South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

WATCH: Nine of 10 Mehlville BOE candidates field questions from voters at forum

In a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters and Call Newspapers at Andre’s South on March 5, nine of the 10 candidates running for the Mehlville School District Board of Education outlined their platforms and addressed key issues facing the district. 

The event, ahead of the upcoming April 2 municipal and school board elections, saw a large turnout from the community. 

The candidates, incumbent Tori Behlke, incumbent Peggy Hassler, Bob Mahacek, incumbent Patrick McKelvey, Mike Moore, former BOE member Venki Palamand, incumbent Jean Pretto, James L. (Simo) Simokaitis, Sasha Schmittgens and Amy Summers are competing for four seats divided into two categories: two two-year term seats and two three-year terms seats. Behlke, McKelvey, Simokaitis and Summers are seeking three-year seats, while the remaining six are seeking two-year term seats. 

Throughout the forum, a range of topics were broached including strategies to improve student test scores, collaboration on the board despite differing opinions, addressing the needs of both “woke” and “nonwoke” students, 2023 tax rates and enhancing student support. 

Schmittgens did not attend the forum.

The first question answered by the candidates was on what should be done to increase the district’s test scores. 

Hassler said the district was part of the Success-Ready Student Network, a group of school districts across Missouri looking into the design and implementation of new state assessment systems.

“That’s going to focus on testing in a different way than doing the MAP testing that is basically an autopsy of children. At the end of the year, they test on all these things, we don’t get the results for six, seven, eight months, they’re already on to the next grade level when we finally find out our MAP scores,” Hassler said. “So drilling down into our curriculum department and making sure that we are testing and teaching all the state standards along the way – that’s our goal.”

Pretto mentioned in her answer that the district’s large population of English-language learners was also going to affect test scores. 

“The fact that we have over 60 different languages being spoken in our district … some of the test results may be skewed somewhat,” Pretto said.

Moore stressed the need for a focus on fundamentals.

“I think we need to focus more on the academics versus a lot of the social stuff that’s going on in the schools currently,” Moore said. “Obviously, that’s math, science, reading. … It’s great that there’s going to be some new testing things, but that doesn’t really fix the underlying issue of getting higher test scores.”

The forum also touched on the challenge of board dynamics in decision-making. Behlke emphasized the necessity of collaboration focused on student success.

“It’s been important for us to collaborate in that way so that we put students’ interests in the forefront of every bit of decision-making. So we can come together in agreement of what works best for our schools,” Behlke said. “That’s going to take disagreement, and it’s going to take listening and understanding. And we have to have those skills to do that to move forward. In the end, we all are seven voices, and we come together to represent the district.”

Simokaitis said that his past experience serving in the United States Air Force would be instrumental on the board.

“I supervised a number of teams and spent a lot of time in meetings. And some of these meetings got quite contentious that I had to moderate,” Simokaitis said. “I found that the key to that is always try to get opposing sides to say yes to each other and that requires, first of all, detaching myself from the issue and seeking to understand.”

The conversation about serving “woke vs. non-woke” students revealed differing views on inclusivity and educational priorities. Palamand said the focus should be on unity and education.

“It’s really about the students … It’s really about keeping the focus on the academics,” Palamand said. 

Fiscal responsibility sparked debate among the candidates. Mahacek said part of his motivation to run was due to the board’s decision not to roll back the 2023 tax rate after the Prop E tax increase and higher assessed real estate values. 

“That was a loophole that was used, and I would not have absolutely not have done that,” Mahacek said. 

Summers, a mother of four children in the district, said that the increase in taxes was a “hit to the budget.” 

“I think that we should honor the taxpayers by rolling back that extra money that was taken,” Summers said. “I think with an accounting degree, I can be of great help to the board, looking at finances and helping to maybe see where we can make cuts without damaging our schools and our academic excellence and our teachers.”

Meanwhile, McKelvey, who was a member of the board when it voted not to roll back the tax rates, said it was a decision he stood by, even if it cost him votes. 

“All I can do for everyone in this room … is to show you that I am working every day to be as fiscally responsible as humanly possible and that we are investing in ways that … was intended, as well as trying to move our district forward.”