County Executive's Blog

Jan 21

[ARCHIVED] A Look Back with the County Executive: Education in the 1980s and 1990s

The original item was published from January 21, 2020 10:57 AM to January 21, 2020 11:51 AM

The growth of St. Charles County in the 1980s and 1990s not only affected housing and businesses, but schools as well. While parochial schools had declining enrollment, the majority of public schools saw increased enrollment and had to tackle funding and space issues. This month, we’ll look at the challenges and opportunities these decades brought for education in our community.

German immigrants had been on both sides of the clash between public and parochial schools. Many descendants of Catholic and Lutheran German immigrants still sent their children to parochial schools in St. Charles County. Catholics of all ethnic backgrounds continued to support parish schools, and many Evangelical Christians, who had become dissatisfied with the secular spirit of public schools, became useful allies, as a new form of non-public schooling was becoming popular. The General Assembly passed a law in 1986 protecting the right of parents to “home school” their children. The statute required parents to keep a daily log of their children’s instruction, and to provide at least 1,000 hours of instruction per year. The number of children being home schooled in St. Charles County grew after 1986. Ten years later, Living Word Christian Schools announced plans to build a Christian High School. When the non-denominational school opened in 1998, the president of the school board emphasized, “Our religious education is based on fundamental beliefs basic to all Christian denominations. The school board leaves it to the parents to teach the particulars of their own churches. Anybody would fit in here. We have had Roman Catholics and Pentecostals, and that runs the gamut of Christianity.”1 

Nevertheless, while more Evangelicals were leaving the public schools, the overall percentage of students enrolled in private or parochial schools shrank to 17 percent in St. Charles County. With no public support, parochial schools were forced to increase tuition as the number of religious teaching in the Catholic Schools drastically declined, and lay teachers demanded higher salaries. The issue of state support for the parents of parochial school children remained alive in Jefferson City only as part of the “school choice” movement, propelled largely by poor public schools in the inner cities. While that movement received a boost when the Supreme Court upheld the school voucher program in Cleveland, the question remained as to whether the Missouri Constitution, amended in 1870 to prohibit direct or indirect aid to religious organizations, had built a higher wall of separation between church and state. Senators from St. Charles County were involved in the debate, though the role of the political parties had reversed from a century earlier. Republican Senator Steve Ehlmann sponsored a bill to create “opportunity scholarships” to parochial schools for children with a financial need. Individuals and corporations would have been able to contribute to a charity and receive a 50 percent tax credit. The charity could have then granted scholarships to public school students wishing to attend non-public schools. With the teachers’ unions an important constituency, Missouri Democrats became the champions of better funding for public education. Senator Ted House, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, kept the bill in committee, and attempts to amend the language onto another bill on the Senate floor were unsuccessful.  After the Republicans gained a majority in the House of Representatives, Speaker pro tempore Carl Bearden, representative from St. Charles County, shepherded a similar bill out of committee, only to have it die on the floor. Even the Republican majority was unable to defeat the strong public school lobby in Jefferson City.2    

The German Radical Republicans, strong supporters of public education, would have been proud of the progress made by public schools in St. Charles County after 1985. With 31.6 percent of the county’s population under age twenty, compared to 28.9 percent for the St. Louis Metropolitan Region, elementary and secondary public education remained an important issue. Eighty-three percent of school age children attended the constantly expanding county public schools by 1985, a time when school boards were undergoing a transformation. No longer dominated by doctors, lawyers and businessmen, many board positions were now often filled by interested parents, sometimes with a narrow agenda, or candidates supported by the teachers unions or other special interests. St. Charles and Orchard Farm faced the challenge of declining enrollments, while Francis Howell, Wentzville and Fort Zumwalt dealt with growing student bodies. While the student population of the St. Charles school district continued to shrink, the voters approved a 38-cent tax hike in June 1987 by over 58 percent. Even though enrollment was declining, the district continued to receive more state funding every year. However, a new foundation formula, passed in 1993, froze the level of funding, and financial problems associated with declining enrollment grew worse. While the Board of Education hired Terry Holder as superintendent to meet the financial challenge, the district officially became “financially stressed” when district reserves fell below three percent in 1998.  The district voters waived the Proposition C tax rollback to raise additional funds, and Holder cut budgets before he retired in 1999.  Little progress was made by the new superintendent, Kathleen Keuzenkoethen, who did not even bother to move to St. Charles County, and retired in three years.  The district spent a great deal of money renovating almost every building in the district, including Willie Harris Elementary, which was converted to serve as the central office. A new Willie Harris was built in the Cave Springs area, the only part of the district experiencing any growth.  Elsewhere, no schools were closed, even though the student population was contracting. The Board of Education hired James Cale to replace Keusenkoethen and the district announced it would have to close Blackhurst and Lincoln schools if the voters did not approve a tax increase. When they did not, the district closed the schools in 2007.  After the death of James Cale in 2006, the board continued its practice of going outside the district for superintendants, hiring Randal Charles as superintendent. When he initiated a discussion of the possibility of closing one of the high schools to trim finances, the idea received little support in the community.3 

The only expansion in the St. Charles school district was the Lewis and Clark Vocational-Technical School, which served the entire county and, with the aid of state funds, expanded in 1997. The district faced other challenges associated with its older buildings. While St. Charles High School was in the midst of a renovation in 1996, a serious fire gutted "A" building, originally built in 1923 and expanded in 1938. The junior high and gymnasium built in the middle 1950’s, as well as “C” building built in 1965, were torn down and a new structure built adjacent to a renovated A building. St. Charles West and Hardin Junior High School received substantial renovations in 2004.4    

Located primarily in the flood plain, Orchard Farm school district experienced little growth in student population. Residents of the Warwick Downs subdivision tried unsuccessfully to become part of the St. Charles district in 1984. While buyouts caused the district to lose students after the 1993 Flood, Orchard Farm, a hold harmless district which could increase its revenues under existing tax rates only by new development in the district, continued to receive the same amount of state aid. Unlike many of the larger districts in the county, Orchard Farm promoted from within when hiring superintendents, creating much more stability in the district over the years. Ed Katcher replaced Gary Van Meter as superintendent of the district in 1997. By the time Katcher retired, and Daniel Dozier became superintendent, new subdivisions and industrial parks were being built in the 500-year floodplain near Highway 370. 

The Francis Howell School District also experienced unprecedented growth and severe challenges.  Henderson Elementary School did not open as planned in October 1985, because St. Peters refused to issue occupancy permits for an uncompleted building. Voters in the Francis Howell School District approved a 4- million-dollar bond issue in 1985 to build the first phase of a new Francis Howell North High School on Hackmann Road, and to renovate the old high school in Weldon Spring. The first class of ninth graders began at Howell North in August 1986, even though the voters did not approve the second phase of construction until February 1987. Another funding crisis arose when the Hancock Amendment forced a rollback of the district’s levy, costing the district over $300,000,000 in 1986. After threats that property values would be affected if the district lost its AAA rating, voters approved a 47-cent property tax increase in November 1989. Two years later, voters approved a bond issue to renovate and construct new buildings. While prohibited by state law from striking, the local NEA put pressure of the school board to raise salaries. When their members were offered a six percent raise in 1986, about a third of the teachers in Francis Howell called in sick, causing cancellation of classes. In August 1996, officials broke ground for the district’s third high school, Francis Howell Central, which opened the next year. The district found itself on the state’s list of “financially stressed” districts in 1999 when the district failed to catch computer software miscalculation that double the kindergarten enrollment reported and resulted in an overpayment by the state of $47 million. At the same time, the district overspent it budget by two million dollars, but survived an audit by State Auditor Claire McCaskill. The district started full day kindergarten to bring additional state aid. While all this was going on, the Francis Howell School District had to build seventeen new elementary and middle schools.  The district went through seven superintendents over this turbulent 20-year period, adding to the instability caused by the growth and lack of funds.5     

The Fort Zumwalt school district experienced greater stability over the period, due to the continuous tenure of Superintendent Bernie Dubray, who replaced Larry Doyle in 1985.  The district opened its eighth elementary school, Dardenne Elementary, in September 1987. A second high school, Fort Zumwalt South, graduated its first senior class in 1990, the same year the district passed an $11.5 million bond issue, the largest up to that time, to renovate and expand schools. Superintendent DuBray complained, “We’re growing so doggone fast that once you open one, it’s loaded again.”6 Voters responded to the emergency and, in what DuBray termed a “miracle,” approved a tax increase and waived their Prop C rollback. The resulting tax rate of $4.49 allowed the district to meet the challenges of growth. Additional schools opened, including Twin Chimneys Elementary (1993), DuBray Middle School (1995), Rock Creek Elementary (1996), Mid-Rivers Elementary (1997), Pheasant Point Elementary (1998), Herbert A. Westhoff (2001) West Middle School (2001) Ostmann Elementary (2002) and Emge Elementary (2002). Fort Zumwalt West, the district's third high school, opened in 1998, and Fort Zumwalt East, the fourth high school, opened in 2007.7      

Wentzville school district began experiencing growth in the 1990s. With overcrowding at Emil Holt High School, Timberland High School was opened in 2000. Other district schools included Wentzville Middle, Wentzville South Middle, Heritage, Boone Trail, Crossroads, and Elm Tree Elementary, the first school built in Lake Saint Louis in 1997. Ronald Berry replaced Larry Doyle as superintendent of the Wentzville District in 1991. During his tenure, the district was named one of the top 100 districts in the country by Money magazine.  Tom Byrnes, who replaced Ron Berry, resigned after criminal charges were filed against him. He was replaced by interim superintendent Ed Katcher and then permanent Superintendent Terry Adams.8   

The defeat of Prop B in 1991, by a two to one margin statewide, and by a three to one margin in St. Charles County, reflected the unwillingness of taxpayers to tax themselves more for education. While all five local school districts were successful in passing bond issues to improve facilities by 1993, voters remained anti-tax.  Several districts across the state sued the state, claiming it was not fulfilling its constitutional obligation to fund free public education. A Cole County circuit judge agreed with them and threatened to order increased funding.  While the Supreme Court considered the appeal, the General Assembly addressed the issue of public school funding. The old formula had continued to provide funds to shrinking districts like St. Charles, while failing to provide sufficient new revenue to growing districts like Fort Zumwalt and Francis Howell. During the 1985-86 school year, Francis Howell School District had the lowest assessed valuation per student of any district in the county at $33,360, while Fort Zumwalt’s assessed valuation was at $39,140, Orchard Farm was $47,042, St. Charles was $49,358, and Wentzville, with the GM Plant, was $77,017. The St. Charles County average of $44,084, compared to $64,057 in St. Louis County, underscored the fact that St. Charles County was still a bedroom community. Students were being penalized because there was a lack of industrial and commercial growth in their district. The facilities at the University of Missouri Research Park, created by statute in 1986 as an industrial park dedicated to research, on ground owned by the university near the Busch Wildlife Area, paid no property taxes, and the finances of the Francis Howell School District especially suffered from lack of economic development in the district. As late as 1992, the largest property tax payer in the district was an apartment complex at Friedens road and Highway 94-South, prompting the district to hire an economic developer to attract new businesses to the district. The new formula guaranteed a minimum level of state aid, regardless of the assessed valuation of the district. It further held districts like St. Charles and Orchard Farm harmless, guaranteeing them the same level of funding, even though they had declining enrollments. Those areas of St. Charles County that were still “bed-room communities” greatly benefited from the new formula.9 

Senate Bill 380, which contained the new foundation formula, also included certain “reforms,” including the Missouri Assessment Program (MAP), designed to hold schools accountable. Critics claimed the reforms constituted outcome-based education, eliminated local control, and “dumbed down” the public school curriculum. The Commission on Performance, of which Senator Ehlmann was a member, voted down the initial accountability standards presented by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). When Senators Steve Ehlmann and Peter Kinder continued to criticize the standards, the Governor’s office instituted a publicity campaign and a change in direction entitled, “Basics Plus,” in which the new standards emphasized content, as well as higher-ordered thinking. More importantly, the time line for implementation of the assessments was stretched out so that no trends could be identified before the 2000 election. When the results were in, the poor showing by students confirmed that the standards had not dumb-downed the curriculum.  Concern that the state-wide test would allow DESE to gain control of the curriculum subsided when Senator Ehlmann’s amendment prohibiting the State School Board from requiring passing the MAP as a condition of graduation.

President Bill Clinton signed the Opportunities Act of 1994, establishing, “a national framework within which all states can create statewide School-to-Work Opportunities systems.” Proponents of the act claimed that those non-college-bound students were not being prepared for the job market, because they were not being trained in the areas were workers were needed. When Missouri schools instituted programs designed to better prepare students for the job market, critics decried the use of ability testing to direct students into careers.  Others claimed the programs forced students to make career decisions too early. Some educators criticized the pragmatic nature of the program, ignoring the citizenship training and general intellectual stimulation associated with a liberal arts curriculum. When the administration of Governor Mel Carnahan instituted the program, Debbie Demien, chair of the St. Charles County Republican Central Committee, became a leading critic of “school to work.” She charged “schools are dumbing-down the curriculum,” and called for a return to basics and more rigorous standards.10

1.  St. Charles Post.; July 12, 1996.

2. Ibid; Journal, Dec. 29, 1996. Votes on Senator Ehlmann’s amendments on the Senate floor were always close. There were still some Democrats, mainly from suburban areas, who supported aid to parochial schools. They compensated for the Republicans from rural Missouri, who had few Catholics in their districts, and continued to protect the public school fund. In the Cleveland voucher case, the United States Supreme Court ruled that vouchers are constitutional under the U.S. Constitution, so long as the money goes to the parents rather than the church and allow parents to choose from other public schools, as well as private schools.

3. Journal, Jan. 1, 1987. Some believed that Keuzenkoethen was simply trying to maximize her pension, which was based on her salary for the last three years before retirement.

4. Ibid.; Dec. 29, 1995.

5. Ibid.; Dec. 29, 1996 and Jan. 5, 2000. New schools built were Robert Wade Barnwell, Becky David, Mary Emily Bryan, Castlio, Central, Daniel Boone, EC - Central, EC Hackmann, EC Meadows, Fairmount, Harvest Ridge, M. Gene Henderson, C. Fred Hollenbeck, Independence, John Weldon, Louis Saeger, and Warren. Superintendent Wanda McDaniel resigned and was replaced by John Oldani in 1991. Oldani got the district back on track, but became Superintendent for the Rockwood District in June 1995. After a nationwide search, the Board of Education hired Lee Brittenham, from California, as the new superintendent.  Lee Brittenham resigned and was replaced by Dan Brown, who retired in 2000. He was replaced by Dan O’Donnell, who was replaced by Renee Schuster, who was replaced by Pamela Sloan over the next ten years.  

6. Journal, Jan. 2, 1998.

7. Ibid.  

8. Ibid.; Dec. 29, 1985, Jan. 1, 1987, Dec. 29 and 1989, Dec. 29, 1991; St. Charles Post, Jan. 8, 1996. Adams was charged with stalking and patronizing a prostituteJournal, Dec. 31, 2006.

9.  In fiscal year 1993-94, Missouri spent an average of $4,667 per student. In the same year, an average of $9,645 per student was spent in KCMSD. Under the desegregation bill, an extra $25 million, no longer needed to pay for desegregation, went to schools. The St. Charles City School District, whose hold harmless status under the 1993 Outstanding Schools Act had kept its state aid frozen since that time, received additional revenue.The Wentzville School District also benefited, as did Fort Zumwalt School District, which had $700,000 in state funding it had lost under the foundation formula the previous year, reinstated.

10. St. Charles Post, June 5, 1998.