Mehlville School District begins public-engagement program

Schibig says process will let citizens reconnect with district


The Mehlville School District’s upcoming public-engagement program is going to be a “discovery” process.

“It’s for us to discover what the community thinks about the Mehlville School District and it’s also an opportunity for the community to discover things about the Mehlville School District. So I view this as really a two-way street for us to learn from the public and for the public to learn from the Mehlville School District,” Dan Fowler told the Call last week.

Fowler, who served three terms on the Board of Education before stepping down in 1998, and Jim Schibig, who was principal of Beasley Elementary School for 15 years before retiring in 2001, are serving as co-chairmen of the public-engagement program.

Among potential topics that could be the focus of the public-engagement program are student achievement, state and federal requirements, staffing, demographics, school safety, budget and financial information, class/school size, curriculum and facilities, Fowler and Schibig told the Call during an interview last week.

“This will be the most comprehensive look in the history of the Mehlville School District in which we will try to encompass all aspects of educating 11,000 kids in the Mehlville School District,” Fowler said.

Schibig said, “… Out of all of this, I think we have to keep in focus that it’s the kids that we’re about.”

Fowler said, “… He’s exactly right. I think the thing that I would like to start every meeting with whether it’s a planning meeting or it’s an engagement-process (meeting) is to remind everybody that we need to leave egos and pride at the door, that this is about doing what’s best for kids. And I hope that this is totally driven by doing what’s best for the 11,000 kids that attend the Mehlville School District.”

Referring to Fowler’s remark about the public-engagement process being a two-way street, Schibig said, “I think respect is that way, too, and I think we have to work toward a respect both of the people that are out there and then they have to have the respect of the job that is being done.”

UNICOM•ARC was hired by the Board of Education in November to conduct a community survey and the public-engagement process.

The school district is seeking six to 10 residents to join Fowler and Schibig, educational planning advisers and representatives of the district to serve on a Facilitating Team. The 12- to 15-member Facilitating Team will schedule, plan, coordinate and facilitate all meetings that will be conducted during the program.

“They’re going to bring in facilitators to run these community-engagement sessions,” Fowler said. “For example, we may bring in an expert on student achievement and it may be a person brought in from the outside … Jim and I will really be just the folks that organize the meetings and get the meetings going. I think that the meetings are going to be peppy, informative and you’re not going to see long meetings. Then we’re going to allow the community to break up into discussion groups.”

Given UNICOM•ARC’s past experience, Fowler anticipates a large turnout at the district’s public-engagement meetings.

“I understand we can expect at some of these meetings, 500 or 600 people to attend,” he said. “Based on other school districts that have gone through this process, it is not unusual in large school districts like Mehlville to have 500 people show up at the meeting. So it’s got to be highly organized …”

Communication is the key, Schibig said, adding that he believes the public-engagement process will provide a means for residents to reconnect with the school district.

“I think over the past couple of years there has been some sort of a disconnect — and I’m speaking as a community member now — I think there’s been a little bit of a disconnect and I think we need to get back to listening to the people and them listening to us with that respect that I mentioned before,” he said.

Fowler served as chairman of the Citizens’ Advisory Committee for Facilities, the school district’s community-engagement process that began in late 1999 and continued into mid-2000 with the formation of a proposal that ultimately became the district’s Proposition P districtwide building-improvement program. He also served as chairman of the Citizens to Protect Our Investment, the committee that successfully advocated passage of Proposition P in November 2000.

But as he previously told the Call, this public-engagement process is not geared toward a ballot measure.

“Well, I think that this is more of a discovery process. It’s about us learning from the community, what they think about the Mehlville School District, and I think it’s also an opportunity for the community to learn about the Mehlville School District. Sometimes perceptions do not match facts,” Fowler said. “But, on the other hand as the old saying goes, perception becomes reality, and that’s why, as Jim pointed out before, the real key to this whole thing is communication. If there’s been a lack of communication in the past, that’s going to be corrected with this process.

“As far as a ballot measure, in my opinion … I think that it’s not a decision that I’m going to be making or we’re going to be making or the school district’s going to be making or the officials in charge, including the Facilitating Team. I think it’s going to be totally community driven,” he added.

Both co-chairmen said they are eager for the public-engagement program to begin.

Though they are in it for the long haul, both believe the process of engaging the community should be an ongoing one that should continue even when they’re no longer actively involved in it.

“… It will be probably a very long process. I can’t say (how long). I don’t think we really know yet …,” Fowler said. “This is going to be community driven, and we’re not really the deciders of where this process will go. But I think at least a year. I think that this is so comprehensive that for us to get our arms around it, we’re talking at least a year — at least that’s my initial feeling.”

Schibig said, “I never really thought about an ending thing. I think more about doing it right and getting as many people as we can involved … So if it takes a year, fine. If it takes 18 months, that’s fine, too.”

Fowler added that he believes community engagement should be an ongoing process “long past when I’m gone and Jim’s gone. I hope that we have an ongoing dialogue in this format for years to come. Be-cause I think when you have a dialogue with the community and we’re going back and forth, I think that’s when you get buy-in from the community and you get support from the community to be able to fulfill the programs of the Mehlville School District and to push the Mehlville School District, which is an outstanding school district, to being one of the best, if not the best, in St. Louis County.”