EDUCATION
10/29/2012 07:54 pm ET Updated Dec 29, 2012

St. Louis County's Special School District Seeks Tax Increase

ST. LOUIS COUNTY -- When St. Louis County voters head to the polls on Election Day, they'll be asked to approve a 19-cent tax increase for the Special School District, which provides special education services and technical education to more than 25,000 students in 22 school districts in the county.

Special School District Superintendent John Cary acknowledges that the difficult economic climate doesn't make it an ideal time to ask voters for a tax increase but said he believes the SSD wouldn't have to ask "if the economy hadn't done what it has done."

The proposal for a 19-cent tax increase -- dubbed Proposition S -- would be bump up the school district's current levy of $1 per $100 of assessed valuation. The hike would increases taxes on a $150,000 house in St. Louis County by $54.15 a year.

One in six public school students in the county receives special education services or technical education from SSD, which operates two technical high schools open to 10th-, 11th- and 12th-grade students. Among recipients of the district's services are students with disabilities, including those who attend private, parochial and independent schools, and those who are homeschooled or unable to attend school for medical or other reasons.

Cary said the tax increase would be aimed at several needs, including maintaining the district's level of service for children with disabilities.

"One of our big concerns, obviously, is just being able to maintain, with the nationwide recession and the slow economic recovery," he said.

He noted that the demand for autism-related services has risen substantially in recent years. The district delivered services to fewer than 500 students with autism in 2000 but now provides services for about 2,500 children with autism, he said.

A big push for SSD in the past five or so years, he explained, has been to provide services for students that help them become productive citizens when they leave school. "I'm convinced that there's a lot of human capital kind of wasted with people with disabilities," he said.

The district lists as priorities for the increase:

-- Maintaining services for the growing number of students with autism.

-- Sustaining programs that provide job-training opportunities aimed at post-school employment.

-- Updating technology.

-- Competitive salaries for teachers and staff.

-- Repairing and renovating buildings, including constructing a new high school.

Cary said the district has cut 5 percent of its staff in the past few years (it now has a staff of more than 5,000) and has shaved down other costs as well. Meanwhile, the district's revenue is expected to decline, according to SSD budget projections.

If the increase passes, the district expects the levy to adequately fund the district for at least six years.

In raising funds to push the measure, Friends of Special Kids, a group campaigning for the increase, sent letters to SSD employees asking that they contribute a day's pay to the campaign.

The letter, signed by Cary, said, "I am encouraging every staff member to make a contribution of one day's pay to the Friends of Special Kids campaign, either directly or through payroll deduction. If one day's pay is not possible, please consider contributing $100 over three pay periods, beginning October 15. If you can give more, great. If it's less, that's not a problem. Every dollar really counts."

The letter was not written on SSD letterhead.

Asked about the effort to raise campaign funds, Cary acknowledged that some employees were not pleased with the request. He said, however, that such donations are "totally optional," are not monitored, and that many employees had chosen to contribute. ___

(c)2012 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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