Drive through the city of Ladue, Creve Coeur, Olivette or other communities feeding into the Ladue School District and you will see more campaign signs than tulips blooming in this unseasonably warm, mild spring. On the ballot Tuesday, April 3 is the .49 cent tax increase, dubbed Proposition 1.
If this proposition passes, Ladue tax payers will pay .49 cents for every $100 of assessed valuation. That figures to be $465.50 for a half million dollar home; and $931.00 annually for a million dollar home.
Passions are riding high on both sides of this issue, with the Take Back the Ladue Schools campaign and with Commit2Ladue.org.
The Take Back Ladue Committee has been very firm in their opposition. They previously worked to defeat a previous tax levy initiative several years ago.
Those on the no side feel strongly the district's finances are in disarray and they think its time for new leadership. Their side was strongly opposed to the purchase of the Westminster Christian Academy and the construction of the Ladue Early Childhood Center.
The LEEC cost the district nearly $18 million to build and the overall West Campus purchase was close to $30 million. Those on the pro side state the purchase of the land and facilities is very necessary for future growth of the district.
Some on the NO side feel the district should better manage their money, and make more appropriate cuts in staff and programs. The cost of providing transportation to district children and offering Spanish as a second language to elementary students has been a controversial issue.
The NO committee enlisted the support of high-profile political activitist Phyllis Schlafly, head of the national Eagle Forum to pen a letter urging district residents to vote against the proposition. Schlafly has resided in Ladue for 17 years.
Ladue is just one of four public districts in the state of Missouri designated a “Premier” school. Ladue has the lowest tax rate ($2.75) of any school in St. Louis County.
Ladue is the last standing district to be under $3.00 in the entire county.
Ladue spends $12,992.41 per pupil (as calculated by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education using a formula consistent across all districts.) That is less than Clayton, the highest at $18,065.88 and other comparables: Webster Groves, and Pattonville. Only Kirkwood is slightly less at $12,295.80 per pupil.
Ladue's excellence in and out of the class room extends to athletics, music, drama and other student based activities.
More than 90 percent of Ladue’s graduates have gone onto four year colleges all 58 years, many doing post graduate work at some of the most prestigious colleges and universities in America and abroad. Ladue students consistently gain admission to Ivy League schools just like their counter-parts at the private schools nearby. Several Ladue students have gotten perfect scores on the ACT test.
Like all public schools, Ladue now deals with tough financial issues. Having to get almost 84 percent of its funds from property taxes solely, the school administration has cut some $7 million dollars from its operating budget the past four years. Teachers have been released and programs have been cut. Many extras like summer school and camping programs are gone.
On the flip side, the district’s enrollment has grown by some 700 students starting with a spurt in 2003. Ironically one-third of the new students have come from one of three categories: other local districts; out of state and from near by private schools.
Some local breadwinners have lost their jobs or seen their salaries slashed during a painful and long downturn in the economy, forcing them to transfer their children from private to schools in the Ladue district.
Chief Financial Officer Dr. Jason Buckner is worried plenty about what he calls the “Norming” of the Ladue School District.
This is what he means. “Normally, we look at our enrollment, then decide how many teachers we will need to run these classes. If Prop 1 fails, we will have to fall into the norm of the state which dictates how large a class can be. We will just have to work with the remaining teachers that are presently on our payroll.”
Buckner says cuts always come in programs where the least students are effected. For instance, no cuts can be made in the mathematics area since "one hundred percent of our students are taking that," said Buckner. "If Prop 1 fails, all we really can do is offer basic courses," he said.
Unlike a typical business, a school district cannot make draconian cuts to its budget and keep education on the par expected by all the district parents.
The district has had $4.1 million less to work with since the 2007-08 school year.
If Prop 1 passes, the district should have enough money to make it through the next four years. Passage would allow the district to open a fifth-grade center at the new West Campus in the 2012-13 school year. District staff would get modest pay raises. Many teacher positions would be saved.
Back in the 1970s, residents in South St. Louis began to vote against all school board tax levies. Slowly, the property valuations began to drop likes stones into water in beautifully established tree-lined neighborhoods. Some areas have never recovered, even some 40 years later.
District officials are hoping that local financial support continues well past April 3 with the approval of Prop 1. Majority plus one rules in this case.