Mehlville Board of Education OKs contract with UNICOM

By EVAN YOUNG

The Mehlville School District officially has secured the full services of communications firm UNICOM•ARC for the second phase of its long-range improvement plan.

School board members recently voted 6-1 to approve a $44,000 contract with the firm for services during the second phase of COMPASS — Charting the Oakville-Mehlville Path to Advance Successful Schools. Board Secretary Larry Felton was opposed.

The board first received the contract in August but tabled its approval pending input from the district’s communication advisory and finance committees.

“I just wanted to thank you for the opportunity to once again work for the school district,” UNICOM•ARC President Rod Wright told the board Oct. 20. “Over the last couple of years, working for the Board of Education and the administration of this district has been among the most pleasant work we’ve done at UNICOM.”

COMPASS began in 2007, and numerous community-engagement sessions took place in 2007 and 2008 to gather residents’ input. The COMPASS Facilitating Team — comprised of residents, administrators, employees, school-board members and students — used that community input to develop phased recommendations to improve the district.

In June 2008, the Facilitating Team recommended two ballot measures — a transfer of 31 cents per $100 of assessed valuation from the debt-service fund to the operating fund — which later became Proposition T — and a 37-cent tax-rate increase.

Prop T was approved last November by more than 62 percent of voters. The measure transferred roughly 31 cents per $100 of assessed valuation from the district’s debt-service fund to the operating fund. It is expected to generate roughly $5.6 million annually for the operating fund.

However, the board rejected the proposed 37-cent tax-rate increase after a July 2008 survey found that 59 percent of 400 participants would oppose it. With the board’s rejection of the proposed tax-rate increase, many of the first COMPASS recommendations were deemed fiscally unfeasible.

“I was really happy with the (Prop T) vote of approval we got from the community in November, but I think all of us that worked on that program wish we could’ve taken a little bit bigger first step in terms of achieving some of the important goals that both COMPASS and the board identified for this school district,” Wright told the board. “I’m wanting to very much take that step with you and get this district where you want it to go and where the vision of COMPASS was.”

Under the contract approved Oct. 20, UNICOM•ARC will provide the district with “program planning, media advertising, direct mail, grassroots program, opinion research and other creative writing and planning services necessary to bring about public awareness.” The district will pay the firm $4,000 a month for the period of Nov. 1 through July 30, 2010. An $8,000 invoice was slated for Oct. 23 to cover services provided since Sept. 1, while the contract was tabled. The contract also provides for an extension of up to four months, from Aug. 1 through Nov. 30, 2010, at $4,000 a month. A full extension would raise the total cost of the agreement to $60,000.

Wright said his firm billed clients by the hour when it began offering public engagement services. However, the firm now sets a flat fee so that both parties know how much money will be involved in any given project.

“We sit down and estimate how many hours we’re thinking that we’ll put in on a project,” he said. “It tends to be really heavy at the beginning, it tends to be light in the middle and then really heavy at the end again. As a number of you can talk about, when we were ending (COMPASS I) in 2008 we were spending a ton of hours around here. And what we try to do is do that in a way where it’s profitable to us and yet we provide the service that you want, and where we never feel at the end of a program ‘We can’t attend another meeting because we’re losing a lot of money on this.’ … We try to estimate in a sense what the program’s worth and about how many hours we’re going to spend, and then figure out what our hourly rate is against that, and that’s how we tend to come up with the fee.

“The original work that we did here was considerably higher than this proposal, and the reason why is because … we were assuming a lot of the communications work, not just for COMPASS but for the district on a whole,” he continued. “And if you’ll remember we did a communications audit, a plan and a variety of communications work. This is really kind of boiled down to COMPASS and the communications related to COMPASS … and helping out the best we can on an as-needed basis in some other areas.”

But Felton said he didn’t think the time was right for the district to seek professional help with community engagement.

“When this contract first came out I had some reservations, and I still have those reservations. I have to say that these comments have nothing to do with the quality of work you’ve done here. Your track record speaks for itself …,” he said Oct. 20. “From the philosophical point of view, we have a situation here where for once in our life we don’t have an urgency. We have a chance to build what I would call a presence in the community, and philosophically I think this is an opportunity for the volunteers, for people within the community.

“Whether it’s a communications team or whether it’s other people, I think this is a chance for them to get out … to the community they live in. I think there’s a point in time where we’re going to need professional help. Once I think we’ve proven our trust level, for lack of a better word, I think there’s going to be an opportunity to look at improving the financial status of the district. But I guess from a philosophical point of view, I think this is an opportunity for volunteers … I think that would be a terrific resource for this project.”

Wright, however, said he questions the efficacy of public engagement programs run solely by volunteers.

“I think most people that try to do it without some level of help make mistakes, and when you make mistakes in an engagement program and it backfires, just the opposite of what you’re wanting to happen happens … And you don’t have to look very far to have seen that happen in this community.

“There was a public hearing recently on health care which tried to engage the community, and I’m not sure that was good for anybody,” he said, referring to a volunteer-organized forum on aging in August at Bernard Middle School that repeatedly was interrupted by health-care-reform opponents and ended with police arresting six people.

While the board initially tabled the UNICOM•ARC contract in August, it voted at the time to create a separate, $22,000 agreement with the firm to produce a video about the district for COMPASS II. The video will be shown to residents at various speaker’s bureau events during the second phase. It’s designed to highlight positive aspects of the district, constructively point out areas in need of improvement and issue a “call-to-action” to viewers for support of the COMPASS initiative.