In response to criticism last week, Mehlville School District officials insist no district policies were violated when Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Biden visited Mehlville Senior High School on Sept. 9 to stage a political rally in his bid for vice president.
Residents Chris Brown and Linda Mooy — both of whom ran unsuccessfully in the April election for the Board of Education — contended at the board’s Sept. 18 meeting that board policies were broken during Biden’s rally. Brown also unsuccessfully ran for a school-board seat in 2007.
“The fact that (Mehlville High) was used for political nature during school hours was very disappointing to me as a potential waste of school tax dollars,” Brown told the board during a period for public comment.
Despite Brown’s claim that the Biden rally occurred during school hours, district officials cited the fact that Biden did not speak until after classes were dismissed for the day. Officials say this was done to avoid class interruptions and allow Mehlville High seniors to attend the speech after school if they wished.
Mehlville Director of Communications Emily McFarland said while she received telephone calls from residents complaining about the political rally, much of the concern was based on “falsities.”
“People were very upset because I think a lot of it was misinformation from different sources,” she said. “Some people were saying it started at 12 (p.m.) and classes were being dismissed and kids were being let out and that we invited them. There were all these falsities that were surrounding this event. Once they got on the phone with me and I said that we rent out facilities and school wasn’t let out early and the kids still had their parking lot … a lot of my phone conversations then ended very positively.”
Superintendent Terry Noble confirmed that local volunteers in support of Democratic U.S. Sen. Barack Obama’s bid for president signed a contract with the district to rent the Mehlville High gym for the event. The district received more than $8,000 for the volunteers’ rental of the facility. Lemay resident Colleen Grams signed the event contract with the district, Noble said.
But Brown believes that some sections of board policy KG-AP — Community Use of School Facilities — may have been violated.
Specifically, he cited Section 2, which states the use of school facilities “will not be granted if it interferes with school-sponsored activities”; Section 4, which states the “majority of an organization’s members must be residents of the school district before the organization’s application for use of school facilities will be considered”; and Section 11, which states in the case of “extraordinary purposes, the application shall be referred to the Board of Education.”
The section defines “extraordinary purposes” as “programs or activities beyond the routine activities that have by custom and practice become acceptable to the board.”
“I’m very disappointed at the fact that this was approved without the board’s consent,” Brown told board members. “… My biggest concern was when I brought this to Superintendent Noble’s attention, my concerns for this policy being violated, I was invited to join folks at the rally, which I do appreciate the opportunity. But I was unable to make it due to work or would have definitely taken it up, even though I am a strong Republican. But I am disappointed in the fact that my concerns were not addressed. I was just invited and told it was for the good of the community.
“Even if it is for the good of the community, we need to follow policies that are set and procedures … I’m highly disappointed at the fact that that did not happen and I would ask this board to review this matter and take any disciplinary actions that need to be addressed.”
Mooy believes that by having the rally take place, the safety and security of Mehlville High students was put at risk.
“I don’t want to hear somebody say: ‘Oh, there was more security on the premises than usual,'” Mooy told board members. “Well, guess what? They weren’t here to protect the students. They were here for Biden. So, no. When those kids were out there walking from the building to the bus, et cetera, anybody could have done anything with them. And most importantly, people were able to gain a familiarity of this school environment.”
Mooy called for the person who signed the facility-rental contract with the district to come forward and asked board members who would make an appropriate “scapegoat” for the situation.
“I would like to know who’s going to be the scapegoat for this occurring,” Mooy said “Mr. Noble? Or somebody on the board?
“Oh and by the way, on the front page of the (St. Louis) Post-Dispatch was a picture that included five school-board members. And I observed them vigorously clapping, enjoying the program. And also Mr. Noble was in the picture.”
Board member Karl Frank Jr. replied to Brown and Mooy that their concerns are “legitimate,” but wondered if party politics was involved. He also commended district officials for their efforts in housing the rally, which he called a “civics lesson” for district students.
“(We had) several of the students asking what was going on and what was all the fuss about and why it was so neat that we had a vice presidential candidate come to the Mehlville School District and spend $8,000 with us to use our facilities and it go so well,” Frank said. “And I don’t think anybody here on the board would have any problem with (Alaska Gov. and Republican vice presidential candidate) Sarah Palin coming in and paying $8,000 to use our facilities as well … I do have to say, though, that if we did invite Sarah Palin, we might need extra security for mascots … bad joke.
“But I would be in the front row for that just like I was for Joe Biden because it is a historic event and it would be something I would be very excited to be a part of. And I just think the administration did a fabulous job handling it. I think our community did well. I think if Palin was here, we’d have two Democrats up here telling us we’re not following board policy. I feel comfortable that we were following board policy and I think everything went off without a hitch and it was a great thing.”
Board President Tom Diehl emphasized that no classes were interrupted and that political candidates have used district facilities in the past.
“This was an after-school activity,” Diehl said. “No classes were canceled. Senior students had the option to come if they wished. They didn’t have to. No students even lost their parking place. As far as concerns about student safety, I’m sorry, but there were close to 50 St. Louis County police officers on the property as well as uniformed Secret Service agents and plainclothes Secret Service agents. Our kids were never in any danger whatsoever.
“And more importantly, this is a tradition that’s gone on in the Mehlville district for a long, long time because I remember when I first moved here, there was a guy by the name of (former President) George Bush who was running for president … And then also (former Democratic vice presidential candidate) Joe Lieberman has been at Oakville High School. So we do have national candidates that come to south county and ask to use public facilities. We don’t turn them down. Like I said, if Sarah Palin or (U.S. Sen. and Republican presidential candidate) John McCain wants to come, they’re more than welcome. So is (Green Party presidential candidate) Ralph Nader and his parrot …
“I think any opportunity we have to showcase our school and our students in a positive manner, it doesn’t hurt us at all. And people were appreciative of the fact they did come to south county. People who typically may not know much about Mehlville School District or Mehlville High School came to our facilities and had a positive experience. We do need to connect with our community in as many ways as we can. And I would do it again in a heartbeat.”