In annual address, Gaines talks enrollment, strategic plan

Mehlville+Superintendent+Chris+Gaines+talks+to+a+teacher+in+a+hallway+while+schools+were+all-virtual+in+fall+2020.+

Mehlville Superintendent Chris Gaines talks to a teacher in a hallway while schools were all-virtual in fall 2020.

By Erin Achenbach, News Editor

Mehlville School District Superintendent Chris Gaines gave his seventh annual State of the District address last week, highlighting the next phase of the district’s strategic plan, Proposition S facility improvements and enrollment numbers. 

“We’ve got a few things we’re going to jump through tonight, really just concentrating on where we are preliminarily with enrollment so far this year, talk a little bit about our strategic plan as well as progress on Prop S work,” Gaines said, opening the address at Mehlville High School’s Nottlemann Auditorium Sept. 16.

Following declines in enrollment over the past several years, enrollment this school year is slightly up, Gaines said, from 9,765 last year to 9,974. The number is above prior projections for the district, although those projections were made before COVID-19. The district conducted a demographic study in June 2019 and plans to conduct another study in fall 2022. 

“We track (enrollment) over time, so if we look going back to above 1991, you can see what’s been happening … overall is a decline,” said Gaines. “Overall, it looks like we might be staying a little bit steady over the next few years before starting to decline.” 

The district has also looked into how Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corporation, or VICC, student enrollment has changed and its impact on total enrollment. At its height, VICC had thousands of students in the district, but as the program is being phased out, that number continues to shrink. 

“We can see that two-thirds of our enrollment decline can be attributed to the decline in the VICC population. … As we think about that and try to put that in perspective, if we think about the loss of nearly 2,000 over 21 years, well that’s bigger than most school districts in Missouri,” said Gaines. “That’s just under 100 kids per grade level.”  

Gaines added that while some might wonder why staffing couldn’t be cut if student population is declining, it was important to maintain perspective. 

 “That’s about seven kids per grade level. That’s not seven kids in one classroom, that’s seven students in classrooms spread across a lot of schools,” Gaines said. “If we look at just the resident population … we’re looking at two to three kids per grade level across multiple schools.” 

Looking toward the future enrollment of the district, Gaines said the demographer will update projections in fall 2022, using 2016 enrollment as the baseline. 

“Will the Blues winning the Stanley Cup in 2019 – will that have an impact on the size of our kindergarten class come 2025? The Cardinals winning a World Series did. … Might we see something similar with the impact of COVID,” said Gaines.

Gaines also touched on the district’s strategic plan. The Board of Education unanimously passed the next five-year iteration of the strategic plan at its board meeting Sept. 16. 

“In 2019, we did a lot of engagement with the community about developing the next iteration of the strategic plan and what we’ve come down to is these five themes – three of them pretty much staying where they were … and we’ve added safety and access and opportunity as themes.’ 

Mehlville’s first formal strategic plan was adopted by the Board of Education in 2015 under interim Superintendent Norm Ridder, just before Gaines became Mehlville’s superintendent. The strategic plan is intended to be renewed in five-year intervals, and the first plan is built around the elements of student preparation, teacher support and being effective and efficient. The next iteration of the plan includes the tenant themes, as well as safety and access and opportunity. 

“We manage all of this stuff and look at this alignment … it helps us look across multiple dimensions at any given year to ensure that we can align things that we want to work on, we can align projects” with the strategic plan. 

Speaking of projects, Gaines also provided an update on Proposition S, the $35-million no-tax-rate-increase bond measure passed by voters in April. The money is being used to fund facilities improvements at all of the district’s buildings, including the addition of security entry vestibules at every school. 

Work began this summer on Forder Elementary’s HVAC and Oakville High School’s softball/baseball fields. The district is on track to put out more bid packages by early 2022. 

“It has been about 20 years since there’s been significant construction across the district so we’re not used to that. … We’ve got to continue to prepare for that disruption. … As we move into the winter and the spring, we’ll really start seeing some work happening,” said Gaines. “We’re still thinking projects should be finished and wrapped up before the start of the 2024-2025 school year. I know that seems like a long ways away but that will be here a lot faster than we think. Time just keeps on moving along and we’ll be right there with it.”