The Mehlville School District’s community-engagement program “needs the support of everyone in the community” to be successful, according to interim Superintendent Jerry Chambers.
Chambers’ comments were made last week to nearly 400 people who packed into the gymnasium at Bernard Middle School for the school district’s first community-engagement session conducted as part of the COMPASS — Charting the Oakville-Mehlville Path to Advance Successful Schools — program. Ten more community-engagement sessions will be conducted with the last one planned April 14, 2008.
Residents attending the April 16 session heard Deputy Superintendent Eric Knost deliver Mehlville’s first-ever state-of-the-district address. During his address, Knost touched on all aspects of the school district, including its history, facilities, staffing, students, academic achievement, communications, technology, safety/security and finances/resources.
The public also was introduced to the members of the COMPASS Facilitating Team — residents Keith Benack, Marcella Foerstel, Paul Goldak, Sandy Jacobs, Desi Kirchhofer and Shauna Reed; teachers Cathy Mayrose and Ellen Woulfe; Board of Education President Tom Diehl, board Secretary Micheal Ocello and board member Cindy Christopher; and high-school juniors Justin Carter and Jessica Maly.
The Facilitating Team is led by co-chairmen Dan Fowler, a former school-board member, and Jim Schibig, a former Beasley Elementary School principal.
The Facilitating Team is charged with formulating residents’ concerns and suggestions for the future of the district into recommendations that will be presented to the Board of Education in May 2008.
Before he introduced Fowler and Schibig to residents, Chambers said, “When I arrived here as your interim superintendent in July, I had two goals. First, I wanted to work with your team of professionals to continue the effort to improve student instruction and achievement. We’re doing great as you’ll hear from Dr. Knost later, and we’re still trying to get better and better.
“The second goal to accomplish this first goal in a long-term manner, I realize we must come together as a community and have meaningful dialogue about the future of our district.
“It’s with great pride that I can tell you that I’ve been able to work with the Board of Education to initiate a process for this meaningful dialogue. I commend the Board of Education for its foresight and forward-thinking attitude to see the importance of this program, which you’re becoming part of tonight. As you know, our school district like many districts faces many challenges and problems. The purpose of COMPASS — Charting the Oakville-Mehlville Path to Advance Successful Schools — is to study these challenges and search for solutions,” he continued. “We are eager to begin charting a path, charting a course, charting a direction for our school district — a compass.
“To succeed, COMPASS needs the support of everyone in the community. In fact, the cornerstone of the COMPASS initiative is the value placed on people through participatory communication, planning and grass-roots involvement. That’s you. You’re the most important part of this process — not the superintendent, not the administrators and not the Board of Education … Your opinions and ideas are needed now more than ever. We’re counting on your ideas, your opinions, your suggestions. Again, that’s why you’re here, and thank you again for loving Mehlville enough to take an evening out and be here.
“This is a good school district — some would say a very, very good school district. We want to make it a great, great school district. Now matter how good we are, we know we need improvement and that’s what we’re setting out to do …,” Chambers said.
Knost’s state-of-the-district address centered around the theme of “The House that Mehlville Built.”
“… Over the past 167-plus years, the combined efforts of our community, students, parents, teachers, support staff, board members and more built this house we call Mehlville,” he said. “As with most school districts, there has been much to celebrate along the way, and we have also dealt with our fair share of adversity. Most of all, we are proud of our house — the Mehlville School District. We’re proud of our students and their accomplishments. We’re proud of our outstanding teaching staff, our administrators and the tireless efforts of our support staff, the parents and the students.
“There is absolutely nothing — and I say nothing — more noble than being dedicated to the cause of education. Society, folks, cannot survive without public education. Our community is no different, and we need our house to be standing on solid ground. Whether you are here tonight as a parent, community member or you serve to some extent in the field of education, we have no choice. We must continue to come together to build this house we call Mehlville,” the deputy superintendent said.
Knost discussed a variety of specifics during his address, including that Mehlville’s beginning teacher salaries are ranked 21 of 22 accredited St. Louis County school districts. Teachers at the highest pay scale rank 20 of those 22 districts in the county.
Mehlville’s per-pupil expenditure is $7,143.66, which ranks 21 of 22 school districts in the county with $6,630.63 being the least and $15,248.31 being the most. The district’s tax rate is the fifth-cheapest among the 22 accredited school districts in St. Louis County. Mehlville’s current tax rate of slightly less than $3.64 per $100 of assessed valuation ranks 18 of 22 when compared to the accredited county districts with $2.98 being the lowest tax levy and $5.73 the highest.
Knost concluded his address with a story about a carpenter.
“An elderly carpenter was ready to retire. He told his employer-contractor of his plans to leave the house-building business and live a more leisurely life with his wife, enjoying his extended family. He would miss the paycheck, but he needed to retire, and they could get by,” he said.
“The contractor was sorry to see his good worker go and asked if he could build just one more house as a personal favor. The carpenter said: ‘Yes.’ But in time it was easy to see that his heart was not in his work. He resorted to shoddy workmanship and used inferior materials. It was an unfortunate way to end his career.
“When the carpenter finished his work and the builder came to inspect the house, the contractor handed the front-door key to the carpenter. ‘This is your house,’ he said. ‘My gift to you.’ What a shock. What a shame. If he had only known he was building his own house, he would have done it all so differently. Now he had to live in the home he had built none too well,” Knost continued.
“So it is with us. We often build our home in distracted ways, reacting rather than acting, sometimes willing to put up less than the best. If we are not careful to give the job our best effort, someday we will look at the situation we have created and find that we are now living in the house we have built. At that point, we will easily realize how we should have done it differently.
“Let’s think of ourselves as the carpenters, just like the ones who put the logs together in those first schools in the Mehlville School District. Think about our house. Each day we hammer a nail, place a board or erect a wall. We must build wisely. It is the only Mehlville we will ever build or continue to build. Even if we would exist here for only one more day, our house deserves to be treated graciously and with dignity. The plaque on the wall says: ‘This is a do-it-ourselves project.’ Our house tomorrow will be the result of our attitudes, efforts and choices we make about this process today. My message to all of us — internal, external, altogether in the community — my message tonight is summed up in this short statement: ‘Let’s build wisely.’ Thank you very much,” he said.
Fowler and Schibig told the Board of Education on April 19 that they were pleased with the turnout at the first community-engagement session.
“We’re not overly surprised at the turnout because we believe that the Mehlville School District citizens that live in the Mehlville School District have a keen interest in education,” Fowler said. “But a warning: This is a daunting task — and I mean a daunting task — what we’ve got ahead of us.
“We, in my opinion, Jim and I and this committee, we’re at the bottom of Mount Everest and it’s cold outside. We don’t have a whole lot of tools to work with, and I have the feeling some storms are coming. But I think we’re going to succeed, but it is a daunting task and I think we’ve got a big, big mountain climb ahead of us,” he said.
“And what that means is bringing the community along with us so that we can educate the community about the Mehlville School District, but that we’re also educated from a community point of view as to what their perceptions are of the Mehlville School District and what they think about us. And some of their perceptions, as we’ve talked about in the past, are not necessarily true. Some of them may be true.
“So it’s about putting a vision together. It’s about putting a plan together, but it’s about getting the community to buy into that plan so that we can succeed, and succeed on several different fronts, including the proper funding of the Mehlville School District. We’ve got a little ways to go,” Fowler said.
Schibig said, “… At the risk of sounding corny, I love the Mehlville School District and I love the Mehlville community, and the support we had on Monday night just demonstrated that to me again — a tremendous cross-section of the community. We had parochial parents. We had classified people. We had teachers. We had senior citizens …”
Noting that he, Fowler and other members of the Facilitating Team listened to the small-group discussions residents participated in after Knost’s address, Schibig said what they heard was “impressive.”
“As Dan said, we have a long way to go, but we’re going to get there. We’re going to get there, and we’re getting tremendous feedback … The feedback we’ve been getting has been very good. I’ve gotten comments from several principals that their faculty, their community have really bought into and were really impressed with the process,” Schibig said.
Diehl later said, “… I was really impressed with that meeting the other night. It was good seeing the enthusiasm there and the concern for Mehlville schools and our kids, and I think a lot of people had their eyes opened …
“Hopefully, we can continue to draw people to this process because we do have a long road to travel here, and I just think you guys and the rest of the Facilitating Team have done an excellent job so far.”