Forum for residents expected to be topic at Mehlville retreat

Different options for forums debated by board members

By BURKE WASSON

Mehlville Board of Education members next week are expected to further discuss the possibility of conducting an open forum for district residents.

Board members will meet to discuss various district matters, including the open forum, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, July 21, during a retreat at Minions Cafe in Maplewood. The board’s next regular meeting is scheduled for Thursday, July 26.

At the board’s June 28 meeting, President Tom Diehl suggested scheduling such a forum by August so residents can have an avenue to voice concerns to district officials and ask them questions.

The Facilitating Team for the district’s public-engagement process, COMPASS — Charting the Oakville-Mehlville Path to Advance Successful Schools — last month discussed the notion of a forum and decided to pass consideration of it to the Board of Education.

The Facilitating Team is comprised of district 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 next May to the school board. Those ideas from residents are being collected at 11 community-engagement sessions, three of which already have occurred.

At the Facilitating Team’s June 18 meeting, 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.

At that time, Facilitating Team co-chair and former Board of Education member Dan Fowler proposed a four-person panel of Diehl, himself, Facilitating Team co-chair Jim Schibig and Superintendent Terry Noble to field questions during a forum.

Some Facilitating Team members op-posed the idea of a forum altogether for various reasons. Their concerns included potentially undermining the gathering of public opinion done through COMPASS and the group’s previous pledge that they would not ask for residents’ involvement during the summer. But on that same evening, Diehl and Board of Education Secretary Micheal Ocello said they would like to study the merits of an open forum out of concern that some residents might have areas they would like to discuss outside of the topics reserved for community-engagement sessions.

At the Board of Education’s June 28 meeting, other board members expressed that an open forum of some kind is a step in the right direction. The structure of that forum, however, is still being debated and will be further discussed.

“My thought would be we discuss this at the retreat as far as how we could do this,” Diehl said. “We had talked in the past about doing something like that or having periodic opportunities for the general public to talk to school-board members and improve the communications between residents and the board. And so, I think that would probably be the time to talk about it and also at the next meeting we could discuss it.

“But my thought would be we could find some time in August to hold that first session. As school’s beginning, people are coming back into that mode of thinking about things other than vacation. I think we really have to do something to give people the chance to feel that we’re available to them even though we all are available. A lot of times, folks contact us and maybe they don’t want to talk to us one on one. But we could give them a format and an opportunity to know that we’re willing to listen. I think it would do a lot to help our relationship with the community.”

Diehl identified a forum proposal previously submitted at the June Facilitating Team meeting by educational-planning consultant Dan Keck in which the forum would be similar to the community-engagement sessions for COMPASS. The forum would essentially gather input from residents seated at groups of tables.

“The idea that Dr. Keck presented to be would have more … to be similar to the COMPASS forum where people sit at tables,” Diehl said. “And each table would identify their priorities as far as what their concerns are as opposed to just turning it loose to letting one person monopolize the conversation.”

But Vice President Karl Frank Jr. said he believes it would be more beneficial to have a town-hall meeting forum where participants personally can address district officials.

“I understand why this institution wouldn’t necessarily want to have a town-hall forum,” Frank said. “But that’s what I’m getting ready to say … I think there needs to be an opportunity for the citizens to come to have an open dialogue … I know there’s negatives in doing that … But at the same time, there’s some things that come out that a lot of people feel in their mind, in the back of their heads, in the back of their minds that aren’t addressed because they’re not done in an open forum.”

Rod Wright of UNICOM•ARC, the consulting group hired to carry out the public-engagement process, told the board June 28 that if the board decides to have a forum, he has varying options for doing so.

“What I would suggest, because I sense the sentiment of the board is to have some kind of forum, is for us to take that direction,” he said. “And we have done these in a number of different formats and put together, at least in our view, a couple of options for doing that that will truly work well and will be a positive experience for the board and a positive experience for the participants.”

While Wright said he has seen such forums turn into negative experiences for some participants, he believes he could suggest a structure that would alleviate any of those pressures.

“Oftentimes, for the vast majority of people that attend, it becomes a very negative experience,” Wright said. “But I think that there’s ways of avoiding that and structuring them where you get good input and people have an opportunity to give that in-put and it’s a positive experience for everybody in attendance. And we’ll put together a couple options for doing that.”

Even with the possibility of potentially damaging or negative comments from the public in an open forum, Frank said he believes the district will “almost need” to have that kind of openness to truly hear concerns about the district.

“I understand the possible problems with having an open forum like that because anything goes,” Frank said. “But, at the same time, I think in some cases we almost need to be anything goes.”

“And please understand, to me, it’s not either/or,” Wright replied. “There’s multiple ways we can do some public meetings to get input. And we’ve had some very positive experiences recently with the kind of more town-hall kind of meeting that we’re talking about. And we’ll give you more recommendations for having that process on how that type of meeting can be held, again, where people feel good about the meeting and you get the kind of input that you want.”