Fowler hands over Mehlville’s reins to new generation of young parents

Current Mehlville board ‘best I’ve ever seen,’ Fowler says

By BURKE WASSON

At the suggestion of friends and for the sake of his four children’s education, insurance agent Dan Fowler stepped up in January 1989 to file for election to the Mehlville Board of Education.

Twenty years later, a career in public service that includes election to three school-board terms and guidance in numerous successful ballot measures will end.

Fowler has resigned effective today — Jan. 1 — from his advisory position as co-chair of the Mehlville School District’s public-engagement program, Charting the Oakville-Mehlville Path to Advance Successful Schools, or COMPASS.

While his efforts since January 2007 with COMPASS assisted in the formation of a long-range plan and the successful passage in November of the tax-transfer measure Proposition T, Fowler is walking away to enable Mehlville to find a new generation of young parents to carry the district forward.

“It’s kind of like tough love,” he said. “Unless somebody steps aside, nobody else is going to step forward. And I’m kind of forcing Mehlville’s hand to come up with some leadership because as long as I’m there, nobody else is going to step up.”

After 20 years of public service for Mehlville, Fowler now is looking to his future, which includes spending more time with his family and possibly writing a book about middle-aged life and “how to avoid the angry-old-man syndrome.”

Beginning in April 1989, Fowler was elected to three consecutive terms on the Board of Education and served until 1998, when he chose not to run for a fourth term.

In 1992, Mehlville voters approved a $29.5 million no-tax-rate increase bond issue and in 1998, district voters approved the Proposition C sales-tax rollback waiver, which generates millions of dollars annually for Mehlville.

In October 1999, Fowler served as chairman of the Citizens’ Advisory Committee for Facilities, which formulated the recommendation that ultimately became Proposition P. After the board voted to place Prop P on the November 2000 ballot, Fowler then served as chairman of Citizens to Protect Our Investment to promote the successful Prop P, a nearly $68.4 million bond issue funded by a 49-cent tax-rate increase.

But as the cost of Proposition P projects skyrocketed — culminating in December 2005 when the school board approved a revised budget of $89.1 million — Fowler was openly critical of those increased costs.

In January 2007, Fowler was appointed along with former Beasley Elementary School Principal Jim Schibig to co-chair COMPASS. Recommendations gathered at numerous COMPASS sessions in 2007 and 2008 resulted in the school board’s placement of Prop T on the November ballot. Prop T was approved by voters and will transfer roughly 31 cents per $100 of assessed valuation from the district’s debt-service fund to the operating fund.

Despite Mehlville’s recent success at the ballot box, Fowler is concerned that the district’s gradual decline in volunteerism could hinder future progress.

“We’ve got a lot of great parents that are working in our school system volunteering and that are involved with their kids’ education,” Fowler said. “But not nearly the numbers that we had 20 years ago. And that is a real concern to me. The success of the Mehlville School District is dependent upon parents’ participation … This Board of Education and this superintendent and these administrators have got to work hard to get parents involved. That’s part of their job. And that means principals and administrators picking up the phones and calling parents themselves, not assigning it to somebody else but themselves. Parents have got to get and stay involved. Mehlville will rise or fall on parent participation.”

Fowler believes without a new infusion of parent volunteers, any tax proposal designed to move forward with COMPASS plans will fail.

“I do think that Mehlville has to have more resources to become a high-performing school district,” he said. “The problem that the current Board of Education has got is it’s all about timing. And when you’ve got a community hurting and economic times like we do right now, it would really be tough right now.

“In order for Mehlville to pass anything in the future whether it’s in 2009, 2010 or beyond, two things have to happen. You have to have a survey that shows that you have a credible chance of doing it. And number two, you have to have an army of parents that are willing to get out and work and work hard. And until those two things happen, it’ll never happen.”

As for the district’s management, Fowler often refers to the current school board as “the best I’ve ever seen in Mehlville.” But he also believes that even such a strong board should more often question administrators.

“The reason why questioning is needed is because if you don’t trust your administrators, then you need to get rid of them,” Fowler said. “We’ve had administrations in the past who, in my opinion, have sometimes misled the board. When that has happened, and it’s happened recently, the way that you stay effective as a board member is to dig deep and ask lots of questions …

“You have a Superintendent (Terry Noble) who has high moral standards. He is a person that I believe when he gives you his word, you can count on it. That still does not preclude him from being questioned about everything that he does.

“Here’s what I would say about administrators, and this is my experience with them. While they have a great deal of knowledge in education, they are no smarter and in fact probably have less experience or no experience in the real world living or running their own business or outside of being on the payroll of the government. And so, that’s why I believe school-board members are important because they give an outside point of view of things.”

Being forced to make such tough decisions while on the school board not only took much of Fowler’s patience, but also time away from his family.

“It’s a tough job, particularly if you do it right,” he said. “You’re out a lot. You’re out at night a lot. You’re away from your family a lot. I spent many nights gone away from my family. So I have to take my hat off to my wife, who did an incredible job raising our kids when I was gone to meetings.”

But now that Fowler’s life as a public servant to Mehlville seemingly has ended, he believes the district is better than it was 20 years ago and is humbled to have been a part of that progress.

“It’s been quite a ride. Will I ever be back? I could never say no. If I felt that there was a project that Mehlville needed me, it would be very difficult for me to say no … The Boy Scouts have a motto — leave it better than you found it. I hope that after 20 years that Mehlville is better off today than when I came. And I think it is.”