New superintendent to lead strategic-plan process for Mehlville

District receives three bids in response to request for strategic-plan consultant

By Gloria Lloyd

With new leadership and a new school year underway, the Mehlville Board of Education is looking to make some significant changes so that the district operates more strategically, starting Thursday.

Superintendent Norm Ridder, who took over July 1 when former Superintendent Eric Knost left for the Rockwood School District, will be spearheading a three-month, strategic-plan process for the district this fall that he believes will change the district’s outlook for years to come.

“We’re going to put together a strong, sharp strategic plan for the district,” Ridder told the Call. “I’ve done this several times, and in my first take, I’ve tried to get my hands around where the district’s going (strategically) — and there’s really nothing there. A lot of it’s driven by compliance.”

When the board meets Thursday at 7 p.m. in the gymnasium of Oakville Elementary School, 2911 Yaeger Road, it will consider three bidders who responded to a request for proposals, or RFP, for a consultant for the strategic plan. The bids will be opened at the meeting.

The RFP asked for consultants who are experienced in human-centered design, a design process based on how a person actually uses something and what a person actually wants. It has been used to design products like the toothbrush, but can also be used for school districts, Ridder said.

The strategic plan consultant will visit community members in their homes and see what they actually want from their public school district, he noted.

“It’s really the voice of the community, it’s what the community wants,” he said. “All of a sudden, the board agendas are pretty simple … You’re going to have board members occasionally go on random, and you remind them that the community told us this, and all of a sudden they’re back on.”

Typically, a strategic plan will lay out three goals for the district, related to students, staff and processes.

In the past, Mehlville has launched strategic plans in preparation for bond issues that often failed at the ballot box, and the plans were not acted on in future years.

Asking about the community’s support for a potential bond issue will be part of the new strategic plan, Ridder told the Call, but the plan he proposes goes beyond just a bond issue to get to the very heart of what the community and the district wants, which the district can then base its decisions on.

The plan would outlive his tenure to guide the district for years to come, with annual checks every year.

In May, Knost proposed a $50 million bond issue for new classroom space and an auditorium at Oakville High School that he recommended the board approve for the Aug. 5 ballot.

However, the board chose to wait until Ridder arrived in the district to consider any bond issue.

Ridder went through the same strategic planning process with the previous school district he ran, Springfield Public Schools, and he said he could not say enough about the changes that came to Springfield from its strategic plan.

“It’s part of their DNA,” he said. “The fear and the blame goes away. It becomes a very exciting, celebratory, innovative type of environment.”

The board will also consider Thursday whether to move to paperless meetings, which board President Ron Fedorchak hopes will increase transparency and strategic planning.

When the board first discussed the issue July 24, Fedorchak only brought a proposal from eBoard Solutions, which he said is linked to the Missouri School Boards Association and would help the board plan more strategically, unlike its widely used competitor BoardDocs.

The cost for eBoard Solutions is $17,680 each year. Printing board books is included in the district’s million-copy printing allotment, but takes up enough staff time that Ridder told the Call he believes going paperless would be “a wash” as far as costs to the district.

Boards that adopt paperless meetings typically purchase laptops or tablets so that board members can access the digital systems, although that cost would be separate from approval of the paperless system itself, Fedorchak said.

Several board members, wary of the potential expense of eBoard Solutions, asked to table the July 24 discussion so that other software vendors like BoardDocs could also be considered.

“If we went for a bid for a parking lot or a new roof, you’d want to see two or three bids,” board Vice President Venki Palamand said. “I don’t see any bids here.”

The board has already made one significant change compared to past years: after years of pressure from some members to give students more days in the classroom, the board has agreed to a longer school year for 2015-2016.

Since Fedorchak was first appointed to the board in 2011, he has made a longer school year his top priority, voting against a series of calendars and teacher agreements that did not include more days in the classroom.

After teachers signed on to the plan in their latest Memorandum of Understanding, or MOU, the board voted 5-2 Aug. 7 to add two classroom days next year, extending the school year to 176 days rather than 174, the current state minimum. Fedorchak and Palamand voted against the days, since they hoped for an even longer school year.

Palamand and Fedorchak contend that Mehlville lags behind surrounding districts in attendance days. Palamand suggested amending the calendar to add six more days, to move the calendar to 180 days from 174, a proposal that failed 5-2, with Palamand and Fedorchak in favor.

Although Fedorchak remembered that former Chief Financial Officer Neil Knobloch had estimated that it costs the district $22,500 each extra day schools are open, current Chief Financial Officer Marshall Crutcher noted the cost in personnel would be significant — since Mehlville spends roughly $40 million on its payroll for teachers, rough math would say that if the district were to prorate its current teacher salaries for extra days, it could cost the district $250,000 in salaries each extra day it is open.

“You’ve got to be careful the message you want to give to our community, with our $5 million deficit,” Ridder said.

A committee led by Assistant Superintendent Lisa Counts last year found that lengthening the school day might impact student achievement more than adding days, unless 10 more days were added.