Mehlville school board slates public forum for Aug. 23

Project SCOPE open house at former St. John’s School also set for Aug. 23

By BURKE WASSON

Although Mehlville Board of Education members recently wavered on support of a public forum, Superintendent Terry Noble said last week the public can expect the first forum next week.

Noble said through discussions with board members, they have agreed to set aside time at 6 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 23, to hear any questions or concerns that residents have on district issues.

The forum will take place one hour before the regularly scheduled school-board meeting at 7 p.m. at the former St. John’s Elementary School, located at Will Avenue and Lemay Ferry Road.

Additionally, Noble said the district has scheduled an open house at 4 p.m. that day for residents to view improvements to the school as part of its new function as the site of Project SCOPE — South County Opportunities for the Purpose of Education. Established in 1997, Project SCOPE offers education to students in eight school districts who have received extended suspensions. Besides Mehlville, the program serves the school districts of Affton, Bayless, Hancock Place, Lindbergh, the Special School District, Valley Park and Webster Groves.

As for the public forum at 6 p.m., Noble said each resident will be given five minutes to speak. After a resident is finished speaking, board members will then have five minutes to respond to that concern be-fore moving onto the next resident who wishes to speak.

Noble reiterated that like regular Board of Education meetings, speakers will only be allowed to address district issues and that no discussion of individually identifiable personnel or students is allowed.

“I think we’re stealing the idea that Lindbergh (School District) had that we have five minutes for the public to pose their question and make their comments and then have five minutes for the board to respond,” Noble said. “And it’s usually just like any board meeting. You don’t talk about identifiable individuals or anything that’s a confidential matter. And you only focus on district issues. We’re trying not to create a platform for political issues that are not related to the district.”

The superintendent envisions scheduling such forums one hour before regularly scheduled school-board meetings “four or five times a year” in accordance with the Saturday-morning cafe sessions proposed by board Secretary Micheal Ocello during a July retreat in Maplewood.

Board members discussed the notion of having monthly breakfast sessions in local restaurants with two school-board members and an administrator attending each session.

Ocello said at the retreat that the breakfasts would allow board members to not only have informal, “one-on-one” discussions with residents, but also reach out to people who otherwise might not attend any Mehlville School District functions.

At that time, Ocello also indicated he was leaning against public forums and was more inclined to schedule the cafe sessions. During the retreat, he said the smaller, conversational settings in a cafe session would be more conducive to a board/community dialogue than an open forum where speakers could “politicize” to an audience.

But by stipulating that residents can only discuss district issues at the forums, Noble said he does not anticipate any speakers will cross the line into non-district issues.

While he has faith that the district’s community-engagement process, COMPASS — Charting the Oakville-Mehlville Path to Advance Successful Schools — is working, Noble said the public forum is simply a way to further engage the community.

He said because the COMPASS community-engagement sessions are designed to gather a collective opinion at individual tables of residents, some participants’ opinions are never heard in a public setting.

But with the open-mic format of the public forum, Noble said all opinions of the district now have an opportunity to be heard.

“We don’t need to be afraid to communicate, and I don’t think that’s anybody’s position at all,” Noble said. “We welcome opportunities to communicate because we need to hear from our public … The COMPASS public-engagement process, it is a proven format for success. I mean, those folks at UNICOM•ARC, they do this for a living. They know what works. So this is a good way of engaging the public and having two-way communication.

“But for those who really want to be able to pose direct questions on district matters that aren’t on the agenda for that evening, it doesn’t facilitate that kind of discussion. So that’s what the open-mic forum can do. And I think the Saturday-morning cafes is just an opportunity for us to be visible and accessible to the public and they’ll know we’re there. And any time an issue comes up, they know where they can reach us.”

Noble said while the district has not yet scheduled any dates and locations for the cafe sessions, he expects those plans to be announced in the near future.

The board previously discussed scheduling a public forum at a June 28 meeting, when board President Tom Diehl suggested having such a forum by August so residents can have an avenue to voice concerns to district officials and ask them questions.

Diehl also proposed at the July retreat that the district could consider scheduling a forum similar to the district’s community-engagement sessions, where residents are grouped at tables and their ideas and concerns are organized into a more singular message.

The COMPASS Facilitating Team also discussed in June scheduling a forum and decided to pass consideration of it to the Board of Education.

During the July retreat, Ocello spoke out against the idea of a public forum, saying it would allow “opponents” the opportunity to speak in public.

In a subsequent letter to the Call, Ocello said while he was not misquoted, he felt his comments were “mischaracterized” and that he had not yet made a final decision on the merits of an open forum.

“During the discussion at the retreat, I stated that I was concerned that there might be some who would try to hijack our forum for political purposes,” Ocello wrote. “This comment referred to those who are clearly opponents of public education and are motivated by its destruction.

“I am more than willing to hear from members of our community who have questions about our governance and from those who disagree with the manner in which we have governed. I welcome the opportunity to listen to people with ideas of how we can move our district forward.”