Saturday, March 31, 2007

The City DESK - Rory Riddler, Councilman Ward 1

Don’t Compromise Safety
Or Pride In Our Schools…

For Short Term Financial Gain

School Board candidates in St. Charles used to have it easy. Their platforms were always the same. They all promised to put the needs of our children first. Many were true to their word and served with distinction. But somewhere along the way it stopped being so easy as tough decisions were handed them. I can appreciate making tough decision, but some shortsighted decisions have also been made that don’t seem very student friendly.

We all know the St. Charles School District made its decision to close two elementary schools. But what is the projected impact? What about the impact of other changes still to come?

The fact that the cuts were too extreme is borne out by the fact that there wasn’t enough room left in the remaining elementary schools to handle Fifth Grade. I spoke with a woman the other day who will now have children in four different schools when they had been in two. Her life will suddenly become a lot more stressed.

Closing the schools will save the District money…perhaps a little too much money. I understand the District has a projected three million dollar surplus at the end of the year. I was told the School District’s normal operating surplus of 8% has nearly doubled in the projections to 15%. The schools aren’t even closed yet and the full impact of teacher layoffs, being spread out through time by attrition, hasn’t been fully realized. Hmmm. Maybe one of those elementary schools should have been kept open after all.

Financially the future looks even rosier. Some of the land that Lindenwood took off the tax rolls along First Capitol, will soon go back on the tax rolls at commercial rates. The Ameristar hotel and new garage will come on line and start paying property taxes, which should be in excess of half-a-million dollars per year to the St. Charles School District. Property tax assessments continue to go up on property in St. Charles. If you hear of someone’s tax assessment going down let me know.

A few years ago, I supported selling a building the City owned on West Clay to the School District at a reduced price. I was willing to take the criticism from some quarters, because it was for the public good. The School District wanted to offer an alternative education for those who had lost the privilege to be in a regular school environment due to violent, disruptive or anti-social behavior.

Removing these students from our schools was the right thing to do.

But now I hear the School District wants to sell the building the City sold them and move those students into D Building on the St. Charles High School campus. So in other words, a bully that terrorized students at the High School could in theory be standing on the same street corner every day as his victims.

I’ve been told some school officials hoped this would “save money” as the students would be closer to labs they could use in the High School. What part of separating these disruptive students from the majority of the well-behaved student population isn’t registering?

Sure the School District can put a few extra dollars in its pocket from the increased value of the property they now want to sell. But the short-term gain doesn’t come close to the increased liability and risk of putting those with known problems in close proximity to the general school population.

I also know that when a governmental entity knows about a problem and fails to take precautions to address the situation, their liability is greater. If a student kicked out of school for doing drugs, is put back in close proximity to other students and gives another child what turns out to be a fatal drug, how much do you think a jury will award the victim’s parents?

There is nothing wrong with trying to cut waste, but providing a separate facility for students with severe behavioral problems is not waste. Nor is providing neighborhood schools convenient to parents and students instead of busing more young kids across town.

Trying to squeeze every nickel out of the School District has gone too far. My wife and I joined other parents to watch the first game of the Ladies JV Soccer Team at SCHS. Not knowing what to expect I didn’t at first notice that the scoreboard wasn’t on for the game, there was no announcer and the lights weren’t turned on when dusk came.

Then we went on our first away game to Francis Howell High School. The scoreboard was lighted and being used. There was an announcer in the booth who, at the end of the game, thanked St. Charles High for coming. The lights came on at 5:30 and they even played music to entertain the crowd between the JV and Varsity games.

We gladly paid the same $4 per person to get into each game.

Having graduated from St. Charles High School, I’m pretty darn proud of my alma mater. Our District has enough money to hire the help and pay the electric bills to not make visitors think the School District is going out of business. Have some pride…Pirate Pride!