Mehlville soon will launch new website with financial accountability portal

School district’s new website will cost $18,000 each year

Mehlville soon will launch new website with financial accountability portal

By Gloria Lloyd

The Mehlville School District will launch a new website by August, including a financial accountability portal and a built-in strategic plan dashboard.

The district has had its current website for five years and will build on the current functionality under the new website provider, SchoolMessenger. The website address will stay

.

“We’ll be doing a lot of electronic engagement with folks,” Superintendent Chris Gaines told the Call about a series of initiatives he has planned to interact with residents, centered around the new website and the district’s redistricting process.

The Mehlville website was previously hosted by SchoolFusion, which is ending support for the modules on the website as of this summer, forcing the district to go to another provider. The Fusion site cost $23,940 a year to operate, and the new SchoolMessenger site will look the same with a cleaner design, retain the same links and cost $18,000 a year, according to Communications Director John Wolff.

“We could have spent another $20k per year for more bells and whistles, but why?” Wolff said in an email. “This one will serve our purposes and free up money for other things.”

The debut of the new site will probably come with some glitches, but the website will roll out in time for school to start, Gaines said.

“Whatever we’ve got, we’re going on the 8th,” he said.

SchoolMessenger also created the district’s new app that was rolled out earlier this year, and bought out Sunset Hills-based SchoolReach, which sends out the district’s email messages.

When Mehlville rolled out the Fusion site five years ago, it offered new features recommended by a website committee that met for a year, including individual web pages for every district teacher.

Board member Jamey Murphy made a presentation in November suggesting that the district establish an accountability portal to track expenses from Proposition R, the 49-cent tax-rate increase voters approved last year. He suggested taking a similar approach to the portal as state and the Mehlville Fire Protection District, or MFPD, which has hosted a transparency portal displaying budgets and financial information since 2011.

The Missouri Accountability Portal, accessible at mapmytaxes.mo.gov, is another portal that the Mehlville School District could emulate, Murphy said. The statewide portal is a single point of reference for every state expenditure.

In a TED Talk on the “next age of government,” then-British Prime Minister David Cameron said the Missouri state website is one of his favorite websites and an example that all other governments should follow.

“In the old days, only the government could hold the information, and only a few elected people could try and grab that information and question it and challenge it,” he said. “Now here, on one website, one state in America, every single dollar spent by that government is searchable, is analyzable, is checkable. Think of the huge change that means.”

Gaines promised Murphy that aspects of an accountability or transparency portal will be rolled out with the new website. The new site should have a prominent “Finance” button on the main tab of the website accessible from all district web pages, Gaines told the board, and that portal could be up and running as soon as the website is.

“That’ll be our one-stop finance place on the website,” Gaines said.

Board member Kevin Schartner noted at the June 9 meeting that he would like for the district’s financial information on the website to be presented in a more visually interesting way that’s accessible to district residents, just as Gaines and Chief Financial Officer Marshall Crutcher have made efforts this year to develop a more detailed budget document with charts and graphs.

The portal will serve as a “warehouse” of the information that is currently posted in the digital board packets on Eboards, which is not hosted by the district.

The portal will also include cumulative information on the budget, although the files might have to be split into separate parts, Gaines noted.

The new page will also include information from the Finance Committee, which is overseeing Prop R spending. Gaines has made efforts since Prop R was passed to post video updates on spending progress, and the videos will be posted to the page.

Deputy Superintendent Brian Lane showed the Board of Education the On Strategy dashboard last week that Central Office has been using this year to track the goals of the strategic plan. The dashboard will be embedded into the new website so that residents and the board can explore how the district is stacking up to some of the key goals of the plan.

The dashboard will not be as detailed as the interface that district administrators use to track the goals, but it will give residents a deeper glimpse into the academic progress the district is making, Lane said at the July 20 meeting.

“They don’t necessarily want or need to see some of this nitty-gritty, like we did OASIS tutoring on four dates,” Lane said, specifically referring to the district’s third-grade reading goals. “But they do want to hold us accountable, obviously.”

In Murphy’s presentation to the Board of Education on a possible accountability portal in November, he noted that a nonprofit organization, United for Missouri, runs the MFPD’s portal for free and could potentially run the school district’s portal also.

“We should be faithful stewards of tax dollars, we should have complete transparency,” he said. “Every dollar in the district should be tracked in a publicly searchable system, and it doesn’t cost a thing.”

Just like the Missouri Department of Transportation, which posts signs stating how much of a project has been completed, Murphy said with the portal, the district could follow through on pledges and then let residents know.

“Let’s let the world know we kept our promise,” he said.

Much of the data is already posted on the district website and the external Eboards site used for paperless board meetings, but the portal would be a more central collection of data, Murphy said.

The board would also have to decide what data would be posted, and whether to disallow certain data such as individual teacher salaries, Murphy said.

“The other side of this is the most difficult part of what you’re describing is you have to find the data points and make sure it’s logically connected, because to give data without context is a dangerous proposition,” board member Larry Felton said.