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Residents vote on property tax increase for Francis Howell schools

A school bus parked at Fairmount Elementary in St. Peters touts Proposition Y, a property tax increase for the Francis Howell School District, as campers play on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2015. The school also serves as a voting precinct. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

ST. CHARLES COUNTY • More staff reductions, a big slash in school bus service and a four-day class week are among steps to be considered by the Francis Howell School Board after the overwhelming defeat of a property tax increase at Tuesday’s election.

The board will meet at 7 p.m. Thursday to discuss a wide range of potential cuts over the next two school years. The menu of options was submitted to the board prior to the election by district finance officials.

Board president Mark Lafata said Wednesday that he didn’t support trying again soon with another tax proposal after the defeat by almost a two-to-one ratio of Tuesday’s measure.

“The voters have spoken, and we’re going to live with the current revenue stream,” Lafata predicted.

Lafata and Mike Sommer, another board member, said the board would attempt to make $10 million in cuts to balance the budget for the coming school year. That would be in addition to more than $8 million in reductions already in place before the tax vote.

Lafata was among four board members who voted in the spring to put the tax increase — 90 cents for each $100 of assessed valuation — on Tuesday’s ballot. Sommer was among three members who opposed that move.

School bus service is one of the bigger-ticket items on the potential cut list.

Under the proposal, only students living at least 3½ miles from their school could still qualify. The move would cut off transportation for about 7,600 of the district’s 17,000 or so students, beginning as soon as this school year’s second semester.

The bus cut would save the district $1 million this school year and $3 million next year.

Among other potential steps this school year is eliminating jobs of up to 23 certified personnel, including teachers, and as many as 20 support workers. That could save up to $2.5 million. Steeper staff reductions are possible in the 2016-17 school year.

This year’s option list also includes ending staff travel for training and conferences, which would save $145,000, and halting an ongoing extension of wireless Internet service to all schools. That amounts to $350,000.

Introduction of a new web-based system allowing teachers to post assignments online and other features could be shelved, for a saving of $100,000.

Shifting to a four-day class week is a possibility for the 2016-17 school year, a move that could save $2 million. Under that scenario, district spokeswoman Jennifer Henry said, students would still get the same amount of classroom time required by the state, but their remaining four school days would be longer.

Much of the resulting saving would be in reduced bus transportation costs, she said.

The menu of options for 2016-17 also includes reducing school activities to the tune of $200,000. That hit list might include ninth-grade sports.

Other 2016-17 options include eliminating the district’s parents-as-teachers program and requiring employees to pay more of their health insurance costs — steps that could save $300,000 and $1.3 million, respectively.

Stephen Johnson, who helped organize an opposition committee for Tuesday’s vote, said voters were upset about the district’s past spending decisions. Among them was approving raises for teachers and other workers before seeking the tax increase.

He urged the board, administrators and teachers union “to sit down and solve this problem.” He suggested that if the board froze wages for two years and put a smaller 45-cent tax increase on a future ballot, they might have a better chance of passage.

Mark Schlinkmann is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.