Mehlville survey shows need to engage public, co-chair says

Fowler says public-engagement goal is not a ballot proposal

By MIKE ANTHONY

Results of a telephone survey commissioned by the Mehlville Board of Education demonstrate the need for the school district to “reconnect” with residents, according to one of the co-chairmen of a planned public-engagement process.

Former Board of Education member Dan Fowler and former Beasley Elementary School Principal Jim Schibig were named co-chairmen of the public-engagement process last week by the school board.

During the Jan. 17 board meeting, UNICOM•ARC President Rod Wright presented the results of the telephone survey the firm conducted earlier this month of 500 registered voters who reside within the school district.

Of the survey results, Fowler said, “The school district is performing fairly well, but there’s a disconnect with the general population, the citizens of the community, and that’s why I think the board has done a very smart thing by going this route. This engagement process is an opportunity to reconnect with the community, truly get feedback from the community and for the community to help the school district plan for the future. I think once that happens, I think you’ll see improvement in survey numbers.”

During his presentation of the survey results, Wright noted the last time he was before the board presenting survey results was nearly seven years ago in May 2000.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve done survey work for this district. I’m delighted to be back working here. We have worked for Mehlville School District as long as any school district in St. Louis County and I’m proud of the work that we did here,” he said.

The Board of Education voted in November to hire UNICOM•ARC to conduct the survey and public-engagement process.

The firm’s bid for the community survey was $21,750, and the firm’s bid for the public-engagement process included a monthly fee of $4,000 to $6,000 for a roughly six-month period, including professional fees.

In presenting the survey results, Wright noted the margin of error was plus or minus 4.4 percent. Early on in the survey, respondents were asked to grade the Mehlville School District much the same way students are graded — A, B, C, D or F.

A total of 56 percent gave the district an A or B, while 26 percent gave Mehlville a C, 4.4 percent gave the district a D and 2.2 percent gave Mehlville a failing grade. The remaining responses were either “other” or “don’t know.”

“Compared to other school districts that we do survey work (for), that’s kind of on the low side of average for what I would call higher-performing school districts,” Wright told the board. “We have on one occasion in my 30 years seen a combined A’s and B’s in the 90-percent range. That was in Highland Park, Ill. If you know that area, it’s like Ladue, but richer. We have sometimes seen the numbers in the 80s.

“We fairly frequently see them in the 70s and 60s. That’s why I say this is kind of on the low side of average in terms of again what I would call a higher-performing school district.”

Board member Rita Diekemper said, “You’re saying that you think that we perform better than the perception?”

Wright replied, “That would certainly be my impression from having worked with this district for a long time, yes, and I think we’ll see a little bit later — and I don’t want to put a real number on this — I think perception in the district’s down about 10 percent across the board.

“And if that’s the case, it would be reflected generally in every question. That would get that 55 up to about 65, which is more, I think, the range of what you would kind of anticipate for kind of a large public school district in St. Louis County …”

Another question noted there has been some very preliminary discussion about a possible bond issue by the district, and respondents were asked their opinions about a $26 million bond issue.

“Even with the very preliminary discussion language in this question, it almost invites a don’t-know response. The don’t-knows and the undecideds were only 8.6 percent,” Wright said. “People were able to answer this question and had an opinion about it. In total, 45.6 percent said that they would favor that proposal.

“Just a smidgen more said that they would oppose it. In Illinois, 45.6 percent says that you’re a little bit in a horse race to pass your proposal. In Missouri, that’s a landslide loss on a bond proposal because you’ve got to have 57.14 percent. So we’re a long ways away from that …”

In the 2000 telephone survey, 59.7 percent of 506 respondents said they would support a $50 million bond issue.

But when respondents were asked this month if a bond issue did not involve a tax-rate increase, 70.2 percent said they would favor such a proposal.

“… Given that knowledge (no tax-rate increase), the percent favor jumped a whopping 25 percent up to 70 percent, but I wouldn’t go dancing in the streets about that because getting that information out in the community is expensive and time consuming, and getting that kind of response isn’t just going to happen automatically kind of like it does in a survey questionnaire,” Wright said. “But, on the other hand, this question, (and) I think you’ll see a couple of others, will show that there is support for kind of keeping the rate the same and restoring the rate to maybe a previous level …”

Another question noted the district’s tax rate has been rolled back 9 percent since 2000 because of state law. When asked if they would favor restoring the tax rate to its previous voter-approved level, 66 percent of respondents said they would favor that while 31.2 percent were opposed.

Despite the survey questions about a possible bond issue, Fowler told the Call that the public-engagement process will not be “a public-persuasion process.”

The public-engagement process is needed to do true planning and to regain the confidence of the community by involving residents in the planning process, he said.

“Any sort of a tax levy or a bond issue certainly is the furthest thing from my mind at this point,” Fowler said. “In 2000, there were obvious facility needs in the Mehlville School District. They were obvious. They were obvious to people working in the buildings. They were obvious to the community.

“We had buildings literally falling apart. A lot of that has been corrected. So back then, it was obvious from the beginning that a bond issue of some sort was needed.

“This particular community-engagement process will be more comprehensive. It will deal with facilities, but it’s also going to deal with academic needs of the school district. So there is no plan now or in the near future for any sort of a tax levy or a bond issue, at least in my opinion. All this engagement is, is a planning process for the community. Where do you want the school district to go both academically and regarding facilities?” Fowler added.