Mehlville seeking input on $94 million worth of COMPASS II proposals

Fowler says it’s ‘critical’ for community to attend final sessions of COMPASS II.

By EVAN YOUNG

As the second chapter of the Mehlville School District’s community-engagement program winds down over the next few weeks, the Facilitating Team behind the effort wants stakeholder input on recommendations totaling roughly $94 million that it believes will lead to a high-performing school district.

The Facilitating Team for COMPASS II — Charting the Oakville-Mehlville Path to Advance Successful Schools — was scheduled to present those recommendations Monday night — after the Call went to press — during the fifth of six community-engagement sessions at Bernard Middle School.

Over the past few months, COMPASS II participants have reviewed the first COMPASS plan’s recommendations and have provided additional suggestions for improvements at the elementary, middle and high school levels.

During the first chapter of COMPASS in 2007 and 2008, hundreds of participants helped craft a long-range plan with guiding principles designed to make Mehlville a top-performing school district. But officials eventually determined the plan’s funding scenario would not work because of a decrease in assessed valuation of properties in the district.

The school board launched COMPASS II nearly a year ago and gave its Facilitating Team a new charge: Deter-mine how to implement the first COMPASS plan while keeping in mind the resources available to the district.

Now, the COMPASS II Facilitating Team is seeking input from the community on the updated COMPASS plan, which includes an estimated $15,736,300 in operating recommendations and an estimated $78,459,050 in capital recommendations — for a total cost of $94,195,350.

The plan includes most of the recommendations from the first chapter of COMPASS, such as full-day kindergarten, upgrading buses and moving staff salaries to the median for St. Louis County. Besides those recommendations, the Facilitating Team’s proposal also includes suggestions gathered at the COMPASS II sessions, such as funding for Parents as Teachers and additional gifted program staff.

In addition, the updated COMPASS plan outlines significant improvements at Buerkle, Oakville and Washington middle schools and the addition of arts and technology centers to Oakville and Mehlville Senior high schools.

Each recommendation is listed as either an operating or capital expense. To fund the roughly $15.7 million in operating recommendations, the district would have to increase its tax rate by an estimated 91 cents.

To fund all of the roughly $78.5 million in capital recommendations, the district would need to increase its tax rate by an estimated 32 cents. That breaks down to a two-cent increase for every $5 million in capital improvements.

Therefore, to fund the entire proposal of roughly $94 million, the district would need to ask voters to increase its four property tax rates — residential, commercial, personal property and agricultural — by $1.23.

Mehlville’s 2009 residential property tax rate is $3.45 per $100 in assessed valuation and its 2009 commercial property tax rate is $2.89 per $100 of assessed valuation.

The Board of Education ultimately will decide if the district will seek a tax increase and, if so, how much of one. But that decision won’t be made until after the Facilitating Team makes a recommendation to the board next month — based on COMPASS II feedback — and the district conducts a telephone survey to gauge whether the community would support a tax-rate increase on the ballot, Facilitating Team Co-Chair Dan Fowler said. However, Fowler said it was “critical” for the community to attend the final two COMPASS II sessions — especially the sixth and final session — and offer their input on the proposal.

“It’s a bold plan. It is a massive undertaking,” Fowler told the Call. “Whether or not the community-engagement session is going to give us a green light, we don’t know. But that’s important.

“Ultimately what we want to do in meeting six is get as many people in our community as possible there,” he added. “I don’t want just school district people and parents there, I want critics there. I want them to come and give us their input on this plan. And then we’re going to ask them pointblank: Yes or no? We also want to know: Is this too much? Should we go for less, break it up or go for the whole thing?”

Fowler noted that county voters approved every school-related measure on the April 6 ballot.

Still, the Facilitating Team discussed at length last week how it should sell the updated COMPASS plan during the final community engagement sessions.

Board of Education Secretary Larry Felton suggested COMPASS II participants be given the chance to come up with their own proposal before the Facilitating Team unveiled the updated COMPASS plan.

“Tell them: How would you put this together?” Felton said. “I wouldn’t give them any structure. I’d give them raw material. Here’s a pile of Legos; build something … You give them a few minutes and let them struggle with it. Then say: Here’s the instructions, here’s how you build it. And then you come out with your structure.

“But I think you’ve got to sensitize the people there to exactly what we’re working on rather than say: Well we solved it. Here, look at this list. Because I think they will become better ambassadors and better spokespersons if they’ve had to deal with the uncertainty before they see a structured solution.”

But Dan Burns of communications firm UNICOM•ARC, which has assisted the district during both COMPASS chapters, told the Facilitating Team to be careful not to “take a step backward” at the remaining community-engagement sessions.

“You’ve had really good attendance at these sessions …,” he said. “A year or so ago when we did COMPASS I, (participants) really looked through a lot of data and came up with a good plan. It’s just that you couldn’t fund the plan …

“That plan is still structurally sound, and I think it’s a matter of how far and how quick you want to go. So I guess from our perspective we need to keep that structure and what folks have already pretty much agreed upon and see if we can’t do some sort of validation of it. What I think I don’t want us to do is be careful we don’t break down structure that they’ve taken several months to build.”

Burns later said, “As we’ve sat through these executive group meetings, I think one thing that we’ve heard from your (co-chairs, Fowler and Jim Schibig) is that this district needs to look at trying to touch as many people as possible in a program for it to be successful …”

Fowler said, “That’s how we’ve been successful before.”

“And I think as we go to the larger group, we need to do so in such a way that we try to bring that package together,” Burns said. “What we don’t want to do is sort and separate people. We don’t want to pit this interest against this interest against this interest, but show from a leadership perspective: this is what’s possible and then let them react to that.”

Noting Fowler’s use of “bold” to describe the proposal, Facilitating Team member Paul Goldak said, “There is a line between bold and brash, and you need to know where that line is because people can be convinced that it’s a brash move instead of a bold move.”

If the Facilitating Team “bused in 250 people from downstate Missouri and plunked them into your auditorium,” Goldak said, how would it sell them the plan?

“How would you do that?” he asked. “Because you’re talking to the choir when you get to the (community engagement session) because it’s everybody that has an interest. Everybody wants their kids who are in that school at that moment to have the best there is. So there’s a bias built in there.

“Well, how do you sell this stuff to somebody that doesn’t have a bias? It has to be intuitively obvious that this is the right thing to do. So, sell it from the point of view that: How could you not agree that this is the right thing to do? Not: How is your kid going to benefit from this? … Because when you get out of the school environment and into the community, it’s the community that’s just got bused in from downstate Missouri, and they don’t care. They just don’t want their taxes to go up.”

The final COMPASS II community-engagement session is scheduled from 7 to 9 p.m. Monday, May 17, at Bernard Middle School, 1054 Forder Road. A repeat session is scheduled from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. Saturday, May 22, at Bernard Middle School.