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Administrators scrap hiring consultant; staff to facilitate public engagement

Administrators internally have decided to scrap hiring a consultant and intend to facilitate a public engagement process for the Mehlville School District's long-range planning model with district staff and resources.

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, but board members tabled the proposal until the consultant and administrators could bring back more public engagement and financial details.

Superintendent Tim Ricker told the board in February he had looked into the district internally conducting long-range planning and he would present that information at a future board meeting.

But during a Board of Education retreat June 24 — nearly four months later — Ricker informed board members that he had sent three district administrators for training so that the process could be conducted internally.

Information regarding the internal long-range planning model process, he said, would not be available until one week before the board's July 29 board meeting. The meeting is set to start at 7 p.m. in the Central Office Administration Building, 3120 Lemay Ferry Road.

"We had talked with the board and the board approved a model from last year and we kind of started looking internally at whether we thought it would be best for the district to use ... an outside facilitator and we kind of talked with UNICOM/ARC and they shot us some information and gave us some quotes and things of that nature," Ricker said during the retreat.

"And in the interim, internally we talked about what we think is the best way to approach this long-range planning model. And in fact, we've agreed that we think an internal facilitation and training our internal people, so that they'll be here ... that it's an investment in our own people,'' the superintendent added.

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

Mehlville School District voters in November 2000 approved Proposition P, a nearly $68.4 million bond issue funded by a 49-cent tax-rate increase. However, the Board of Education last September adopted a revised budget for the Proposition P districtwide building program totaling more than $86.7 million.

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.

Instead of bringing the matter back for discussion, South Area Superintendent Keith Klusmeyer, Bernard Middle School Principal Michele Condon and Oakville Senior High School Assistant Principal Brian Lane attended long-range planning model training June 14, Ricker told board members.

"I sent them off to be trained, to be trained facilitators in a strategic planning long-range model so that we'll have these resources on-site," he said. "We believe that the best thing that we can do is set up our model that works for us based on what we know and based on what is successful for us."

Asked if the long-range planning model training for the three administrators cost the district money, Ricker told the Call, "Yes." Asked by the Call how much the district spent on the training, Ricker refused to comment further.

The district's goal is to get the model process ready this summer so that the district will start an annual cycle that will begin in August with planning and data collection ending in December, Ricker explained to board members June 24.

Board members would consider the CSIP annually in January and then implementation of the model would begin in the spring, the superintendent said.

He also would like to see a minimum of two public engagement opportunities each year, he said, adding that he believes the district should contract with a firm every two years to conduct a public opinion survey. He and School/Community Relations Director Patrick Wallace have been contacting research firms to obtain survey information and prices.

Board of Education President Cindy Christopher suggested that the next community survey include a question about end-of-the-year balances in the district's operating budget.

Noting that a prior district goal was to formulate a five-year budget plan, Assistant Superintendent of Finance Randy Charles told board members that he has long-range budget projections. "But to call that a five-year budget plan, I think that'd be stretching it a bit,'' Charles said.

"We live very much like a family that lives paycheck to paycheck," he said, adding the district relies heavily on local tax payments. Charles also serves as the district's chief financial officer and board treasurer.

Keeping district balances low, he said "mimics the expectations of the community," but causes the district to borrow large sums of money when those tax payments are late.

But Christopher believes the expectations of the community may have changed.

"I'm not certain that that low fund balance is really what our community expects anymore. I really don't know. I think our community has changed significantly in the last few years ...," Christopher said, suggesting that when the community is surveyed, residents should be questioned about the matter.

The district already has a public-engagement structure as a reference, Ricker said, noting that the district will follow some of the work that already had been done.

However, he added, "We won't get good at this for three to five years."

In other discussions during the June 24 retreat about district and board goals for the coming year, board members and administrators mentioned they would like to:

• Market the high schools better by publicizing teacher credentials and school statistics to students and the community.

• Conduct topical public forums, of which board member Bill Schornheuser suggested, referring to Mehlville's prior redistricting forums.

• Make a concerted effort to have a stronger presence in state and national associations.

• Place emphasis on board members continuing to visit district schools.

• Formulate and distribute materials with five talking points so parents, employees and community members can lobby the state for a change in the foundation formula.

• Increase tuition-based early childhood enrollment. "It's a real untapped opportunity," Ricker said, noting that this year's enrollment came in well above the district's goal and that a new early childhood center only would be more conducive for the quality of programming.

• Reduce disability testing of non-disabled students in the district.

• Add more writing requirements to secondary courses, while board member Tom Correnti noted concerns he had that students had weak cursive and penmanship skills.

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