Mehlville receives 450 transfer requests, has space for 150

Class-size policy OK’d 5-2; Fedorchak, Trakas opposed

By Gloria Lloyd

The Mehlville School District has received more than 450 transfer requests from the unaccredited Riverview Gardens School District, but it has space for only 150 transfer students, according to Superintendent Eric Knost.

The Mehlville Board of Education last week voted to establish its first-ever policy on class sizes. The policy adopts the “desirable” standards set by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, or DESE, as the preferred class size in general education classrooms whenever it is reasonably attainable.

Under the Missouri Supreme Court’s June ruling in the Breitenfeld v. Clayton — formerly Turner v. Clayton — case, students residing in unaccredited districts may choose to attend another district in the same or adjoining counties. Under DESE guidelines, the unaccredited, or sending district, must choose at least one accredited school district where they will transport students interested in a transfer.

At the July 25 board meeting, Knost said a survey that looked at class sizes and building room in Mehlville determined the district currently has around 150 open spots to add transfer students without overcrowding classrooms. On that news, Riverview Gardens announced it would decide a second district to take students to this week.

The preferred class-size policy was approved with a 5-2 vote, with board member Ron Fedorchak and board Vice President Lori Trakas opposed. Trakas said she could not vote for the policy because it was “not specific or concrete enough” in setting class-size limits.

With the vote, the board set preferred class-size guidelines as those recommended by DESE: 17 students for kindergarten through second grade, 20 for third and fourth grades, 22 for fifth and sixth grades and 25 for seventh through 12th grades. Mehlville’s current class sizes are above these “desirable” standards, but below the maximum standards.

The district has never set a preferred policy on class sizes, but it has had a goal for many years to get class sizes down to the desirable standards, Knost said. The new policy is not a hard limit and classes can be larger at the superintendent’s discretion.

“It’s no secret that we have classrooms that are more full than they should be,” board President Mark Stoner said. “And we have for a long time.”

Fedorchak, however, argued that setting a class size is “wrong, and I strongly suggest everybody vote ‘no’ on it.”

“I believe in school choice,” he said. “The two-way sword of school choice is that when you have … that destination school district, people are going to want to come.”

As class sizes currently stand, Fedorchak said, Mehlville, with roughly 10,700 enrolled students, has room for all 450 students who have applied to attend the district’s schools, without adding teachers.

“We have 450 kids that have asked to come to Mehlville. We have the room to do it. It’s not comfortable, but we have room,” he said. “… We’ve got kids that asked for us to help. We can do this. We can save these kids and get them on the right track.”

Fedorchak cited Missouri’s published student-teacher ratios, which show Mehlville’s average student-to-teacher ratio has decreased in recent years. Knost disputed those figures as “very, very misleading,” saying that state numbers include all certified personnel in calculations, not just classroom teachers.

“If you take all 451 students, we have at least 700 certified teachers. Your class sizes are not going to go up significantly, not even one student per classroom (by taking every student),” Fedorchak said.

The $4.2 million that Riverview Gardens would pay in tuition could also help advance the district’s technology plan, he added.

Later in the meeting, the board heard from Director of Information Technology Services Steven Lee on the progress of the district’s One-to-One Open Source Pilot Program that will give laptops to every incoming freshman this year, after piloting the project with last year’s freshmen. Eventually, every high school student will have a laptop for classes.

“I hate to get into the political battle between you and (Riverview Gardens Superintendent) Dr. (Scott) Spurgeon,” Fedorchak told Knost. “I didn’t want to be part of this.”

“That’s a misrepresentation,” Knost replied. “… This policy was written before Scott Spurgeon ever dialed my phone number. It’s a false public comment.”

Fedorchak disagreed, implying that Knost and the board were setting the class-size policy specifically to prevent Riverview students from attending Mehlville schools, which Knost adamantly denied and asked the rest of the board to acknowledge publicly. Stoner, Trakas and board members Kathleen Eardley, Larry Felton and Elaine Powers agreed that the agenda item of setting the DESE class-size guideline had been listed for the board meeting before the Riverview Gardens decision.

“We have in no way, shape or form put a ‘no vacancy’ sign out, as somebody interpreted one time,” Knost said. “… For us to say, ‘Let them all come because we get money’ would be careless and not educationally sound.”

“I did not mean to impugn your professionalism,” Fedorchak said to Knost later in the meeting. “I think you got handed a raw deal … I think we’re responding to the law as best we can. The decision not to confer with us, to do it unilaterally, is where we’re at, and it’s not our fault. But the law is pretty clear, and I think we’re not obeying.”

At the end of the meeting, several board members welcomed Riverview Gardens students to Mehlville.

“Who would have thought that it would have been Mehlville?” Trakas said. “But we have been chosen to affect the lives of these children … We have been given an opportunity to partner with Riverview Gardens and hopefully be able to affect their community, too.”

Several residents speaking at the meeting wondered how the Riverview Gardens students arriving at Mehlville will endure a long bus ride to school every day and how that might affect their academic performance.

“As a mother, I think about putting my child on a school bus and sending them miles away to a new environment,” Powers said. “My heart goes out to those parents who are going to trust us (with their children).”

A few speakers worried about the cost and whether Mehlville would have to hire new teachers or staff, but Knost said the district would not.

Felton said he is impressed with how Knost has handled the situation.

“I have the privilege of working with school districts and school boards all through the state as part of the MSBA (Missouri School Boards’ Association) board,” he said. “I don’t think there’s 10 or 15 superintendents in the state that could pull off what he did in the last two weeks. I’m really proud of the one we have.”

Powers and Eardley want to schedule an extra school board meeting for early August to discuss any updates on the transfer process. The next regularly scheduled board meeting is Aug. 25.