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Mehlville VICC panel members face some emotional decisions

Members of the Mehlville School District's Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corp. committee face some emotional decisions this spring, according to a district administrator, but about half of the committee's members are not showing up on a consistent basis.

"The committee is getting very close to making a real decision for the board," South Area Superintendent Keith Klusmeyer said at a recent Board of Education meeting.

Klusmeyer is one of the facilitators of the board-appointed VICC committee.

Board members soon will decide whether to continue to participate in the interdistrict transfer program that allows students from the city to attend Mehlville School District schools.

Court-ordered desegregation ended in 1999 and was replaced with a settlement agreement beginning with the 1999-2000 school year. The settlement agreement continues through the 2008-2009 school year and can be renewed at that time. Under the terms of the settlement agreement, school districts have the option of withdrawing from the program.

About 1,380 VICC students, according to September enrollment figures, attend Mehlville schools and daily are bused back to the city on, for many students, hour-long rides. The district currently receives roughly $7.4 million annually for its participation in the program.

VICC officials fear the program could face a budget shortfall as much as $10 million for the 2004-2005 school year. The terms of the settlement agreement include a "mid-point formula'' that addressees the possibility of a budget shortfall for the program. Under the formula, high-cost districts would be reimbursed at an amount less than their respective per-student expenditures.

Because Mehlville's per-pupil cost is among the lowest in the region, $6,200, its VICC funding will not be eliminated, according to district administrators.

The Board of Education established the VICC committee this fall to review Mehlville's current participation in the voluntary transfer program and explore options for future participation or elimination of the program. The committee originally was charged by the board to submit a recommendation in November, but the committee still is meeting on a weekly basis, excluding weeks leading up to and including winter break, and is gathering information to make that recommendation.

Chris Pettit and Leonard Leon, committee co-chairmen, recently told board members the committee plans to seek input from the community before it finalizes a recommendation for the Board of Education.

Members will attend open forums Wednesday, Jan. 21, and Monday, Jan. 26, to hear if Mehlville residents believe the district should continue participating in the VICC program. Times and locations have not yet been determined, but will be within the Mehlville School District. A forum for parents of voluntary transfer program students tentatively is scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 27. The time and location have not yet been determined, but it will take place at a site closer to the city for the convenience of program parents, according to district documents.

Pettit told the board that the committee has been busy hearing reports and learning as much as possible about the program.

"We have the financial background ... but we're talking about people now," Pettit said, explaining future committee meetings will include critical discussions that directly will affect Mehlville children.

But not all committee members have that financial background as each meeting draws roughly half of the panel's membership.

The 31-member committee is comprised of 10 parents, three students, 12 staff members, four community members and two members of the Board of Education — Vice President Matt Chellis and board member Richard Huddleston.

Of the nine meetings conducted since the committee's inception Oct. 9, Chellis has attended two, while Huddleston has attended each meeting, according to the committee's minutes.

The number of committee members absent exceeded the number of committee members present in four of those nine meetings. On average, 15 members attend each meeting. The most poorly attended meeting had 11 members present, while the greatest number of members present at a meeting was 21. All 31 committee members never have been present at the same meeting.

An average of 16 members are absent from each meeting, according to the committee's minutes. The fewest number of absent committee members this fall was 11, while the greatest number was 21.

For instance, 11 committee members were present at the committee's most recent meeting on Dec. 10, while 20 were absent. Members discussed Dec. 10 how VICC's retention or elimination would financially, socially and emotionally affect the Mehlville School District.

Superintendent Tim Ricker told committee members at the first October meeting that attendance was crucial and people who could not make meetings regularly would be replaced. Administrators have no plans, however, to replace members who have been missing meetings, Ricker told the Call during a recent interview.

Acknowledging that there are a number of absences, Ricker said, "The group as a whole feels pretty good about the people who are showing up."

Klusmeyer will send all members a copy of the minutes from the Dec. 10 meeting, Ricker said, along with a letter emphasizing that future attendance is important.

"Keith (Klusmeyer) is going to do a mail out of the minutes and express to people we are getting down to the nitty gritty here and it is time for you to show up and we'll see what happens," Ricker said. "You always run the risk when you do a study like this of having a certain group of people start and then have a certain group of people go through all the process, and then new people show up and you have to go back and do the process.''

Administrators are not looking for new committee members, according to Ricker.

"That's probably the largest concern we have if we get an insurgence of all these new people — We're going to have to go back and re-teach them what's going on during this process. So, we'll just have to see after the first of the year, you know,'' Ricker said. "I think the key group of people of about 18 that have been there as regularly as anybody, they understand what most of the issues are."

Huddleston, who is part of the half of the group that shows up to the meetings, no longer will be able to attend the VICC committee meetings.

He and Chellis instead will attend board meetings on Tuesday evenings, the same evening the VICC committee meets. Board members, who were scheduled to begin meeting Thursday evenings in 2004, recently voted to meet Tuesday evenings, despite the scheduling conflict.

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