Mehlville finances, curriculum discussed by board candidates

Total of 9 candidates vie for 3 school board seats.

By EVAN YOUNG

Nine candidates seeking three seats on the Mehlville Board of Education offered their platforms and took the public’s questions during a forum last week at Mehlville Senior High School.

The Mehlville Legislative Network sponsored the 90-minute forum, which drew some 60 people to the high school’s library.

Marea Kluth-Hoppe, John Roland Jr., Deb Langland, Elaine Powers, Rich Franz, Michael Doyel, Mark Stoner, Franchesca Gindler and David Wessel are seeking election to the three seats, which carry three-year terms. Incumbents Drew Frauenhoffer and Erin Weber did not file for re-election.

The third seat formerly was held by Karl Frank Jr., who resigned in November.

In between two-minute opening and closing remarks, the candidates fielded a variety of topics in questions written by those in attendance at the March 23 forum. A few questions pertained to two issues the candidates cited as among the most important facing the district: finances and curriculum.

One question asked the candidates how the board could increase district revenues without increasing taxes, cuts, deficit spending or deferring debt into the future.

Franz said, “I’m not sure it’s the responsibility of the board to increase revenue. I think it’s the responsibility of the board to work within the parameters — the financial parameters — that we’ve been given by the taxpayers, who again are the owners of the school district. The board has a responsibility to two groups: the taxpayers … and the students and their academic achievement.

“Our responsibility is not to improve the bottom line like a corporation would want to do for their shareholders. Our responsibility is to take the funds that have been given us by the taxpayers and make sure we’re providing the best academic opportunities for every student in the district based on those numbers that have been given to us. The idea that it’s the job of a public administration to raise revenue I think is something that’s worthy of interpretation and worthy of more discussion.”

Kluth-Hoppe said, “I do think the board has a responsibility to work toward increasing revenues. The Board of Education can certainly talk with its legislators so that our legislators, our representatives know the impact of what limited state funds we have, if there’s any formula changes so that they can work toward making changes to increase the some 12 percent we get from the state.

“The board can certainly ask the administration to improve grant writing, which there’s no paid grant writer in the district. That’s a trickle, but it still could improve revenue. And (the board) can work with the community because there are some very small opportunities for donations and additional help from the community …”

Langland said, “Over the years … the legislative group has been working toward that to change some of the laws so we get a better shake on our funding. We have a very unfair formula now. We get a very small amount of revenue from the state, and most of our revenue does come from our local property taxes. So on that note I think if you increase the popularity of the district and actually get this to be a destination district, we have residents come in here and our property values go up, and of course that will increase revenue, too. But we really need to work more on getting more money with our legislative committee and from the government.”

Roland said, “A couple of things — you can review how the money that you have, how those things are spent. You get the chance to look at, if there are excesses, you should try to remove a few of the excesses.

“We can also improve how we use the resources that we do have. I’m fortunate to be on the Oakville Band Parents Association at Oakville High School. And the budget that we have for things that the band gets an opportunity to do is a very, very thin budget. We are able to do a lot of things with the limited resources that we’re able to get. I do think that we can work with the legislators to discuss what revenues are available and how the revenues … can be allocated a little bit more based on the size of the district.”

Doyel said, “As board members, we are lay people and I think the first place to look is to the experts in the field of education as to where we may come up with additional sources of revenue. I’m sure that there are people out there whose minds we can tap for ideas on where we can get money. Everybody has touched about increasing federal and state funding; we have to work to that.

“We have to work on getting grants, things like that. The bigger picture is I think we need to as part of our team approach tap into the experts who would have more knowledge as to where we could increase our revenues.”

Wessel said, “I have been thinking about this a lot lately, and I’ve been thinking about: What do those organizations that have to rely on private funds do today? Let’s take a look at the not-for-profits; let’s take a look at the colleges and universities. We can see how they tap alumni all the time. We can see how they work with the businesses in the area, endowments and grants … Talking about businesses, one of the biggest costs for businesses to hire people is training them. So if you can imagine how beneficial it would be for a business if we could provide them job candidates ready to go. That would save them a lot of money. That’s something I think businesses in the area and across the state would be willing to help out with.”

Stoner said, “Well this is both a macro issue and a micro issue. It’s a macro issue in that the school board doesn’t necessarily — and I agree with Rich — doesn’t necessarily need to be out there saying we need to increase revenue. Quite frankly, we have a natural source of increasing revenue. Generally speaking, every person sitting in here probably the best investment you’ve ever made is your house, because it’s gone up in value. And over time, that will help school districts increase their revenue. So the only way to continue increasing home values is to keep property taxes low. That’s what people love. That’s what business owners love. That’s why they keep buying land, and that’s why the community grows: low taxes.

“The second thing is, from a micro standpoint, there are a lot of things we can do. We can tap into businesses. We can tap into the parents — all the extracurricular things to help support those organizations much more. I’ve said that I want to look for every opportunity to help parents be involved in this district, and this is one of them.”

Gindler said, “I want to say that I tend to agree with Rich in the idea that I don’t really think it’s our job to create revenue. Already our parent groups are funding things they don’t fund in other districts. There’s a PTO that’s currently fundraising for cafeteria tables. That doesn’t happen in other places. I think putting the burden back on us to do things like that — I just don’t think it’s feasible. I’m a member of the legislative advocacy group that the Cooperating School Districts has put forth, and I think that legislatively maybe we can work toward something, but I’m not sure how much of that should be necessarily the responsibility of the board, although I personally am going in that direction.”

Powers said, “I would say that I think it is a responsibility of the board to set the standard and to set a culture of creativity. And I think when it comes to finding new sources of revenue, there are some possibilities out there.

“And granted, I know that federal funding and other areas are being shrunk as well, but there are opportunities out there. There are opportunities that this school district has not pursued because we don’t have an active grant writer. I believe it’s a place where my personal background in terms of working in not-for-profit could work, because there are opportunities out there to bring dollars in. Not to meet our regular operating things — absolutely that’s our state and local funding for our regular operating budget. But in terms of value added, in terms of finding ways to bring those extra things into the classroom, in terms of adding new programs that enhance what we’re already doing, there’s opportunities out there. At the local level, there’s something called the St. Louis County Children Services Fund, which is money specifically targeted for children in St. Louis County for mental health services. And that can be something we tap into more, rather than spending our operating dollars on those.”

The nine also were asked if they’d reviewed the district’s curriculum, if they thought it was meeting students’ needs and what they would do to improve student achievement.

Wessel said one of the reasons he decided to run for the board was that he “didn’t think that we were meeting the needs of the next generation work force and of the students that are going to be graduating this year and the next 10, 20 years. I understand that we have mandates that require us to teach to a lot of tests, require us to teach to reading, writing, arithmetic. Those are definitely great things; they’re the foundation of education. But when I interview people for jobs I have never asked anybody if they could read, write or add and subtract. That’s a given nowadays. I think what we need to be doing is setting our children up so that they stand apart from everybody else. And so where we need to improve our curriculum is in the science and the engineering and the technology fields.”

Doyel said, “I have reviewed the current curriculum. How do we improve student achievement? First of all, student achievement is very hard to quantify how we are improving it. I am not a proponent of measuring student achievement by test scores. If we start measuring it by test scores, we’re going to start teaching kids how to take tests, and that is not in my opinion what we should be doing. We need to teach the children how to critically think and that is going to start with early childhood education, full-day kindergarten, and then it will trickle up to the rest of the grades. We need to give the teachers the tools so that they can improve student achievement in a creative way …”

Roland said, “I have indeed reviewed the curriculum choices that are available for all of our students. Do I think that we have adequate selection? Is there a way to improve our student achievement and are our students’ needs being met? I think on an overall basis, I will have to say yes. We’re meeting, but is that where we really want to be? Do we always want to meet? If we’re going to be a district of distinction we need to foster excellence. We can’t take away things from kids. We can’t take away classes. We can’t take away the upper classes kids take that prepare them for the college experience. Our world economy is changing before our eyes each and every day. Our kids have got to be prepared for that, so we have to make sure that the curriculum that we have is always forward-thinking …”

Gindler said, “Yes, I have reviewed it, and I think that the question asking if it’s (meeting the needs of) students in all areas — I’m not even sure it’s about the ‘all areas.’ I’m not even sure you could actually answer that kind of question because it’s obviously going to be different in all kinds of directions. What I have been impressed with as a parent, though, is the idea of teachers that now cooperate. When I got my degree in education, that was 10 years ago, and only in theory were we talking about individualized education on a student-by-student basis. Those were all just IEPs. The movement is toward individualizing the education even just for individual classrooms. My daughter’s classroom, after they took an assessment and realized they were behind in this, (the teacher) revamped her lesson plans for that coming, probably for the next month to be perfectly honest. Gone are the days of having a plan book that you can just stick by from year to year … I believe within that curriculum the teachers are doing a remarkable job.”

Powers said, “I think the curriculum as it currently stands certainly meets all the state requirements. All the core things are in there, so the basics are in place. I think what we run into is the question of how does that curriculum deliver on a daily basis across the different schools in the district. One of the things I’ve been doing is visiting all the schools and after you visit a few it does become clear that some of our schools are doing things in different ways than the others and while certainly the needs of students are different at different schools, and you always have to be responsive to that, I totally agree with Franchesca on the individualization piece. I think that we could benefit and our curriculum as a whole would be stronger if we talked about some ways to align some of the curriculum from school to school. We recently signed our daughter up for classes in high school and I was surprised to see that there are some classes at Oakville that are not available at Mehlville and there are classes that are available at Mehlville that are not available at Oakville. And if that has to do with certain teachers’ certifications, then we need to work on getting teachers certified to teach those courses so that the same things can be offered at each school.”

Stoner said, “I have to look at this through the eyes of a parent. I don’t think that we can all honestly say we know every curriculum, every class that’s being taught. So have I looked through a number of them, a number of courses? Absolutely. Have I looked through every one? No, I have not. Does it meet the needs of the children? I have some concerns that perhaps we are teaching a little bit more toward the test scores. You know I think that we all need to step back and realize that learning is a skill. It’s a skill that is taught to our children. It starts when they’re young in that grammar stage, where they soak up information like a sponge. They move into the logic stage where they start to think very clearly and logically. Then they move on to the rhetoric stage where they speak very well. And I guess you could call it the classic liberal arts, and I’d like to see our schools focus more on that.”

Kluth-Hoppe said, “Yes, I have reviewed the district curriculum, and over the years I’ve served on numerous curriculum committees that do take and look and evaluate the curriculum before it is presented to the board and is adopted. So there is an ongoing review that is there. The district does need to be sure it is offering instruction for the full range of needs of students from those that have educational challenges to the gifted. We need to make sure there are definitely higher-level classes offered at the high school level. The assessment tools that have been put in place the last several years are a tool that can help teachers evaluate what is going on in their individual classrooms and make changes to improve and delineate curriculum as they’re going along and additional counseling and support — ELL (English Language Learners) — are tools that are needed also to improve curriculum and help students.”

Langland said, “The last time I looked at the entire curriculum at Central Office, it took up an entire wall. It’s very huge, but as Marea said, we do have committees and reviews in place that take care of that. My personal opinion is that yes we do have a very good curriculum. It does meet core requirements, state guidelines and so forth. Do we want to improve? Of course we do. Again, we don’t just want to be a mediocre school district. We do have gifted programs and other things in our district also. And as Marea said also, we have to take in the other end of this spectrum which is special needs children, children with autism. It’s a huge job in a public school district with 10,000 children. So yeah, would we like to see it improve? Of course we would. That takes as we all know a lot of effort.”

Franz said, “In order to improve academic goals of the school district we have to have constant overview, constant review of the curriculum. I have reviewed parts of the curriculum. I’m currently reviewing it and I will continue to review it. But I think it’s important to understand that as board members we aren’t necessarily and we aren’t expected to be experts in the field of education and curriculum. We have administrators, we have faculty, we have people that we pay a lot of money to — a lot of money to — for developing this curriculum. And I think it’s incumbent upon board members to make sure those folks are doing their job. There are three things though that I want to emphasize.

“No. 1 has already been mentioned: early education … I think that is key. No. 2, I think we have an opportunity to get more of our retired folks in the community involved … have mentoring and tutoring programs based on those retired folks being in our schools. And No. 3, I would like to see the ability of graduates through the alumni program to come back into our schools and be involved — not necessarily so much to affect curriculum but to again be role models and mentors for the kids in the district.”

Note: An earlier version of this story misquoted Doyel on whether he had reviewed the district’s curriculum.