in the education arena. When they do, they’re often cited by education reform advocates as proof of what they think is an expensive, excessive number of school districts in Missouri.

But Strain-Japan’s test scores regularly rival and even best those of St. Louis’ wealthy and renowned school districts, while operating at a fraction of the cost.

This brought to mind JeffCo’s elementary-only school district, Sunrise, south of De Soto and 55 miles southeast of Strain-Japan. This district doesn’t do so well, showing up in the bottom half of county schools in performance ratings, though it ticked up in 2016. I thought I would compare some numbers between the two districts. These are from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) website:

strain-sunrise

Along with the test scores, the other numbers definitely favor Strain-Japan: less poverty, higher tax rate, more spending per student. Taken together, these certainly explain some of the discrepancy, but the difference in test scores is quite significant. People in the Sunrise district will want to study the P-D article, and maybe take a field trip out to Sullivan, MO, to learn more about how Strain-Japan has been so successful.

Note: Sunrise just passed a bond measure in August, so the district will be getting more money soon, which will be spent on district buildings and infrastructure.

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