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Arnold: Where Failure is Cool

26 Jul

I saw this photo in the Leader this week:

sammons arn board

This illustrates an interesting principle in Arnold, that failure and unethical behavior does not get punished, nor does it remove you from “polite” society. See Margie Sammons there? She resigned as chief of the Rock Ambulance district under an ethical and professional cloud after allowing the district’s narcotics license to lapse for the third time and after being found to have helped with the campaigns of some board members while going to great lengths to try to have another board member removed. Yet there she is, still on the board of the Arnold Chamber of Commerce, which she joined at least seven years ago.

As a bonus, look who’s speaking at the next meeting: police chief Robert Shockey, who got his son-in-law hired on with free police academy training, sold items from his personal businesses to the city of Arnold, and filed a bogus, politically-motivated lawsuit against the city to get money. But he has faced few repercussions from all this, other than a public rebuke by some city council members.

Sammons has also stayed in good stead with the Rotary Club. Here she is being celebrated by the club upon her “retirement.”

sammons retire rotary

One could also cite the Fox school district as an example of this phenomenon, where administrators who posted foul statements online and/or abetted the Dianne Critchlow regime keep their jobs (albeit after a demotion), while pals of Critchlow get elected to the school board and nobody goes to jail.

Jefferson County, Missouri Solar Eclipse Happenings

8 Jul

The Monday, August 21 total solar eclipse is fast approaching, and Jefferson County has a front row seat. As one moves south from Arnold to DeSoto, the amount of time that the sun will be completely covered (totality) will increase from 2 minutes and 8 seconds up to 2:40, so the further south you go, the longer the eclipse you get to see (until you pass Desoto, then it starts decreasing again). The partial eclipse will start at about 11:45 am, the total eclipse will start at 1:17 pm +/- 20 seconds (starting earlier in the south), and the partial eclipse will end at about 2:45 pm.

Here’s a map from eclipsewise.com:

eclipse-map2

 

The red line is the path of longest duration and the blue line is the limit of where you can see the total eclipse. So much of St. Louis is not in the eclipse zone, and we can expect many visitors from up north on eclipse day, as well as visitors from outside the area. For example, Festus is anticipating thousands of people at its eclipse-day festivities, and all the hotels there are booked up. One estimate says the county’s population will more than double on August 21. So plan on traffic and crowds if you are going out in public that day, especially if you are going south. Get there early.

Here is a list of eclipse activities happening in Jefferson County. The number after each location denotes the duration of totality at that site. I will update this as needed leading up to the big day. Let me know if there’s an event I should add.

Note: Schools in Jefferson County are starting classes the week before the eclipse, and are scheduled to be in session on the 21st (except Sunrise, which starts the 23rd). Update: Schools have been deciding in July and August to cancel classes for the day. Only Fox and Northwest are now planning to be in session.

Arnold, 2:08: Three day event with car show, fun run, science booths, kids events, and a bluegrass festival.

Kimmswick, 2:20: One day of trivia, music, shops, raffles, and a live radio broadcast.

Herculaneum, 2:32: Three-day festival with fun run, parade, live music, and kids activities. Herky also has an array of merchandise available (some other cities have shirts as well).

House Springs, 2:34: The JeffCo Parks and Rec Department is recommending its Northwest Jefferson County Sports Complex as a viewing site. Also, the Deer Creek USA golf course will have a viewing.

Festus, 2:35: Informational presentations, other unnamed activities that weekend.

Hillsboro (Jefferson College), 2:38: One day event with concessions, souvenirs, and activities for the whole family. Viewing will also occur at the Civic Club.

DeSoto, 2:40: A number of viewing sites throughout town on eclipse day, some with food and activities. The AmVets Post seems to have the most excitement planned.

The branches of the JeffCo library will be holding events as well (Arnold, Barnhart, High Ridge).

And for good measure, I’ll throw in:

Ste. Genevieve (2:40): Music festival on Sunday, eclipse viewing with food, entertainment, and exhibits on Monday.

The Leader also has an eclipse guide.

P.S. – Get your eclipse glasses for safe viewing.

Grandview School Theft Results in Guilty Plea

5 Jul

Unlike Fox’s Dianne Critchlow, the culprit in the theft of $1.6 million from the Grandview R-II school district, Angela Huskey, will face legal consequences, as she has plead guilty to felony fraud in federal court last week. According to the Post-Dispatch:

At her Oct. 13 sentencing, Huskey faces roughly four to five years in prison under recommended federal sentencing guidelines. She will also be ordered to repay the money.

Huskey has agreed to forfeit nearly $200,000 in various accounts and a two bedroom condo at Table Rock Lake, or the condo’s sales proceeds.

Interestingly, Huskey employed the same law firm as Critchlow – Newton Barth. They must be the go-to lawyers for public school fraudsters. But the important difference is that, while Critchlow was a superintendent, Huskey was a mere business manager. Hence, while Critchlow got put on paid administrative leave and then was allowed to retire with a big separation payment, Huskey was put on unpaid leave (after a brief period of paid leave) and then quickly fired. And now Huskey likely goes to jail while Critchlow walks free.

Staggering Swindle

In a statement, superintendent Matt Zoph, who took over the job a year or so ago, said that when the district “became aware of possible irregularities relating to the district’s internal fiscal controls, we worked diligently and aggressively to determine the nature and scope of the irregularities.” However, it took ten years for this awareness to take place. According to the feds (the same ones who gave Critchlow a pass), Huskey started stealing money as far back as summer of 2006, stopping only when she was discovered and fired in October of last year.

 

How could this happen? How could one person be able to get away with all of this without being caught? Where was the administration? Where was the school board? These are questions that the district will need to answer. The district is currently reviewing policies and procedures, to prevent such theft in the future. But this is about more than policies, it is about the people who are supposed to lead the district.

Facing Accountability

Grandview officials have not said much about this case, citing the federal investigation, but that is over now – it is time for them to start talking. The district said they are working on holding a special board meeting to discuss this incident with the public. This needs to happen quickly. As I stated in a previous post, there needs to be a state audit. Never mind that the district just spend $80,000 to have Dan Jones do a special audit of the district; a state audit is open, public, and wide-ranging. If the school board requests it, and the auditor agrees to take it on, there is no cost to the district. This is what happened at Fox.

The Grandview school board needs to be taken to task, and current members need to be removed. They were clearly not doing their jobs. Back in April, two board members were replaced: Dion Moore lost his bid for re-election and board president Randy Wakefield decided not to run for another term. Next April, two board members will be on the ballot if they choose to run again –  board president Bob Gearhart and Abe Eoff.

At the June board meeting, Zoph stated that a request for proposals had been put out for a new auditing firm. Schowalter and Jobouri Financial Services of St. Louis County has previously done the district’s annual audits. As we have seen in many districts, these are basic types of audits that every school does that are apparently unable to catch fraud.

According to Zoph, via the April 27 Leader, the district’s insurance will cover any financial losses related to wrongdoing. Conversely, Fox does not think its insurance will cover anything and does not seem to be planning to pursue a claim (maybe because there were no charges?).

We have already started to hear “time to move on” language, like we hear from Fox. Let’s not dwell on this, they may say, it’s bad for the children. But in reality that’s just a way to prematurely end the search for accountability, punishment, and reparations. Here’s what Zoph said in April:

What happened in the past is in the past. We are going to make everything correct in the future.

But the residents of Grandview can help ensure that we don’t move on too quickly. They can look to DeSoto for an example, where over 1,200 people joined a Facebook group in late April in support of a fired principal. The group has turned out in force at board meetings, raised money for the principal, held planning meetings, and started collecting signatures to have a state audit performed.

At Fox, there was a brief surge of activism, with a widely followed Facebook page (which seems to have been removed), huge attendance at board meetings, and plenty of anger. But recent school board elections have failed to produce real candidates of change.

Grandview parents do have a watchdog style Facebook page, but has only about 240 members. This could be a place to organize and share ideas.

The next scheduled Grandview school board meeting is July 20.

May Legislative Update

8 May
  • Sen. Gary Romine (R, 3rd district, Farmington) has been under heavy criticism for his role sponsoring SB43, a bill to change the legal standard in discrimination lawsuits from “contributing factor” to “motivating factor” (a higher bar to clear). This would prevent frivolous suits like the one filed by Arnold police chief Bob Shockey. Romine is under fire because a business he owns is being sued for discrimination. But this law would even not affect his case; since the suit is already in progress, it would proceed under the current rules. And people who are actually discriminated against can still win lawsuits under SB43, their claims just have to have some merit to them. Remember how Dianne Critchlow has threatened to sue the Fox district now that feckless prosecutors have let her off the hook? I guarantee her suit will include a baseless gender discrimination claim if it is filed under the current standard. As a business owner, Romine knows about the issues Missouri has with frivolous lawsuits, and is trying to address the problem. The House would need to approve this bill this week in order to send it to the governor.

Romine: “Rather than seeing this bill for what it is — one of the most significant economic development measures to come along in years — the media has been more interested in eliciting the opinions of trial attorneys, SB 43’s only real opposition and a group of people who generally stand to lose from any significant progress on the tort reform front.”

  • Sen. Paul Wieland (R, 22nd, Imperial) briefly held up the passage of HB 130, the bill to allow rideshare services like Uber to operate statewide. He thought, misguidedly in my opinion, that Uber drivers would drop their personal auto insurance since Uber provides coverage while you are working. He had other concerns as well. But three weeks later, Wieland’s concerns were satisfied and the bill was passed and signed into law.

“I just wanted to make sure we protect the public and we keep the number of uninsured motorists to a minimum and I believe this bill will do that,” Wieland told The Missouri Times Thursday.

  • Rep. Rob Vescovo (R, 112th, Arnold) was the House sponsor of SB 182, which eliminates project labor agreements in public construction projects. This bill, which has passed both houses, ends requirements that non-union contractors pay union wages and stops local governments from giving preferential treatment to union contractors. This bill will reduce the cost to taxpayers of public projects. Reps. Vescovo, Shaul, and John McCaherty (R, 97th, High Ridge) voted yes; Reps. Elaine Gannon (R, 115th, DeSoto), Becky Ruth (R, 114th, Festus), and Ben Harris (D, 118th, Hillsboro) voted no; and Roden voted present (weak).

“Some would say it’s an anti-union legislation, and I disagree,” Vescovo said after the House adjourned for the week. “I would say it’s pro-worker and it allows the other 86 percent of the workforce to bid on projects and work on projects without being signatory. That’s very important.”

  • Rep. Dan Shaul (R, 113th, Imperial) ticked off teachers, according to the Leader,  with his vote for HB634, which would allow for the expansion of charter schools in the state. Shaul also serves on the Windsor school board. Charters currently exist only in St. Louis and Kansas City. Teachers claimed Shaul has a conflict of interest, which I don’t buy. Some teachers turned their back on Shaul as he was sworn in for another term at the April 12 board meeting, which is quite juvenile. It doesn’t look like this bill will get a Senate vote. McCaherty, Roden, and Vescovo also voted yes on this bill.

“I would disagree with the assumption that my vote on HB 634 was a conflict of interest,” Shaul said. “The vote I took on 634 was to ensure that all kids throughout the state of Missouri have the same opportunity that kids (who) go to Windsor have.”

  • Along with SB43, other much-needed legal reforms have been advancing through the legislature, and our county reps have voted for them along party lines. However, Rep. Shane Roden (R, 111th, Cedar Hill) voted no on HB460, which would limit out-of-state plaintiffs who bring their cases in St. Louis in hopes of winning big verdicts. This is why you hear all those ads from lawyers about talcum powder and cancer on the radio or see them on billboards. Those plaintiffs don’t even live here.
  • Sen. Romine took to the Senate floor during debate over the budget to offer an amendment to fully fund the state’s foundation formula for education for the first time. It was a bit unusual to do this on the floor after the Appropriations Committee already put the budget bill together, and it caused a split between Senate leadership and some GOP senators as the amendment passed. Romine voted yes on this, Wieland voted no. The House also voted to fully fund the formula.
  • The issue of whether to join a prescription drug monitoring program (PDMP) has been roiling county government here for months, but such a plan is also advancing at the legislature, and if it passes it would make the JeffCo debate moot. The House and Senate will be going to a conference committee to iron out their differences, but with only one week left, it seems unlikely this will get done. In the House, representatives McCaherty, Roden, and Vescovo voted no on the PDMP bill, HB 90, as did Sen. Wieland.

Parents React to DeSoto Principal Resignation

3 May

Adam Grindstaff, principal of Vineland Elementary in the DeSoto school district, was forced to resign last week over “the use of district monies.” According to district parents, the issue was the unapproved purchase of a vacuum cleaner for the school; the district will not provide specifics. The district notes that Grindstaff declined his right to a public hearing before resigning.

A swell of outrage resulted from this event, leading to a petition calling for the reinstatement of Grindstaff that garnered over 1,400 signatures and a Facebook group with over 1,100 members. A school board meeting on Monday was moved to a larger location (the junior high cafeteria) to accommodate residents, who were only given a total of 30 minutes to speak to the board. Grindstaff’s attorney was not allowed to speak publicly during this meeting, on advice of the district’s attorney. It is noteworthy that DeSoto employs the same law firm, Mickes O’Toole, that the Fox district used during the reign of Dianne Critchlow. It was this firm that sent out letters threatening lawsuits against vocal critics of the district for daring to speak out while also thwarting parents who attempted to get services for their children with special needs. The law firm also helped Critchlow resist transparency as she withheld credit card statements and other requested records until her kingdom crumbled.

What Now?

At this point, Vineland parents are wondering what steps to take next. I would like to offer some thoughts:

Meeting result: The district has stated that the board voted to accept the resignation, and word is that it was unanimous. Under the Missouri Sunshine Law, the results of any votes taken in closed sessions of board meetings must be revealed within 72 hours. So by Friday DeSoto will have to reveal what votes were taken Monday night (residents may have to request this information) and the results of the roll call (how each board member voted).

School Board Elections: The next board election is April 3, 2018. Two board members, Beverly Wilson and Terry Noble, will be up for re-election (if they choose to run again). The registration period for candidates will run from mid-December to mid-January. The best scenario would be that all opposition gets together around two challengers in order to not split the vote.

Missouri law does not allow for the recall of school board members. After the Fox fiasco, Rep. Rob Vescovo from Arnold introduced a bill to create such a process specifically for that district, but it did not pass the House. Other similar bills have been introduced in the past 15 years but have also failed. Currently, recalls can only take place of elected city officials in third-class cities in Missouri (like Arnold or DeSoto).

Superintendent: DeSoto’s superintendent is Josh Isaacson, a former assistant superintendent in the district who took the top job in July of 2016. He can be removed by the school board. However, he has a contract that is probably for two or three years. If he were to be let go during the contract, he would be due for a big payout from the district unless they could show cause. It was only five years ago that DeSoto paid $208,000 to get rid of a superintendent, Critchlow crony Andy Arbeitman.

State Audit: Residents could petition the state auditor to audit the school district. This would lead to a deep-dive into the district’s finances and operations. While it would not directly impact the Grindstaff issue, every school district could use a good state audit. The recent audit of Fox documented many problems. The school district would have to pay for a petition audit, which could cost $40,000 or so. After submitting a request form to the auditor, residents would have to gather a number of signatures based on the number of votes cast in the district in the last election for governor. By my calculations, there were 12,223 such votes cast, and so 1,222 signatures (10%) would need to be gathered within one year. If everyone who signed the online petition mentioned above actually lives in the school district, there are enough signers right there.

Lawsuit: Grindstaff could pursue a lawsuit against the district. He has legal counsel. I’m not sure if the fact that he resigned instead of making them fire him makes a difference in his chances of winning or getting a settlement.

Call Representatives: Residents could contact their legislators to discuss this. However, Rep. Elaine (Freeman) Gannon is said to be related to DeSoto assistant superintendent Clint Freeman, so there would be a conflict there. Rep. Ben Harris covers part of the DeSoto area, and the state senator for DeSoto is Gary Romine.

Wastes of Time

The following moves, however, will not accomplish anything.

  • Trying to get the board to remove the superintendent. The board hired him a year ago, and they voted to support the Grindstaff resignation. Why would they remove the superintendent over this? Plus, they don’t want to have to pay a big settlement.
  • Trying to remove board members prior to the election. There’s no way to do it, as I stated above. And the vote to accept the resignation was a judgment call on their part, not a sign of misconduct. But it is one that can be punished at the ballot box.

I salute the parents of Vineland for becoming politically active in response to this decision that they strongly disagree with. Unfortunately, the next election is 11 months away. But keep communicating, get organized, learn the relevant state laws, attend board meetings, and vote, and you can make a difference. As we have seen in the Fox district, it’s not easy to win elections and affect significant change. But it is worth trying.

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.

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