Mehlville panel to receive sneak preview of COMPASS video

By EVAN YOUNG

Alumni, parents, business owners, senior citizens and a “community icon” are among those likely to appear in a forthcoming video about the Mehlville School District’s long-range improvement plan.

The Facilitating Team for COMPASS — Charting the Oakville-Mehlville Path to Advance Successful Schools — will receive a sneak peek of that video when it meets at 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 15, in the boardroom of the Administration Building, 3120 Lemay Ferry Road.

The 10-minute, $22,000 project is being produced by communications firm UNICOM•ARC, with which the school district is expected to contract for services during the second phase of COMPASS.

“It is designed to do what video does, and that’s to approach your emotions,” UNICOM•ARC’s Dan Burns recently told the Facilitating Team. “We’re not going to get into a lot of charts and graphs and nitty-gritty detail in a 10-minute video, but it’s to tell the broad brush of our message.”

Burns and scriptwriter Andy Duttlinger sought input from the Facilitating Team Sept. 21 on what to include and whom to interview in the video.

The team consists of residents, administrators, employees, school-board members and students. It now also includes Mike Gindler and Debbie Parker, who are members of the district’s finance and communications advisory committees, respectively.

Burns outlined a three-part structure for the video: Establish a sense of pride for the district by listing accomplishments and showing positive scenes from the community; constructively illustrate areas of the district that need improvement; and, in closing, issue a “call to action,” urging viewers to get involved with moving the district forward.

While the first phase of COMPASS, which took place from 2007 to 2008, was conducted through several community-engagement sessions, the Facilitating Team decided earlier this year to take the district’s improvement plan out to the community with a speaker’s bureau, besides the engagement sessions, during the second phase.

Therefore, the video will communicate a general message to all audiences, while other tools, such as brochures and PowerPoint presentations, can address specific topics in greater detail, Burns said.

As for what to include in the video, the Facilitating Team suggested, among other things, district achievements and success stories, an explanation of the Missouri Constitution’s Hancock Amendment and as many of the “angelic” faces of the beneficiaries of COMPASS— students — as possible.

However, Facilitating Team member Paul Goldak said a significant part of the video should be used to “reaffirm the value” of the first phase of COMPASS recommendations, many of which aren’t currently financially feasible.

When the first phase of COMPASS wrapped in the middle of last year, the Facilitating Team whittled community input into phased recommendations to improve the district and presented to the school board two ballot measures that, if approved by voters, would help fund those recommendations. One proposal asked voters to approve a transfer of 31 cents per $100 of assessed valuation from the debt-service fund to the operating fund — which later became Proposition T. The other measure was a proposed 37-cent tax-rate increase.

In the Nov. 4 election, Prop T was approved 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 school board rejected the team’s tax-rate-increase proposal after a July 2008 survey found that 59 percent of 400 participants would oppose it.

“The whole purpose of doing this … is to refresh the COMPASS recommendations, revalidate those recommendations and present the community the fact that these are important, that they do directly impact students, facilities, families …,” Goldak said.

Burns replied that the COMPASS program began with research into the “manifestations of high-performing school districts, what has to be in place,” and that those findings should be evident in the video.

Goldak, however, said he had a problem with the district’s goal of being “high-performing.”

“I almost want it to say ‘higher-performing’ school district,” he said. “Because a ‘high-performing’ school district may be a goal that we can’t possibly achieve in the COMPASS horizon. But a ‘higher-performing’ school district.

“And then, that begs the question: ‘Why? Why do I want to be a higher-performing school district?’ Because I’ll educate the children better, which gives them more opportunity and prepares them for the world, and so on. Again, all of that though is a very direct flow from the COMPASS recommendations, and I just don’t want to lose that flow.”

Member Sandy Jacobs said, “Even though many people understand why we couldn’t go through with all of the recommendations, I know there are some people out there that said we spent all this time and very little came of it. So that would bring some of those people back in. I think you have to get everybody back on board, because there was a bit of a disconnect when all of the recommendations weren’t put into play as we hoped they would be.”

But school board President Tom Diehl contended the community might not believe all of the COMPASS recommendations were necessary if the district wanted only to be “higher-performing.”

“I see a danger by just saying we want to be a ‘higher-performing’ school district, where then people say: ‘Well if you just want to be a higher-performing school district, do you need to do all of this stuff? Can you just do part of it?'” Diehl said.

“Everybody is going to want to negotiate downward as far as what they want, and I think if you’re just talking about being a ‘higher-performing’ district, well, you know if you can just bring up these test scores, you’ll be a higher-performing district, so why do you need this other stuff? … The propensity of south county people (is) to want to do as little as they can get by with on so many things.”

Goldak replied, “‘High-performing’ to me though implies a plateau of excellence, but I would ask: ‘So what? Can’t I be better without being excellent? … Can I even envision being excellent?’ I can envision being better, but I don’t know about being the best.”

“If you focus on the things that get you to a higher level, focus on those things …,” he added later. “You’re not saying: ‘I’m doing them just to become the best.’ You’re doing them because ‘they take me on the path to becoming better.’ And people can’t argue with improved test scores or improved safety. They can’t argue with the things we recommended in COMPASS I, which is why it’s a shame we couldn’t move forward with some of them. If the public can’t argue with those things, then all we need to do is re-present them and say: ‘This is it. This is what it’s going to take to be better.’ There’s no day or notch on your belt that says: ‘OK, now we’re a high-performing school district.’ It’s a combination of things that gets us there.”

But school board member Drew Frauenhoffer said being “higher-performing” implies the district is “willing to settle.” He suggested the COMPASS video compare Mehlville to other area school districts considered to be “high-performing” — and mention them by name.

“My three daughters are going to be competing with kids that graduate from Ladue, Clayton, Lindbergh, and I’d rather us be more like them …,” he said. “I think we need to aspire to be like these top schools, and that’s that call to action in terms of why we’re really motivated in coming to our taxpayers at some point down the road and saying: ‘Look, if we’re trying to invest in our educational process, this is what we’re trying to become.’ Yeah, we’re always trying to get better, but people might say: ‘Well, you don’t need any more money. Things are going OK …'”

Goldak said, “What I’m trying to say is that I don’t want to focus on being better than Lindbergh. I want to focus on having test scores better than my peers and class sizes better than my peers and facilities better than my peers, and all those things that make me better.”

Facilitating Team Co-Chair Jim Schibig said “playing semantics” with “higher-performing” versus “high-performing” wasn’t part of the group’s original charge with COMPASS.

“I want our kids to get the best possible education they can get, and to be able to compete with the kids from Ladue and Clayton and Rockwood and Parkway and all the others,” said Schibig, a former elementary school principal. “But I don’t want to hear those other names. I just want to make this place better.”

Besides providing ideas for topics covered in the video, Facilitating Team members suggested successful alumni, parents, business owners and senior citizens as possible interview subjects.

Superintendent Terry Noble later told the Call UNICOM•ARC also was considering conducting interviews with:

• Schibig and fellow Facilitating Team Co-Chair Candy Green, a former Board of Education member.

• Former Facilitating Team Co-Chair Dan Fowler, an ex-Board of Education member who served during the first phase of COMPASS and would be interviewed to connect the first phase with the second phase.

• A “community icon” who would discuss the district’s role in the community.

The school board approved the video part of the UNICOM•ARC contract in August; the remainder of the agreement, which could reach $60,000 by the end of COMPASS’ second phase, tentatively is scheduled for board consideration Oct. 20.

Under the agreement, UNICOM•ARC staff would provide the district with “creative, advisory, supervisory and collaborative” communications services throughout the second phase of COMPASS.

For its services, UNICOM•ARC would be paid $4,000 a month for 11 months, or $44,000, with the option of a four-month extension should the COMPASS Facilitating Team recommend — and the Board of Education approve — a referendum for the November 2010 ballot following the completion of the second phase.

If the district extended the contract to the full 15 months, the total payment to UNICOM•ARC would increase to $60,000 besides the now-separate $22,000 video contract.

Once the second phase of COMPASS is completed, the district could ask UNICOM•ARC to conduct a “public opinion survey contrasting recommendations resulting from the engagement program with the opinions of the community at-large.”

UNICOM•ARC’s fee for the survey service, which isn’t included in the contract, would be $22,750 for a 500-sample survey and $6,000 for an e-mail staff survey.