Mehlville retreat topics include strategic plan, superintendent search

Board weighs presentations by four superintendent search firms

By Gloria Lloyd

The Mehlville Board of Education is set to conduct its first public discussions this weekend on the board’s superintendent search and on the progress of the district’s new strategic plan, a three-month process currently underway.

The discussions are part of the board’s annual retreat, which is set for 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 18, in the library of Blades Elementary School, 5140 Patterson Road.

The board postponed its retreat, which usually takes place in August, to separate sessions in October and December this year to hear updates from Opinion Research Specialists consultant Marc Maness on how the strategic-plan process is going, and so that Superintendent Norm Ridder could discuss his goals for the year.

Ridder is an interim superintendent who leads the district for the 2014-2015 school year, so the board still has to conduct a search for his permanent replacement as superintendent. Up to former Superintendent Tim Ricker’s retirement in 2006, Mehlville had just seven superintendents in its first 55 years as a district. The district was consolidated by voters from the smaller Mehlville, Oakville, Point and Washington school districts into one larger school district in 1951.

However, since former Superintendent John Cary retired in 2003, Mehlville has had six superintendents in the past 11 years, including Eric Knost, Terry Noble, Ricker and two interim superintendents, Ridder and Jerry Chambers.

Cary, who died Sept. 25, served as superintendent for seven years and was preceded by Bob Rogers, who also served seven years.

The last time the board selected a new superintendent was after Noble announced his retirement. At that time, the board did not conduct a full superintendent search, but went into closed session and unanimously chose Knost to succeed Noble. Two members of the current board, Vice President Venki Palamand and Larry Felton, were part of that selection process.

The board’s policies call for the board to conduct an “active search” for a superintendent, which includes a “thorough consideration of qualified applicants.”

Since the board has not publicly discussed the superintendent search before, there is no public time line or criteria, but board President Ron Fedorchak told the Call that the board will take its time to find the right candidate.

Ridder said he has no doubt that the district will find the perfect candidate for the job and that the board will be looking for someone who thinks strategically, which is also the reason the board hired Ridder.

“My work is really setting the stage for them to make a match,” he told the Call. “ I think they’re going to be looking for a candidate that’s strategic, very future-focused, good with people, a good communicator, a good strategic type of thinker, and then also being able to collaborate with the leadership, with the board, with the community … There is quite a difference focusing on a constant growth and improvement versus compliance — so more of a leader versus a manager. And I think they’ll find that person, no question in my mind.”

The board has heard proposals from four superintendent-search companies, two in June before Knost left for the Rockwood School District, and two in July at Ridder’s first meeting after taking over as interim superintendent.

Illinois-based search firm School Exec Connect, which recruited Knost to Rockwood, presented in June, while Knost was still Mehlville’s superintendent.

Founded in 2004, the company has 45 consultants who have done 250 superintendent searches, and its local representative who would be conducting the search is Superintendent Keith Marty of the Parkway School District, who contacted Knost about the Rockwood position.

Michael Hinojosa, former superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District in Texas, is a vice president of the Chicago-based search firm PROACT and presented in June on the company’s behalf. The company does superintendent searches nationwide, from California to Louisiana, and its CEO Gary Solomon would be in charge of a Mehlville search.

Iowa-based Ray and Associates, which bills itself as the oldest and largest superintendent search firm, presented to the board in July along with the Missouri School Boards’ Association, or MSBA. Like the other search firms, Ray and Associates has conducted several searches for superintendents in the St. Louis area, including the search for Lindbergh Schools Superintendent Jim Simpson in 2008.

The company’s president, Gary Ray, would be in charge of a Mehlville search.

If the board chose MSBA, which specializes in a more regional search, the search would be conducted by former Mehlville administrator Brent Underwood, who left his position as south area superintendent in 2001 for a position as superintendent of the Webster Groves School District. Underwood is currently conducting a superintendent search for the Fox School District.

After meeting with frequent voters in the district, district critics and Catholic school parents, among other groups, strategic-plan consultant Maness will give the first public update to the board on how the strategic plan is going and what he is learning during his conversations with the community.

However, Maness will not give a full update on the process since he has not yet conducted focus groups or phone surveys to complete the process, Ridder noted.

At the board’s second half of the retreat in December, they will get a look at the completed strategic plan, which the board approved in August at a cost of $41,000.

Maness’s company, Springfield-based Opinion Research Specialists, is using human-centered design to find out what the Mehlville community actually wants and to gauge their support for a potential bond issue.

For this first round of meetings with people from the district, Maness has been visiting with people in their homes, a technique used for people to be more comfortable. The answers from those meetings will be used to develop questions for potential focus groups and for a phone survey to 400 randomly-selected frequent voters in the district that will ultimately be used to develop the strategic plan.

Ridder will also give an update to the board on his strategic goals for the year and the results of a district leadership study that he conducted.

He has also conducted his own forums with students, teachers and parents to gauge their thoughts on the district and how it is doing.