Gaines outlines reality; Mehlville’s path forward

Superintendent presents ‘brutal facts’ in his address

Chris Gaines

Chris Gaines

By Gloria Lloyd

In just the second State of the District address in the history of the Mehlville School District, Superintendent Chris Gaines outlined the financial, enrollment and academic challenges the district faces in coming years and discussed the district’s path forward through its ballot initiative Proposition R and the strategic plan.

Gaines was slated to deliver his State of the District speech Tuesday night — after the Call went to press. However, he previewed the speech and the data he planned to present for the Call.

Asked to sum up his address, Gaines said, “Here’s our reality, and here’s a path forward.”

Referencing Jim Collins’ management book “Good to Great,” the superintendent said the first step for an organization to move forward is to “confront the brutal facts.”

For Mehlville, the brutal facts are a $2.6 million operational budget deficit this year after $4 million in budget cuts, and another $3 to $5 million in budget cuts required next year if the district’s 49-cent tax-rate increase, Proposition R, fails this November.

Gaines makes the case in his speech that the budget shortfalls are not the result of overspending but instead stem from increasing inflationary expenses not matching with decreased revenues from falling property values and lack of state funding.

The district has one of the lowest salary-per-student numbers in the county, the superintendent notes.

When the district took surveys for the strategic plan last December, most residents did not realize that the district had any budget difficulties and did not believe that the district needed more money, but two later surveys showed that the majority of voters better understood the district’s finances and were willing to support a tax-rate increase.

“Another author called it ‘defining reality,’” Gaines said of the “brutal facts” he was set to outline in his speech. “So I think (the top priority) is letting people understand what our current condition is: This is where we are. With Prop R, the community has the opportunity to determine what we’re going to become. Are we going to fund the strategic plan and move forward that way?

“Or are we going to continue to make more cuts and damage the system further? Here’s our reality, and here’s a path forward,” the superintendent added.

From the preview, Gaines’ speech appeared to be more data-centered than the first State of the District speech in history, “The House that Mehlville Built,” which was delivered by former Superintendent Eric Knost, then deputy superintendent, in 2007 at Bernard Middle School.

Although Gaines only started in Mehlville July 1, he has already collected reams of data from past years that he planned to present in his speech, including how the makeup of students has changed over the years.

In terms of racial demographics, the number of both white and black students has declined while Asian and Hispanic students increase. Between 2009 and 2014, 778 more students qualify for free and reduced lunch, a number that is larger than the entire population of 354 of the 520 school districts in the state.

Mehlville is in the top 20 largest districts in the state, where it is at the bottom of spending. The district spends $3,500 less per student than the county average, and $1,500 less than the state average.

Mehlville has been recognized as providing the best return on investment of nearly any school district in Missouri by the Center for American Progress.

Locally, Sen. Scott Sifton, D-Affton, noted at the school district’s legislative breakfast earlier this year how impressive it is that the district is in one of the most expensive counties in the state, with a higher cost of living and higher expenses, but still maintains a cost per student lower than most districts and lower than the state average.

Before being elected to the Legislature, Sifton served a dozen years on the Affton Board of Education.

While on the school board, he said, he once served on an organization representing nine area school districts.

“Mehlville is by far the most fiscally conservatively managed,” Sifton said. “This district is about as tightly financially managed as any in town, and that is something I hope your taxpayers understand.”

The 40-square-mile district is one of south county’s largest employers and also operates the largest restaurant system and the largest transportation system in south county.

“We’re a large restaurant, we’re a large transportation provider, we have huge facilities, and oh, by the way — we do educate all these kids,” Gaines said.

Mehlville has 10,500 students. The school district serves 5,700 meals a day, and 8,000 students travel 3,700 miles on its buses a day, totaling nearly a million miles a year.

The district has almost 1.8 million square feet to maintain over 16 schools, an alternative academy and other buildings.

Since 2004, the district has had four rounds of unrestored budget cuts and has slashed 13.5 administrators, 120.5 teachers and 53 other staff members, or 187 employees total.

Although some residents have the perception that Mehlville is top-heavy with administrators, the district has cut 20 percent of its principals since 2010, which has caused the district’s student-principal ratio to increase.

If Prop R is approved by voters, Gaines has said he would restore textbook and curriculum spending to 2004 levels, when the district spent more than $1 million what it does now.

To follow the strategic plan and improve the academics of the district, Gaines said officials would like to add instructional coaches, interventionists and specialists, upgrade technology, adapt libraries to technology, expand the science project-based curriculum Project Lead the Way to elementary schools and ramp up training for teachers.

While Gaines ended on the hopeful note of what the district could accomplish through the strategic plan, he told the Call that the alternative — more budget cuts — would be devastating for the district.

“At this point, I would struggle to see what we might have still to cut,” he said. “As I said earlier, the fat was trimmed a long time ago, and we’re into the muscle and if we have to go any further, it’s vital organs. We can’t cut with a big meat cleaver if we have to cut, it’s got to be a scalpel.

“We’re going to have to be really careful that if we make additional cuts, we don’t impact our kids.”