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Mehlville School District officials fail to silence Fowler

"Your Call" by Dan Fowler

The attempt by Mehlville School District officials to silence me has failed.

On behalf of my wife, Sandy, I want to say thank you for the hundreds of cards, letters and phone calls of support after her resignation of employment from the Mehlville School District. In particular, her morale was boosted by hearing from so many Mehlville School District employees.

Under the provisions of Missouri's Open Meetings and Records Law, also known as the Sunshine Law, I recently requested and received from the Mehlville School District copies of travel expense records, all reimbursable expense records and all related cell phone usage and charges incurred by current and former Central Office employees and paid by the taxpaying public over the last year.

The Missouri Sunshine Law permits the Mehlville School District to charge fees for the retrieval and copying of public records.

However, the law also states, "Documents may be furnished without charge or at a reduced charge when the public governmental body determines that waiver of reduction of the fee is in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations of activities of the public governmental body and is not primarily in the commercial interest of the requester."

Throughout my nine years as a Board of Education member, later as chairman of the Citizens' Advisory Committee for Facilities, and occasionally as an unpaid columnist for this newspaper, I have requested thousands of documents regarding information about the district and never have been charged for them. For the first time ever, Mehlville administrators forced me to pay $557.56 for this information.

Obviously, Mehlville administrators did not want this information made public and perhaps believed I would not pursue the requests if the cost was too great.

When you read and find out exactly what is in this information, you will know why.

It will blow you away. Some of it may even shock you.

A preliminary examination of the documents reveals that Mehlville administrators display an alarming disregard for the taxpaying public. Here are just a few of the more glaring examples:

• Former Superintendent John Cary was reimbursed $425 by the district after buying dinner for 20 people Aug. 4, 2002, at Michael's Steak Chalet in Osage Beach while attending the 41st annual Cooperative Conference for School Administrators at the Tan-Tar-A Resort. The time of payment on Mr. Cary's credit card receipt is 10:21 p.m. The bill totaled $355.30 and Mr. Cary added a $70 tip for a total cost of $425.30. Though Mr. Cary's credit card receipt was submitted to the district, he provided no documentation about his guests nor what was purchased.

• As south area superintendent last year, current Superintendent Tim Ricker was reimbursed for mileage — 65.6 miles — for driving from his home in Eureka on Saturday, May 18, 2002, to attend picnics at Oakville Elementary School and Rogers Elementary School. On Saturday, Sept. 7, 2002, Ricker was reimbursed for mileage — 46 miles — driving from his home to Oakville Senior High School to attend a volleyball tournament. Ricker was reimbursed for mileage — 26 miles — driving from his home to attend a football game at Parkway South on Friday, Oct. 4, 2002. The next weekend — Saturday, Oct. 12, 2002 — Ricker was reimbursed for mileage — 48 miles — driving from his home to Jefferson Barracks Park for the Mehlville/Oakville Foundation's Fun Run and Walk. As superintendent, Ricker now receives an in-district travel allowance of $600 per month.

• Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Staff Development Connie Hurst was reimbursed for mileage — 34.4 miles — driving from her home to attend the funeral of Board of Education member Rich Huddleston's mother Saturday, March 22, 2003.

That's just the tip of the iceberg. My brief examination of these documents indicates that no expense is too small for which a well-paid administrator or director will seek reimbursement. For example, the district cut a check for $7.63 to reimburse Steven Lee, director of information technology services, for lunch. But at least Lee provided documentation of what he ate instead of just a credit card receipt.

Nor is any distance too short for which an administrator will seek mileage reimbursement. For example, Ricker sought — and received — mileage reimbursement for traveling three miles from Central Office — 3210 Lemay Ferry Road — to Forder Elementary School, 623 W. Ripa Ave. on Friday, May 30, to attend a Board of Education retreat.

But the real question is where is the Board of Education's oversight of these expenditures? If it's anything like the board's "oversight" of Prop P funds, we're in deep trouble. The Board of Education appears hell bent on changing a nepotism policy that only affects a few people, yet seems unconcerned with upholding its fiduciary responsibilities to taxpayers.

I hope we remember this in April when incumbents, who ran on platforms of fiscal accountability, are up for re-election.

I have turned over the 1,188 documents I paid for to the Call for a comprehensive analysis. I hope they will report their findings to the public. So stay tuned. These documents then will be made available to the public, free of charge, for inspection.

These documents are very interesting and reveal the inner-workings of administrators running the district. It's not a pretty picture and some administrators should be ashamed of themselves. But if history is any indication, that certainly won't be the case. These documents show that Mehlville needs to clean house to restore public trust in the district, particularly in Central Office administrators and the Board of Education.

Don't count on much, if anything, being done about this mess, but remember on Election Day — April 6 — to make it your call.

Daniel S. Fowler served nine years on the Mehlville Board of Education. He also served as chairman of Mehlville's Citizens' Advisory Committee for Facilities and as a chairman of the Citizens to Protect Our Investment committee.

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