Public trusts leadership of fire district more than Mehlville School District, recent survey indicates
Area residents have more trust in the leadership of the Mehlville Fire Protection District than the Mehlville School District — 30.5 percent more trust, according to a recent survey.
UNICOM/ARC surveyed 400 citizens who live in the Mehlville fire district in May, via telephone interviews, asking them a variety of questions regarding their views on Mehlville's fire services, performance and whether they would support a tax increase.
The fire district's Board of Directors recently voted to approve a nearly $35,000 contract with UNICOM/ARC to assist the district in engaging the public in long-range planning that could result in a ballot recommendation to be considered by the board.
While the majority of the questions posed in the survey questioned residents' opinions of the fire district, two questions in the survey asked residents about the Mehlville School District.
"We were looking for a point of comparison, which is standard research methodology," UNICOM/ARC President Rod Wright told the Call.
Since no single municipality covers a large portion of the Mehlville Fire Protection District, Wright said, the firm looked for another taxing entity that covered the same service area.
While the overlap between the Mehlville fire and school districts is not 100 percent, "it is pretty darn close," he said, which made the two a logical comparison.
"Generally speaking, I have trust in the leadership of Mehlville School District" was one of the statements those who were surveyed were asked to consider. Interviewers also posed a similar statement referring to the fire district.
Residents were able to answer that they strongly agreed with the statement, somewhat agreed, strongly disagreed or somewhat disagreed.
Typically, areas either have an overwhelming amount of trust in all of their taxing entities or they routinely distrust all taxing entities — which was not the case in comparing the Mehlville fire and school districts, he said.
There was a differentiation, according to Wright, which is not common.
Of the 400 surveyed, 56.8 percent said they agreed that they had trust in the leadership of the school district, while 87.3 percent said they agreed that they had trust in the leadership of the fire district.
Regarding the school district, 26.8 percent disagreed with the trust statement with 16.5 percent telling interviewers that they didn't know how they felt about the statement.
Regarding the fire district, 8.1 percent disagreed with the trust statement with 4.1 percent telling surveyors they didn't know.
UNICOM/ARC consistently includes a trust statement in its public opinion surveys, Wright said.
"When a taxpayer is spending not an insignificant amount of money, in essence, for getting public services, it is important to know ... that you have trust in the people who are responsible for spending dollars," he said. "If there is not a high level of trust, that is a concern for the organization."
Ever since the Watergate scandal in 1974, he said there has been a gradual erosion of people who say they trust any level of government. Regarding the trust, anything more than 60 percent "is pretty darn high," he said. When it drops below 50 percent, an entity should begin to have concerns "to say the least."
Having public trust in the 70 percent and 80 percent range was pretty typical 20 years ago, he said, but is unusual today.
"That is why the fire district leadership ought to be happy with those results," he said.
"Recently, there's been a lot of controversy about the Mehlville School District," was a second statement those who were surveyed were asked to consider. Interviewers also posed the same statement about the Mehlville Fire Protection District to residents.
Of the 400 surveyed, 50.8 percent said they agreed that there had been a lot of recent controversy surrounding the school district, while 39.5 percent said they agreed that there had been a lot of recent controversy surrounding the fire district — a difference of 11.3 percent.
Regarding the school district, 27.1 percent disagreed with the controversy statement with 22.1 percent telling surveyors they didn't know how they felt about the statement.
Regarding the fire district, 45.6 percent disagreed with the controversy statement with 14.9 percent telling interviewers that they didn't know.
UNICOM/ARC included the controversy question in the recent survey, Wright said, because the firm was attempting to figure out why the fire district had failed to pass prior referendums.
Gauging the public's opinion on how much controversy it believed surrounded the fire district was just one of many notions that were tested in the survey.
The school district's numbers, particularly regarding the public's trust in entity leadership, are more in line with past research, he said.
"It starts with perceived performance, which translates into trust," he said. "School districts tend to be a little more controversial than others (entities) ..."
He added, "The numbers in the school district were not by any stretch of the imagination bad ... We've dealt with some school district with numbers in the 30s and would love to have numbers higher than that."
The Mehlville School District is a former client of UNICOM/ARC, which was employed to help facilitate a public engagement process for Proposition P, the school district's districtwide building improvement program.
The firm conducted a public opinion survey for the district in 1999.
"I think these numbers are probably a little higher than prior to 2000," he said of the recent survey's results. "My guess is that the approval ratings went up after the referendum passed ... They not only passed a referendum, they got all the publicity that follows that, such as ribbon-cuttings and other district functions ..."
The Mehlville School District Board of Education considered hiring UNICOM/ ARC again Feb. 2 to help facilitate a public engagement process for a district long-range planning model.
Board members postponed consideration of a 10-month, $30,000 agreement with UNICOM/ARC until more financial and engagement process details could be presented.
The agreement has not appeared on a board agenda since Feb. 2.
Wright told the Call he was not aware of any communication between the school district and UNICOM/ARC and did not know if the district still was pursuing the consultant.
Contacted for comment regarding the results from the recent survey, Mehlvile School District Superintendent Tim Ricker declined a telephone interview.