Diehl to suggest forum for Mehlville residents

Forum would be like opening a valve, board president says

By BURKE WASSON

Mehlville Board of Education President Tom Diehl plans to raise the possibility of scheduling an open forum for residents to express their concerns and questions about the school district.

While the topic is not on the Board of Education’s agenda when it meets tonight — June 28 — Diehl told the Call he will suggest the idea during a period for board members’ comments and agenda requests. He also said he would like to schedule the open forum by August.

The Board of Education is scheduled to meet at 7 p.m. at the John Cary Early Childhood Center, 3155 Koch Road.

The Facilitating Team for Mehlville’s public-engagement process, COMPASS — Charting the Oakville-Mehlville Path to Advance Successful Schools — decided last week by consensus to defer consideration of an open forum to the Board of Education.

The Facilitating Team is a group of residents, school-board members, administrators, teachers and students charged with prioritizing residents’ concerns and suggestions for the district’s future into recommendations that will be presented in May to the school board. Those ideas from residents are being collected at 11 community-engagement sessions, three of which already have occurred.

At a June 18 meeting, Facilitating Team members were split on the idea of scheduling an open forum to discuss either concerns with COMPASS or issues residents have with the district as a whole. Some team members opposed the idea of a for-um altogether for varying reasons.

“I still think it negates the whole COMPASS process, which we have established to do something like this …,” Trautwein Elementary School teacher Cathy Mayrose said. “I think that we should follow the process. We’ve spelled it out clearly. We’ve invited the public. They know the topics. I think maybe at the end, say: ‘Did we miss anything?’ But to do it right now, I think it kind of looks like: ‘Well, maybe we’re not sure that the COMPASS system is working, so we’ll have open-mic night.'”

Facilitating Team member Sandy Jacobs also was opposed to the idea of scheduling an open forum in the near future because COMPASS was designed with no sessions in the summer.

“We’ve already told people that we’re giving them the summer off,” she said. “And, you know, I’d like to stay true to our word that we are giving them the summer off.”

But Diehl, also a Facilitating Team member, said during the meeting that if people have something to say, then a forum should be scheduled to hear their concerns.

“My thinking on it is about opening a valve,” Diehl said. “I see in the community there’s still a need to let out the steam, let off some of this pressure. Yeah, there’s going to be a lot of griping. But if people don’t feel like they’ve had the opportunity to hash over what they’ve seen in the past and what they’re not happy with, if we wait until the end of this process and we’re ready to present a vision of this is what we want to do in the future … that’s going to be their time to say: ‘Now wait a minute. You guys still haven’t addressed this, that or what-have-you.’ Let them vent. Let them get their gripes out of the way. And we can say we listened and we can spend the rest of COMPASS moving forward.”

While Facilitating Team member Keith Benack said he would be in favor of an open forum in which residents can discuss elements of COMPASS, he is concerned that a “free-flowing” forum of many topics essentially would undermine the COMPASS process.

“If the focus of the discussion is to put up board members and ask questions of the Board of Education, that’s not the purpose of COMPASS …,” Benack said. “I think it’s almost a dilution of this process …

“If you allow a free-flowing discussion of varied topics, how much of that is then not brought into the issue of COMPASS in the fall? How many people are going to say: ‘Well, I had my say and I did what I wanted to do,’ and that’s the end of it? So I think if you open this up too broadly … you run the risk of losing some momentum that we’ve been trying to build all along.

“And secondly, I think you run the risk of having a renegade group hijacking this whole thing,” he added.

Facilitating Team member Paul Goldak also said he would be afraid to schedule an open forum because it would allow residents with concerns on certain topics not yet addressed by COMPASS to make their complaints now instead of following the process to the end.

COMPASS community-engagement sessions have been reserved for specific subjects, including such topics as academic achievement, facilities, technology, staffing, finances and resources, communications, demographics and enrollment.

“We’ve taken 14 topics and told the public we’re going to talk about 14 topics,” Goldak said. “I don’t know that there are any … I don’t know what No. 15 would be.

“So if you’ve got a complaint or a comment or an issue with any of those 14 topics, come on this meeting and be able to talk about it. And my fear is that we’re playing to the people that don’t want to wait until the 14th meeting. They want to talk now and comment on something that we’re not going to be prepared to talk about for seven or eight more months and we’ll take their comment and we’ll write it down and we’ll say: ‘We’ll get back to you in April.’ Well, that’s not going to make them happy.”

But Board of Education member Micheal Ocello, also on the Facilitating Team, said maybe there is “something outside those 14” community-engagement session topics that needs review.

“It seems to me this is a public-engagement process,” he said. “And, in essence, what we’re saying is are we willing to go out there and engage the public? And I do think we have a process and we should stick to those topics. But at the end of the day, I think there’s a lot to be gained from hearing what people have to say. It’s unfortunate that some of it may be things that we don’t necessarily want to talk about.

“But isn’t that really a critical element to this? I mean, if somebody does have something they just have to come and gripe about, then chances are that one speaks for many. You may not realize it, but there’s not just one person feeling that. Maybe that’s something that as a group, and ultimately as a Board of Education and an administration, we need to evaluate.”

That is why Diehl said he plans tonight to introduce the idea of an open forum for the Board of Education’s consideration.

He added he would also be willing to go as far as scheduling open forums on a semiannual basis to make sure all major concerns from residents are heard.

“I think the board has talked at various times about the need to do something like this,” Diehl said. “To be more available to residents who wish to voice concerns about the district. I think it’s something that has merit … We can use it as a barometer to see how we’re doing. I’m sure as time goes on people are going to have different concerns.”