Panel: Mehlville School District needs communication plan

Facilitating Team stresses desire for ‘cost-effective’ plan

By BURKE WASSON

The Facilitating Team for the Mehlville School District’s community-engagement program believes that the district’s public communication has improved, but needs one key addition — a plan.

A status report on communication was scheduled to be presented Monday — after the Call went to press — as part of the district’s public-engagement program, COMPASS — Charting the Oakville-Mehlville Path to Advance Successful Schools.

The report was slated to be presented by Kathleen Woehrmann, director of communications for Cooperating School Districts.

She has previously worked in communications for the Parkway, Pattonville and Rockwood school districts

Woehrmann last week shared the presentation with the COMPASS Facilitating Team.

A comparison of Mehlville and other local school districts to 11 key characteristics identified by Woehrmann as indicative of a school district that performs well in communication also was scheduled to be shown to the public.

Those characteristics are: focused on supporting and promoting district goals and objectives; guided by regular research; directed by an annual strategic-communications plan; planning and implementing internal/external communication strategies to reach appropriate audiences; valued by the superintendent and school board and viewed as an integral function; positioned as a direct report to the superintendent and represented as a strategic member of the district’s leadership team; supported by appropriate funds, staff allocation, equipment and materials.

Also: dedicated to promoting a consistent, professional image for the district; advised by school and corporate communications professionals regarding trends and best practices; prepared and ready to provide leadership/professional assistance in district crisis and issues management; and respected by media in promoting accurate and timely information to district constituents.

But to tie in all of these characteristics as well as a consistent message from the district, Woehrmann and Facilitating Team members also advocated the need for a strategic-communications plan, which Director of School/Community Relations Patrick Wallace said the district has not had.

“Have we had a real consistent communication plan in place for as long as you’ve been here?” Facilitating Team co-chair Jim Schibig asked.

“No,” Wallace said.

“So you just kind of wing it, right?” Schibig said.

“Well … no, it’s not a formal written-down plan,” Wallace said. “It’s been more of, you know, status quo … When you’re as short-staffed as we have been throughout the time I’ve been here and before, you have certain things you have to do and you do those and your manpower is short. So you can’t do something in new technologies or some of the newer things you’d like to do. As far as a written-down plan, no, we have not.

“… We’ve had goals in our CSIP (Comprehensive School Improvement Plan) for communications since I’ve been here. And that’s really the only plan we’ve followed communications-wise, which would be in line with district goals. But as far as the one that Kathy showed earlier … I’ve seen it. I know I can find one because I’ve studied it. But it’s just been a matter of following the CSIP rules.”

Facilitating Team member Paul Goldak added that while it’s important that the district form a communications plan with the public, it needs to be tailored to the public’s views of what is necessary information.

“It comes down to a plan as well,” he said. “You can send information out via e-mail that nobody cares about. Well, what do they care about? Send that. But it’s doing the plan and finding out what are those things that people need to know whether it’s from a student, from a faculty, from an administration, from a community point of view. Break it all down by what do they need to know. And that’s your targeted effort.”

Along with drafting a communications plan directed at specific target audiences with defined themes, the Facilitating Team also stressed its desire to do so in a cost-effective manner.

“I want my biggest bang for my buck because I’m a cheap taxpayer,” Facilitating Team member Keith Benack said. “I’m happy to support the school district.

“But I’m not happy to throw money away. And we need to spend a lot of money on a lot of things. So what is the biggest? What is the most cost-effective way to get a message out?”

Facilitating Team co-chair Dan Fowler agreed that while the district needs a communications plan in writing, it and any other recommendation from the team needs to be done at a minimal cost.

“I think that we need a plan,” he said. “I think it needs to be a written plan … But it needs to be cost effective. I agree with (Benack) that if we do not bring a cost-effective plan to the Board of Education and ultimately to the community, it’s not going to go any place. So we have no choice … We live in a conservative community. We therefore have to present a somewhat conservative plan.”

Fowler also recognized that even with a defined plan, public attention to the district will always be amplified because the Board of Education is one of the few elected local governments within the school district’s boundaries.

“Mehlville has, in my opinion, a unique situation that very few other school districts have,” Fowler said. “We are probably the only school district in St. Louis County where we’re the only public entity. You take Lindbergh, Parkway, Rockwood, they’ve all got sitting local governments within their jurisdictions. And so the focus becomes, in Mehlville, a sitting government so to speak. And I think that somehow we have to develop communications in dealing with that because the focus of the media, the focus of even both of our major parties — the Democrats and the Republicans — for whatever reason, in my opinion, is focused on the Mehlville School District. Whereas in another school district, the sitting government becomes the focal point then. I think that’s just the reality. It is what it is.”

And while he believes that communication is better now than it was in recent years, Goldak also stressed that district officials identify the reasons for that change.

“I think in the past the school district has been accused of being a poor communicator and not effectively communicating what’s going on,” he said. “And I don’t hear as much about that these days. So something existed then and something has changed to now and we might be able to be better. What is it? And that’s why I’m not so sure the experts would know. It’s more of a historical perspective. What happened then? What’s happening now that’s different?”