Middle school improvements favored by Mehlville COMPASS II participants

Final COMPASS II session scheduled Monday, May 24.

By MIKE ANTHONY

Participants at two Mehlville School District community-engagement sessions last week overwhelmingly favored significant improvements proposed for three middle schools.

But less of a consensus emerged on how to fund the roughly $94 million in recommendations gathered during the first and second chapters of COMPASS — Charting the Oakville-Mehlville Path to Advance Successful Schools.

The recommendations formulated by the COMPASS II Facilitating Team were unveiled during community-engagement sessions on May 3 and Saturday morning.

Roughly 100 people attended the May 3 session at Bernard Middle School while Saturday’s session at Blades Elementary School attracted about 150 participants.

During the May 3 session, Facilitating Team Co-Chair Dan Fowler said, “Tonight marks one of the most important days in the history of the Mehlville School District. After three years of hard work and hundreds of meetings, the Facilitating Team is offering a plan for your consideration tonight that will put the Mehlville School on the path to being a high-performing school district.

“Never before has such a bold plan been offered or considered. This plan offers hope for our schools, our community and provides a stimulus for hundreds of construction jobs in our community. Most importantly, this plan offers hope for the 11,000 kids that attend and rely on our schools for their primary education.”

Fowler also emphasized that no final decisions have been made on the plan.

“Tonight is the first night that we are testing this plan and look forward to the feedback you give us. Then, depending on that feedback, we will proceed with other tests to determine its feasibility with the community at large,” he said, noting those other tests would include a telephone survey.

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: Determine how to implement the first COMPASS plan while keeping in mind the resources available to the district. As proposed, the updated COMPASS plan includes roughly $15,736,300 in operating recommendations and an estimated $78,459,050 in capital recommendations — 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. The proposed improvements to the middle schools are designed to give them parity with Bernard Middle School, which was constructed in 2003 as part of the Proposition P district-wide building improvement program.

Each recommendation is listed as either an operating or capital expense. To fund the roughly $15.7 million in operating proposals, 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.

While participants at both community-engagement sessions last week overwhelmingly favored the proposed middle school improvements, opinions varied on how to fund the roughly $94 million in recommendations. Participants were asked whether a ballot measure to fund the entire proposal should be placed before voters or if voters should consider a ballot measure that would phase in the recommendations.

At the May 3 session, eight tables favored the all-at-once approach while eight tables favored a phased-in approach. At the Saturday morning session, 12 tables supported the all-at-once approach, six tables preferred a phased-in approach and two tables were undecided.

Regarding the lack of a consensus on the funding, Fowler said, “I think that’s something the Facilitating Team has to address and we must address that issue. And I think that there’s a lot of different things that we can do because we have to come to a consensus as to how to proceed. For example, we may look at a smaller measure to put on the ballot and go in one shot with a smaller measure. That’s an idea that’s been put out there. The second idea is one ballot measure, but a phased-in tax levy over several years to implement the plan. So these are all things that we obviously will consider at our next Facilitating Team meeting.”

The Facilitating Team will meet Monday, May 17, and formulate a proposal that will be presented during the final community-engagement session, which is scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday, May 24, at Bernard Middle School, 1054 Forder Road.

The May 24 community-engagement session “will be the most crucial meeting we’ve ever had on COMPASS because you’re going to see a solid proposal laid in front of the group that night for their consideration,” Fowler said. “I think of all the meetings this is the most crucial. This is the one in which we need critical input and whether or not it’s a go or no go from their point of view.

“… That May 24 meeting could not be any more important. Once again, I would call on community members, which includes parents. I’d love to see parochial parents there, business leaders, senior citizens and critics of the school district. We need everybody there at that meeting because when we get input from that meeting, that’s what we’re going to present to the Board of Education, which obviously has the final say,” he said.

Fowler also said the importance of a telephone survey cannot be overemphasized.

“You cannot go for a ballot measure unless a community survey says you have a legitimate shot at it … ,” he said. “You cannot go against what a survey tells you. Nobody wants to walk into a loser. So there’s no reason to get your community stirred up, to get your parents stirred up and to go through all the efforts to put something on the ballot if there’s not support in the community for it. It’s really that simple. So a community survey is another critical component on how far this process goes …”