Nearly 20 Mehlville residents speak at superintendent’s town-hall meeting

Knost seeks ways to engage school district’s senior citizens

By MIKE ANTHONY

Nearly 20 people spoke during a town-hall meeting called last week by Mehlville School District Superintendent Eric Knost.

Residents’ comments on Oct. 25 ranged from concerns about how the district is perceived, the impact of district tax initiatives on senior citizens, how to better engage the community and finding common ground.

David Townsend, a real estate agent in south county for 21 years, said part of the reason he wanted to speak “is community involvement. I myself am a product of the Mehlville School District, K through 12, and I’m proud of that, proud to be a Mehlville resident and currently my children go to Mehlville schools. And I think more or less what I’m here to say tonight is I want us to band together as a community. I know there’s been some dissension amongst our ranks because we are, we are a community and we need to stick together like a community …

“The perception of our community is extremely important because that’s what it all is about with a community. What’s the outside perception? Because I can tell you as a real estate professional, people when they’ve got families and they’re choosing areas, the school is the No. 1 thing that they’re concerned about. People will choose a home due to a school district. So the better we can be perceived by the rest of our community, the more strong we are, the better neighborhoods we have. So I really — I hope we can all stick together, do the right things for our school district and work as a unified organization …”

He later said, “… I really hope that we can stick together, build the perception in the Mehlville School District because I’m vested in it and I hope we all are …”

Knost said, “… I feel that with our community and I’m careful how I say this, but I want to be sincere in how I respond to that. I want to be accountable for that in this community, OK? To be honest with you, I don’t want people to blame the Call. I don’t want people to blame the Patch. I don’t want people to blame individual board members. I want people to look to me and expect me to put forth the effort to unite the community behind the school district and I need your support to do that because that’s why I put my phone number (314-467-5001) out there. It’s so much easier to call. I mean what I’ve challenged folks before is call me and talk to me about it.

“I would be a fool to think that I’m always going to be able to satisfy people in my conversations. But maybe I can convince you of my willingness to talk through things, to listen and provide some different path in how we travel. But to me it’s so much more productive. Put that accountability on me. Come to me with it. Sit back and see what I do with it and pass judgment on me …”

Celeste Witzel, who serves as the Oakville Township Republican committeewoman, told Knost, “… I don’t know you, but you seem like a very nice person and so maybe the district will start to settle down a little bit with someone with your demeanor and calmness. Maybe that’s what the district has needed the past few years. I know that from what you read, locally and what not, things have gotten a little out of hand in some respects with various board members and maybe comments that have been made over the years. And I think what sometimes happens is it’s that proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back — is it might not have been one tax initiative, but it might have been a compilation of a lot of different things in the community that for whatever reason, the results were as they were.

“It seems to be sometimes in the community an us-versus-them mentality with the us being the interworkings and personnel of the school district and the them being the taxpayers who support the district. And there were several people who called me to see if I would come tonight and I’m speaking really on behalf of the senior citizens …

“So when you think in terms of a tax initiative, please remember the people that are getting 0.01 percent on their CD earnings. They would like to be receiving 6 percent. In that case, they would be generous with the district. But when you were anticipating a certain income in your retirement and it literally has disappeared and dissipated, there’s not much that they can do …”

She later said, “… So when you do get the votes that you get, many times it’s not that they don’t want to give to the district … The fact remains: If you don’t have the money, you don’t have the money to give and there are people that are struggling …”

Knost said, “… Celeste, I think you just described my father, by the way. He doesn’t live in this district, but he does live in the house that I grew up in over in Affton, Bayless School District, and I can very much relate to what you describe. My question — the help I would like to ask is I’m at a loss to how to further engage that segment of our community … We have our 60plus Club and things like that, but I know it’s not going to get people out. I have an event like tonight and I appreciate you being here tonight to speak on behalf of some of those folks. But I’ve been thinking about the concept and how to follow this up, like in between maybe having focus-group kind of coffee sessions where I have a specific invitation for a specific group where I go and whether it’s just me or a few board members or staff members to listen. And to just further engage their comments.

“And let me tell you something of what I believe and this may or may not be appreciated by everybody in the room and I’m OK if it’s not. I think the ultimate community engagement is that ballot issue … When we do put a ballot issue out there and it doesn’t pass, it didn’t pass and that’s the ultimate community engagement. And we can slice it and dice it. We can say this group did this.

“This group did that. But it didn’t pass. But I think sometimes there’s a stigma that goes along with putting a ballot issue out there, like here you come, you’re wanting more money. But we need to accept the fact that it’s the ultimate community engagement for people to speak because we can do all the focus groups, all the town-hall meetings, all of the community engagement and feel that we’ve got a rally group, but what really matters is who’s willing to come out and vote for what you decide about, and I think sometimes we do need to consider maybe more options in what we put forth.

“I want to be clear, somebody asked this question prior to tonight, this is not the start of a COMPASS (Charting the Oakville-Mehlville Path to Advance Successful Schools) or an LRP (Long-Range Plan) or something like that. This is a format that I want to be ongoing. You hear that all the time, you need ongoing community engagement. So that’s the purpose of tonight …”

Resident Karen Johnson is a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified interior designer, who described herself as being “very passionate and focused on educational planning and the impact that facilities have on the learner …”

Noting that test scores and achievement levels constitute the bottom line, she said, “… So as I look at the achievement level and compare it to other states, realizing states test differently, Missouri sits in the middle constantly. They’re either below or right above and cannot get out of that averageness. So my question to the Mehlville School District is: What is holding Mehlville back from getting out of that? … We have to think globally but act locally. We have to. What’s holding us back?”

Knost said, “I’ll take a stab at that and I’m going to try to approach this with what I think are various mind-sets and paradigms in the room — and it goes back to my comment earlier that I want to be accountable for unity in this district. I’m either going to succeed at that or I’m going to fail at that. I don’t plan on failing.

“But I think the bridge in the middle, Karen, is whether we like it or not and whether people that consider themselves avid supporters — and let’s face it, there’s a continuum out there and (at) one end of that continuum are folks that the school district could throw up just about anything and ask for support and regardless of what the percentage is, there’s people on that end of the continuum that will show up. There’s the other end of the continuum that people don’t have an interest in public education. I’d like to believe and I do believe that a big chunk of that continuum is right in the middle …”

As to what’s holding Mehlville back, Knost said, “None of these issues came up, but we do have things in the past that people remember and hold on to and it shapes their mind — I think the way we dismiss those things. The way is trust and I think that’s what I have to establish. I’ve got to establish that. I need to get out. I need to engage all the folks that we’re talking about. I need them to know who’s leading the school district, who’s working with the elected officials, the Board of Education.

“They need to understand my style and where my heart is and why I do what I do,” Knost said. “And I think until that happens, we’re going to have that perpetual divide. And I don’t claim to be Superman as the movie refers to. I don’t claim to be that and I don’t claim to be any more than a pretty humble guy that likes to be an educator and it’s all I know. It’s all I’ve done. It’s all I know — that and music. So to me, that’s the answer. I’ve got to go to work on that …”

He later said, ” … When I hear you talk and you talk about the divide, I think I need to go to work at building that bridge and that’s what I’m trying to do …”