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Ricker crushes high hopes for his leadership of district



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By Mike Anthony
February 02, 2005 - When Tim Ricker was named su\perintendent of the Mehlville School District, this newspaper and other supporters of the school district were optimistic that Mehlville would thrive under his leadership.

In fact, this newspaper on Jan. 2, 2003, applauded Board of Education members "for making decisions they believe are in the best interest of the district and community,'' specifically in regard to the selection of Dr. Ricker as superintendent.

Dan Fowler, a former Mehlville Board of Education member and occasional columnist for the Call, wrote Jan. 9, 2003, "The Mehlville Board of Education made a great choice picking Tim Ricker as superintendent of the Mehlville School District.''

Unfortunately, the high hopes many district supporters had for Dr. Ricker's leadership were crushed within months of his becoming superintendent when it became apparent that Dr. Ricker can't stand to have any of his decisions questioned — by employees, the public or the press.

In fact, it quickly became apparent that arrogance, pettiness and retaliation appear to be the cornerstones of the Ricker superintendency. Just ask former Board of Education members Chuck VanGronigen and Gloria Brazell what happened when they had the audacity to question the total cost of the Proposition P districtwide building improvement program as chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the Proposition P Oversight Committee.

Within months of their comments, Dr. Ricker deemed the Oversight Committee needed a leadership change and the Board of Education adopted a policy prohibiting district employees and school board members from serving in leadership roles on the panel. As a district teacher, Mrs. Brazell could no longer serve as vice chairman, a post she had held since the panel's second meeting. We don't blame her for resigning from the committee.

Mr. VanGronigen, who had proposed the Oversight Committee in 2000 as "a watchdog committee to provide oversight and accountability during the construction process,'' wasn't treated much better as an administrator whose work the committee oversees nominated someone else for chairman.

Though Mr. VanGronigen remained chairman, the fact that Dr. Ricker allowed Assistant Superintendent Randy Charles to nominate someone else for the post simply was appalling to observers, but that appears to be business as usual under the Ricker administration.

Dan and Sandy Fowler also are familiar with the punitive measures taken by the Ricker administration. Just ask them why Mrs. Fowler, a former Oakville Middle School counselor clerk, submitted her resignation in October 2003 after believing she had been targeted by administrators in an effort to silence her husband from writing columns critical of the district.

Or consider the punitive measures the superintendent and his subordinates have taken against this newspaper — punitive measures that began long before the Call filed a lawsuit last May against Dr. Ricker, the district and the board, alleging three purposeful violations of the Missouri Open Meetings and Records Law, also called the Sunshine Law.

Those punitive measures began in response to this newspaper's refusal to support the Ricker administration's feeble efforts to rewrite the history of Proposition P, which today totals nearly $89 million.

It's simple. Proposition P was a $68.4 million bond issue funded by a 49-cent tax-rate increase. That's what voters approved.

Just ask Mr. Fowler, who served as chairman of the district's Citizens' Advisory Committee for Facilities that formulated the bond issue and as chairman of the Citizens to Protect Our Investment committee that promoted Proposition P.

Perhaps Mr. Charles best characterized the effort to re-write history when he told the Oversight Committee in June 2003, "The voters approved a 49-cent levy. They didn't approve a $68 million project.''

Mr. Charles forgets that Board of Education members, district supporters and campaign materials presented Proposition P as a $68.4 million bond issue.

For example, in a letter to the editor published Nov. 2, 2000, Mr. VanGronigen, who was board president, wrote: "We cannot fund the improvements out of the current budget. We just don't have $68 million sitting in our accounts.''

Is Mr. Charles suggesting that district officials were misleading the public to vote for a 49-cent tax-rate increase to fund an unlimited amount of building improvements?

As a result of the Call's refusal to support the effort to rewrite Prop P's history, under Dr. Ricker's "leadership,'' district employees — apparently with the full cooperation of the Board of Education — have engaged in questionable and clearly retaliatory measures designed to thwart this newspaper's efforts to obtain public information.

For example, when changes to the Sunshine Law went into effect last year, the Board of Education revised district policy, approving the maximum amount allowed by law that resulted in a 900 percent increase in the per-page cost for copies of records. The revisions to the Sunshine Law capped the per-page cost for copies of records at 10 cents for a 9-inch-by-14-inch copy. Under the old law, governmental entities could charge only the actual cost of making copies. Before the change, the Ricker administration charged this newspaper one cent per page for copies.

During 2004, this newspaper paid more than $650 to the Mehlville School District for costs associated with obtaining public information.

Unchanged in the law, however, is a provision that states, "Documents may be furnished without charge or at a reduced charge when the public governmental body determines that waiver or reduction of the fee is in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of the public governmental body and is not primarily in the commercial interest of the requester.''

Previous Mehlville administrations did not charge the Call for copies of public records.

In another apparent retaliatory measure, Dr. Ricker sent a fax on April 28 notifying the Call that he was ending what he termed "exclusive'' interviews with the Call, stating,

"Regardless of the situation, or all of the facts, it is apparent that the Call does not want to cover the district with a balanced journalist viewpoint,'' he wrote.

Dr. Ricker's action does a disservice to the public.

As we've said before, the so-called exclusive interviews dated back to 1995 under former Superintendent Bob Rogers when all area newspapers were invited to meet with him. When John Cary became superintendent, the interviews with the Call and other newspapers continued.

Eventually, the other newspapers failed to take advantage of this great opportunity and stopped participating in the weekly sessions. The Call, however, was appreciative of the superintendent's willingness to meet with us and continued to participate in the interviews until Dr. Ricker halted them.

But the real effect of Dr. Ricker's letter was the ending of contact with any district employee for news stories, except for School/Community Relations Director Patrick Wallace, who also serves as the district's custodian of records.

When we contact Mr. Wallace seeking comment from a district employee for a news story, Mr. Wallace says we must submit our questions in writing. We won't do that, the Post-Dispatch won't do that nor would any reputable newspaper do that.

Through Mr. Wallace and his highly unusual practice, the Mehlville School District essentially is filtering the news and information Mehlville residents receive. And the application of the practice can lead to only one conclusion, it is being applied in a retaliatory fashion against the Call.

On several occasions this newspaper has made Sunshine Law requests to the district, seeking the written questions required of other newspapers. Oddly enough, those written questions don't seem to exist or were deemed unnecessary.

For example, in response to such a request last June, here's what Dr. Ricker wrote: "No written questions were submitted. Mr. Wallace informs me that the Suburban Journal contacted him for district response to the story specified in your request and that he determined written questions were not necessary in this instance.''

We challenge Dr. Ricker to cite any instance in which written questions were required by another newspaper.

Or consider a Sunshine Law request we made last week, seeking written questions submitted to Dr. Ricker and Mr. Charles by the Suburban Journals. "... The district has no public records responsive to your request,'' Mr. Wallace wrote in response.

It's obvious that the Ricker administration treats the Call differently than other newspapers. Given the skyrocketing cost of Proposition P and the dramatic decline in academic performance as evidenced by the 27-point drop on the district's Annual Performance Report, it's clear that Dr. Ricker would like to control what we print. Treating the Call differently may be the district's prerogative, but we believe our readers should know that we are unable to speak directly to Mehlville employees for news stories, a disconcerting practice that likely violates their First Amendment right of freedom of speech.

Of course, given the Ricker administration's seemingly retaliatory nature, we can understand why employees adhere to this practice.

The Mehlville School District's philosophy under Dr. Ricker appears much different than past administrations, which have appreciated our coverage of the district.

The Mehlville School District in 2001 nominated the Call for a Missouri Community Service Commission Media Appreciation Award, which the newspaper received. In 2003, this writer was presented an Award of Merit by former Superintendent Cary at the Mehlville School District's 23rd annual Recognition Night.

We are proud of Mehlville's recognition of our journalistic efforts, but we won't compromise our credibility by blindly reporting the Ricker administration's spin on district matters just to have access to interviews with district employees for news stories.

In an April 29 e-mail sent to Board of Education members, Central Office administrators, directors, principals and assistant principals announcing his decision to end interviews with the Call, Dr. Ricker wrote, "... We will be continuing to communicate to our community in various ways, including the local media outlets. At this time, we will be treating each of the outlets the same and will be working through our Community Relations Office when the media ask for interviews or have questions about the district.''

Despite his assertion that all media outlets would be treated the same, we can only conclude that based on his actions and those of his subordinates, that would not appear to be the case and we question what kind of example Dr. Ricker is setting for the roughly 11,500 children enrolled in Mehlville schools.

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