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Mehlville board attempts to stifle public comment

"Call the Tune" by Executive Editor Mike Anthony

Mehlville Board of Education members once welcomed public comments from residents.

In fact, the cornerstone of the community engagement process the district conducted four years ago to formulate a facilities master plan was hearing publicly what residents — both supporters and critics — had to say about the Mehlville School District.

But it seems that once district voters approved Proposition P — at that time a nearly $68.4 million district-wide building improvement program funded by a 49-cent tax-rate increase — Board of Education members didn't really give a hoot what residents had to say about the district or how board members were spending the public's tax dollars.

That certainly was evident last week when Board of Education member Mike Heins proclaimed that the open period for public comments at each school board meeting is not the board's preferred method of communication with the public.

"This (the public comment period) is probably the worst way to communicate with the board,'' Mr. Heins said at the Feb. 10 Board of Education meeting.

That's not really surprising coming from Mr. Heins, who apparently developed a disdain for residents' comments when he served as co-chairman of the district's Elementary School Redistricting Committee and as a member of the Middle School Redistricting Committee.

We can only characterize as asinine Mr. Heins' suggestion that residents who have concerns about the school district should first contact administrators and then if the problem is not resolved, they should contact board members.

Perhaps Mr. Heins should reflect on why he wanted to serve on the Board of Education and review some board policies, including "Community Involvement in Decision Making.''

That policy, in part, states, "Board members themselves will remain mindful that they are elected to represent, and are directly accountable to, the patrons of the district.''

That policy also states that residents are encouraged to express ideas, concerns and judgments about district programs in several ways, including "comments at meetings of the board.''

While the policy also suggests other ways to communicate with the board — such as written suggestions or proposals and service on citizens' advisory committees — we can't imagine a more effective and direct way to communicate with elected officials than during a public meeting in which minutes are being taken and residents' comments, along with board members' remarks, are being tape recorded.

Given Mr. Heins' suggestion that board members should be contacted through e-mail or by telephone, we can only conclude that Mr. Heins doesn't want to be held accountable as he would prefer to communicate with residents privately.

We also weren't surprised when Board of Education President Cindy Christopher agreed with Mr. Heins' remarks about the open period for public comment.

"Unfortunately this venue, the open forum, is not always the best way to communicate with us," Mrs. Christopher said at the Feb. 10 meeting.

Mrs. Christopher's comments came after she warned a district resident, Denise Downing, who wanted to address the board that board members would not respond to any comments made by the resident.

"You can speak to the board, however the board will not comment on anything that is heard only because it is not on our agenda," Mrs. Christopher told the resident.

Yet Mrs. Downing wanted to discuss the Proposition P bids for renovations at Blades, Beasley and Point elementary schools — an item that board members would consider later at the meeting.

"It's not on the specific agenda. This is the open period for comments ... but the board will not address you. This is just for us to listen ...,'' Mrs. Christopher said. The board president later suggested that if Mrs. Downing had "specific'' concerns, she should voice them to the administration.

"If you have something specific, I would recommend that you talk with members of the administration ... if it's something specific, it wouldn't be addressed in this forum,'' the board president said.

It's distressing that the views expressed by Mr. Heins and Mrs. Christopher apparently are shared by other members of the board. We've become aware over the past few months that board members are making telephone calls to people who write letters to this newspaper that are critical of the board or school district.

But such behavior isn't limited to board members. One letter writer, Brenda Harris, was treated to a letter on Mehlville letterhead written by Patrick Wallace, director of school/community relations.

"I was disheartened to read in the Oakville Call how unhappy you are with the Mehlville School District,'' Mr. Wallace wrote. "Your letter to the editor stated your satisfaction with your own educational experience, yet clearly showed that as a parent you are less than thrilled with the treatment of your older son and lack of attention for your younger child's accomplishments.''

Mr. Wallace went on to write, "... I'd like to encourage you to check your mailbox for the Mehlville Messenger newspaper, which I publish at least four times a year. The next issue is scheduled to be delivered in early December. This 12- to 16-page newspaper is packed with nothing but positive stories about Mehlville School District students, staff and community members' accomplishments. It would be my pleasure to feature a story about your son's accomplishments in a future issue.''

We don't understand how board members could condone such a letter nor do we understand why they don't welcome residents' comments at board meetings. Why are they afraid to hear residents' comments in public? Do they have something to hide or are they so thin-skinned that they can't stand any criticism?

If the latter's the case, we would suggest they take Harry Truman's advice: "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.''

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