Mehlville board puts brakes on Forward Motion

Interim leader to review plan before board moves forward

By Gloria Lloyd

The Mehlville Board of Education was originally slated to discuss Superintendent Eric Knost’s $29 million Forward Motion proposal at its meeting Thursday, but board members are postponing any action on it until after the district’s interim superintendent arrives in July — too late for the plan to appear on the August ballot.

Board President Ron Fedorchak said he is delaying the discussion because board members want input from their next superintendent on the plan.

Knost, who took the superintendent’s job at Mehlville in 2011, is leaving July 1 for the same position at the Rockwood School District.

The delay is not related to the plan’s merit, Fedorchak added, but board members simply want to give the district’s new leader a chance to look at the plans before they proceed with them.

To keep his recommended bond issue under 20 cents, Knost proposes a scaled-back $24.5 million plan: $8.2 million to build a 500-seat auditorium and 75-seat theater at Oakville High School; $6 million for classroom additions at three schools and a new library at Bierbaum Elementary School; $5 million to replace HVAC systems more than 20 years old; and $1.5 million for a new entryway and elevator at the Witzel Learning Center.

“I think it’s a good plan, and I think it stands on its own merits,” Fedorchak noted, adding that Knost’s departure changes the equation for the board. “I don’t think anything Eric asked for is ridiculous — you do need to have more class space, you need to have a better library situation at Bierbaum. I think if Eric was going to be here, it’s a no-brainer — I think we’ve got the momentum.”

However, given that the plan would be carried out by Knost’s successor, board member Larry Felton said it makes sense for the next superintendent to offer input to the board on the plan.

“That’s why you hire someone for that job — you want to listen to what they understand,” Felton told the Call. “And given the fact that if we maintain the same philosophy that we have now, that we want our superintendent to be the face and the voice of the district, I would think as part of the transition that you’d want them to be familiar with it. Because you’re going to call upon him to help carry it out and provide his perspective and work with the resources of the district appropriately.”

Felton hopes the board can meet with Knost and the new interim superintendent before Knost leaves “so we’re on the same level (of knowledge) when July gets here.”

Knost said the plan will be “on the shelf, canned and ready” for his successor, and he hopes the next superintendent, the board and the voters will support it.

“All I know is what I’m told, and I was told to pull it from the agenda,” Knost told the Call. “I’ve been told that my work with it is done. It wasn’t presented in a negative way, and I’m still being told that all but one board member highly supports the plan. I’m happy to say that the board has not been negative about the plan at all — they’ve been concerned about timing.”

The primary building project Knost oversaw through his first long-term facilities plan, the William B. Nottelman Auditorium at Mehlville High School, is now completed — $181,000 under its $6 million budget.

Board Secretary Lori Trakas was the sole vote against the plan when Knost first unveiled it to the board April 24. The board gave preliminary approval to the plans 5-1, with member Kathleen Eardley absent.

Trakas said she sees “wants” and “needs” in the plan, classifying the classroom additions as needed, but the auditorium and Witzel improvements as wanted rather than needed.

Since Fedorchak pulled the plan from tonight’s agenda, the earliest Knost’s recommended proposal — a two-pronged 29-cent tax-rate increase comprised of separate ballot questions, a bond issue requiring a 19-cent tax-rate increase and an operational tax-rate increase of 10 cents — could go on the ballot would be in November.

The $50 million, 19-cent bond issue would pay for the scaled-back $24.5 million Forward Motion plan, pay off $18 million in bond-like certificates early to free up funds in the district’s operating budget and add $5.5 million to fund the district’s rolling facilities and technology plans that are currently paid through deficit spending out of reserves.

The additional 10-cent tax-rate hike would add roughly $1.5 million in extra revenue a year that would go to the reserve fund.

Other plans Knost presented to the board but did not recommend include doing nothing toward Forward Motion — in which case Knost said he would spend his remaining time as superintendent looking at ways the district can cut programs or costs.

Other options Knost presented include a 35-cent tax-rate increase that would not fund Forward Motion, facilities or technology, or a 43-cent tax-rate increase ballot issue for certificates of participation, or COPs, that would fund the full Forward Motion plan and shore up reserves, but fund none of the facilities and technology plans.

Knost and Fedorchak agree that the board has to look for ways to free up space in its operating budget in light of a decade of stable revenue but rising costs.

“We really need to do something about our operations budget,” Fedorchak said. “This year, we were helped by the transfer issue — otherwise we would have lost revenue from the previous year. Every year, our fuel costs go up, our maintenance programs go up.”

The “stars are aligned” to fix that impending problem this year, Knost said.

“Now was the time, this is the year to make plans for the future,” he said. “You can say it looks like we’re going to be fine next year, it looks like we’re going to be fine the year after, and maybe even the year after that. But you can’t wait until then to make decisions about either how you’re going to offset things to balance programs, or what are you going to reel back in — you can’t make a last-minute decision to go out and ask the voters for help.

“I’m not screaming that if you don’t do this, we’re going to be worse than this district, or our kids are going to suffer,” Knost added. “It’s our job as public educators to make sure they don’t suffer no matter what. I’ve always been committed to that. But there’s no doubt about it, I can do things that are very good for kids and student achievement with these pieces.”

Although Knost will not lead the district beyond June 30, Felton said that the community should know that a large part of the district’s success with the auditorium and its stewardship of taxpayer dollars is through the staff, not just Knost.

“I think it’s important that people understand that we have the same extremely talented and organized staff to carry this out,” he said. “That was the charge we gave (Knost), to be the face and the voice of the district. But he’ll also be the first one to tell people, ‘I couldn’t have done this by myself.'”

The board will meet at 7 p.m. Thursday — May 22 — in the Administration Building, 3120 Lemay Ferry Road.