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Mehlville accepts VICC panel's report, but takes no action on recommendation

Leery of definitively determining the Mehlville School District's future participation in the voluntary student transfer program, the Board of Education last week held off on considering the matter until it could gauge how other districts would react to its decision.

Board members will not revisit consideration of the issue until their May 11 meeting, the first meeting after Superintendent Tim Ricker is scheduled to attend an April 30 Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corp. meeting with other program participants.

For more than six months at Mehlville, a board-appointed VICC committee has been studying the program, which is the result of a 1999 settlement agreement after the termination of court-ordered desegregation. Committee members recommended March 30 to decrease VICC enrollment at the district by 15 percent a year, beginning in the 2005-2006 school year, to prepare for the financial impact of the potential end of the VICC settlement agreement during the 2008-2009 school year or other shortfalls in funding.

School districts have the option of withdrawing from the program under the terms of the settlement agreement.

The district currently receives roughly $7.4 million annually for its participation in the program and for the 1,380 VICC students who attend Mehlville, according to September enrollment figures.

VICC officials also worry 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 "midpoint formula'' that addresses the possibility of decreased funding for the program. High-cost districts would be reimbursed at an amount less than their respective per-student expenditures, under the formula.

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

Board of Education members had the option of acting on the committee's recommendation — but they chose, unanimously, only to accept the report.

Chris Pettit, co-chairman of the committee, explained the committee had considered reducing enrollment each year by 5 percent, 10 percent or 0 percent, but those options would be extremely risky for the district. Pettit is a parent from Point Elementary School.

"One of the things that concerns me with the 5 percent is that in 2008-2009 you have that $1.2 million hit in one year. In those years leading up, you're going to be buying textbooks and supplies and staffing with teachers for a certain number of children and you're knowing that the hit is coming," Pettit told board members.

"That's going to mean you're going to have to lay off teachers and you don't want to have to do that. You want to start planning for that right now. Because it's going to make it difficult to find new teachers who will want to come to the district if they know that in 2008-2009 there's going to be a significant decrease of students.

"I thought that was something personally that was very important to consider ... Because we don't want to have to turn teachers away that we've used for a couple of years and then have there just not be the kids there for them,'' Pettit said.

But board member Rita Diekemper had reservations with accepting and approving the committee's recommendation that night.

"I would just hate to make a decision at the local level in our school district and then find out that because of that decision there were unintended overall big consequences," Diekemper said. "I would want to look into that little bit more."

"Yeah, I agree, Rita," Superintendent Tim Ricker said. "I think there's some variables this group has had no control over or no information on. You know, our funding structure for the foundation formula ... and it does affect the VICC funding ... More importantly, other districts are talking, but we're really not talking. We all have a plan, but they're not really sharing the plan for all the right reasons in their mind. There's obviously racial polarity in our (region) ... and depending on how you approach this issue ... it could look like, well, you're trying to do one thing, yet an unintended consequence was that it could look like you were actually trying to subvert the program ... We need to have more conversation with the corporation."

Ricker said he is not sure what some of the other VICC participating school districts are planning.

"Others are not saying much," Ricker said. "I'd like to have more of that conversation that Rich (Huddleston) and I talked about ... about what some of the smaller school districts are going to do. If we would take this 15 percent approach, what would happen? What would they do? ... Because, quite frankly, if Parkway and Rockwood to do a real quick shift, it's all over."

He later added, "What disturbs me is ... there are some things already in the works about cuts and cost-saving measures that VICC's going to do that even though we may not make a decision, it may affect our enrollment. Stabilization of the enrollment for next year is extremely important."

However, board member Rich Huddleston would have liked the board to have acted on the committee's recommendation that night. Huddleston served as a board representative on the VICC committee, which has met weekly since September.

"I have to say I'm a little bit disappointed with all the committee people here and we're not going to have a recommendation tonight," Huddleston, whose second three-year term with the board comes to an end April 13, said. "I hear what you're saying. OK, I'm not totally disagreeing, but I am a little disappointed. As a personal issue, this is my last full meeting with the board. You know, I kind of hoped to have a recommendation in my tenure with the board ..."

"You have the option," Ricker said, noting board members could make a motion to approve and accept the committee's recommendation. "That's the board's option."

Huddleston replied to Ricker, "You're basically saying don't act on it ... for good reasons and you know, I'll go along with it."

Diekemper said that the committee's recommendation is useful for the board and more than just a starting point.

"I think it gets us almost all the way there, but I think that other piece needs to be answered," Diekemper said.

Board member Bill Schornheuser asked Ricker, "We could always approve this and find out what the corporation's going to say and we can always amend it, right?"

Ricker answered, "Exactly."

"Yeah, but ... the approval of it is what could spur reaction," Diekemper said.

Ricker advised the board to formally accept the report, but not act on the recommendation, so that he would have time during his April 30 meeting with corporation members to see how they would react to Mehlville's decision.

"What you could do, because I understand what Mr. Huddleston is saying, what you could do is to move to accept the report as presented," the superintendent said. "And that puts the report into the record. And then you can direct me to bring more information back ..."

After most of the committee members had left and the board had taken a break, board members unanimously agreed to accept the report, but wait until their May 11 meeting to consider the recommendation and perhaps explore options the committee was not recommending.

"I was not at the last couple meetings of VICC because they were on the same nights we met, so it's not like I have a conflict of interest," Huddleston said "... And I think this is probably a good compromise because I was a little, thinking to myself, 'Well, if we're going to sit down and talk to VICC, then why didn't we do this in October?' You know what I mean? Some of the people I talked with expressed that same thing over the break. So, I think this is a good move, the way we are handling it right now ..."

However, Huddleston urged the board and administrators that if they were going to delay consideration of the committee's recommendation, that they needed to make sure they acted quickly before other districts pull out of the program or take other action that could negatively affect Mehlville.

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