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School board balks at hiring consultant

Final consideration of an agreement with a consultant that would facilitate a public engagement process for the Mehlville School District's long-range planning model was postponed last week by board members until representatives of the company and district administrators could provide more financial and engagement process details.

Mehlville administrators recommended Feb. 2 that the Board of Education select UNICOM/ARC to help gather more public input that would assist the district in formulating its Comprehensive School Improvement Plan.

UNICOM/ARC is the same consultant used in 2000 for the district's Proposition P public engagement process.

Voters approved in November 2000 a 49-cent-tax levy to fund Proposition P, then estimated to cost $68.4 million. However, board members increased the budget to $86.7 million last September.

UNICOM/ARC charged the school district $10,000 in 2000, but its current proposal for a 10-month public engagement process would cost $30,000. The consultant's $3,000 monthly fee would include the planning consultation, meeting supplies and refreshment costs, but would exclude any public opinion survey or video production costs.

Those would incur additional costs to the district, which were not included in materials provided to board members Feb. 2.

Board members sent the proposal back to administrators, asking that more information be presented to them at a future meeting date before they make a final decision. Superintendent Tim Ricker told the Call he would provide the board with more information during its Feb. 24 board meeting.

Board Vice President Matt Chellis questioned selecting UNICOM/ARC as the consultant for a long-range planning model.

"The reason we hired UNICOM/ARC before was to sell a tax increase," he said. "And I don't think that, from my perspective, that's where we want to go right now."

Ricker told Chellis that promoting a tax rate increase or a bond issue was not what administrators were recommending in their proposal for UNICOM/ARC.

"Well, that's why UNICOM was hired last time," Chellis said.

Ricker responded, "I'm not disagreeing with you in any stretch of the imagination on that, but ... that is not the intent."

Chellis also questioned the need for public engagement on a long-range planning model at this time amidst a climate of economic uncertainty.

"My general thoughts are, this being such a tumultuous time because of funding questions, that the results from the overall survey or analysis of long-range planning, could not be done without a clearer picture of our funding ... I just probably think this is probably a bad time ...," Chellis said. "I'm all in favor of looking at the big picture and looking at the overall direction that we want to take this district, but we could end up paying $30,000 for a document that says: 'You know, if we could figure out how to fund all this, it'd be a great idea.'''

Board member Bill Schornheuser said he "wholeheartedly" agreed with Chellis that somehow budgetary restraints need to be imposed on the ideas UNICOM/ARC would generate.

"Have we looked at any other type of devices to try to get this done — the long-range plan?" Schornheuser said, also asking what other school districts had been using for their long-range plans.

Ricker said he had looked at other school districts. He also had looked into the district internally conducting long-range planning and he would present that information at a future board meeting.

"Well, you don't want to be penny-wise and pound foolish too. I think if you want to look out beyond two years, it can take you a year to do that,'' Ricker said.

Chellis responded, "Well, I don't think we can look out beyond three weeks," referring to the Blades Beasley and Point Elementary school construction bids presented to the board that night that were much higher than anticipated compared to estimates presented during a Jan. 12 meeting.

Board Secretary Marea Kluth-Hoppe said that she saw value in long-range planning, even if the district is receiving less money.

"The other issue ... is the concept that it could get worse," Ricker said. "Again, my philosophy is to plan for the worst and hope for the best, but that could include some form of help from the community or it could include some drastic trimming measures or things of that nature. So we better be clear on what we have and what we value of what we have before we get to that point. Whether we do it with UNICOM/ARC or whether we do it internal or whether we do it with another group or whatever, at some point in time, we're going to have to do it.''

Board member Richard Huddleston asked if the $3,000 UNICOM/ARC was proposing as its monthly fee was fixed, and Ricker answered yes.

Board member Rita Diekemper wanted to know how much a public survey would cost if the district utilized the company for polling. UNICOM/ARC would charge an additional $18,000 for a telephone survey, according to Ricker.

Huddleston and Diekemper voiced concerns with the general nature of the UNICOM/ARC proposal and said they would like to see more specifics before making any decision on long-range planning.

Diekemper would like to see exactly what UNICOM/ARC can do for the district, she said, but no specific information was given to the board during the company's presentation earlier in the meeting.

"I know when I do $30,000 proposals for people, I feel like I know more about their company," said Diekemper, who owns her own company, Gardens of Grace. "I plan the proposal for just them."

She claimed that UNICOM/ARC simply had taken information out of the district's current CSIP and placed it in the company's presentation materials without tailoring a public engagement process for Mehlville.

She had asserted, during the consultant's presentation, that the district already was conducting much of the public engagement proposed and wanted to know how UNICOM/ARC would approach the process differently.

Board members are scheduled to hear the answer to that question Feb. 24.

Schornheuser said he supported a long-range planning model, but he wanted to know, before entering into the public engagement process, "what we are getting ourselves into," he said, telling Ricker he would like to see a complete proposal at the next board meeting that would include how much the district would expect to pay on any video production or phone survey.

Ricker told the Call his "mistake" was not providing all of that information to the board Feb. 2 and in light of other items that were being discussed on the agenda that night, it would be prudent to wait a few meetings before bringing the information back to the board for consideration.

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