Panel members back plan to take engagement program ‘on the road’

By MIKE ANTHONY

Members of a Mehlville School District committee last week backed a proposal to take the district’s community-engagement program “on the road” in an effort to reach residents not traditionally associated with the school district and solicit their input on Mehlville’s long-range plan.

The Board of Education recently voted to begin the second phase of COMPASS — Charting the Oakville-Mehlville Path to Advance Successful Schools. The first COMPASS community-engagement program began in April 2007 and concluded in June 2008 when recommendations designed to make Mehlville a high-performing school district were presented to the Board of Education.

The recommendations were drafted by the COMPASS Facilitating Team — comprised of residents, administrators, employees, school-board members and students — after public input was gathered during numerous community-engagement sessions conducted at Bernard Middle School.

Facilitating Team members last month discussed at length what they believe the focus of COMPASS II should be and how to re-engage the community, emphasizing the need to attract residents who didn’t participate in COMPASS I. At that meeting, Superintendent Terry Noble said the four-phase plan to make Mehlville a high-performing school district also included a funding-scenario that no longer will work. Noble noted Proposition T, approved by voters in November, stabilizes the district’s financial situation, but essentially will do nothing to implement the first phase of the COMPASS recommendations.

At a meeting last week, Rod Wright of UNICOM•ARC outlined a program to reach community members who do not have ties to the school district, specifically young families, parochial parents and senior citizens. UNICOM•ARC assisted the district with COMPASS I.

Wright’s proposal called for the development of informational materials over the next two months, including brochures, videos, an interactive Web site and other communications. Besides explaining what the COMPASS recommendations are, such materials would explain “to the community why Mehlville School District and virtually every other school district in St. Louis County has, in essence, cycles of financial challenges because of the way school education is funded in Missouri, first and foremost through the Hancock Amendment …,” he said at the June 16 meeting.

“… The program that I want to talk to you about I think is consistent with the input that we got last time, is more going to people where they are rather than having them come to where we are, meaning coming to a COMPASS meeting,” Wright said. “Not that we might not want to do something like that a little bit down the road, but in a lot of ways, this is a program that takes the COMPASS plan and recommendations on the road and presenting it, trying to get input from the community in terms of next steps to take. And so it builds on work that we’ve already done …”

Wright, a resident of the Webster Groves School District, discussed Webster Groves’ efforts to educate the community about its funding needs, specifically a five-year funding cycle related to the Hancock Amendment.

“… What that school district has done, and I think very successfully, is educated the community about how the Hancock Amendment works. Webster Groves passed a referendum in April of 2000, passed another one in April of 2005 and now is beginning to lay the groundwork for going back on the ballot in April of 2010,” he said. “They have to do it every five years in Webster, not because they waste money or throw it away, but because of the way the Hancock Amendment works. And the way the Hancock Amendment works is that revenues — school-district revenue — does not grow at the same pace as expenditures do even if expenditures are kept relatively constant simply because the Hancock Amendment tends to erode the tax base …”

Once the informational materials were assembled, a listeners’ bureau of key communicators would present the information to the community.

“… I understood that there was a consensus of the group here last time (and) we want to … go to people where they are and present the video and other information to them. That could be at a parochial school. It could be at a senior-citizen center …,” Wright said. “Anytime there’s a meeting or anytime anybody is meeting from five to 10 or 20 people, we should be in front of them with the video, with a brochure … We try to get as much input as we possibly can on that and where we get people to look at it and tell us what they think. That all comes back to this group for processing, and then I think we have to decide what our next steps are.

“One next step could possibly be bringing the community back in in some communitywide meetings after the first of the year and having them one: Look at the material, but also help us analyze the input that we got and help us as a group make a decision about what next steps that the district needs to make. Whatever I think we decide to do in the spring, I think it needs to lead to some kind of report that the COMPASS program or the COMPASS group — this group — gives to the Board of Education for the Board of Education to consider and decide in terms of what next steps it wants to take — if any at all. I don’t know. We may get feedback back from the community that says: You know what? Things are going pretty good. We don’t need to do much. Buildings are fine. Everything else is OK. I don’t know if that’s going to happen. I don’t think it is, but I think we have to honestly go out and tell our story, and then listen to the input that we get from that …,” he said.

Candy Green, a former Board of Education member who serves as co-chair of the Facilitating Team, said she found Wright’s proposal “very invigorating.”

“… If you talk about everything that’s been done in the last couple of years, the biggest frustration is the same faces, trying to bring in new people, trying to find somebody else to get to that may care but we never have been able to get to them,” she said. “I mean we’re going to reach out instead of begging them to come to us and I think that’s the most exciting thing I’ve heard Mehlville wanting to do in a long time because I’d go to all the things and I’d look around and I’d see the administrators and the same teachers and the same parents and the same volunteers …”

At one point, Facilitating Team member Paul Goldak said, “… I’ve got one question, but I’m going to ask it in two different ways. What are we trying to accomplish as a result of this? And maybe asking it another way is what’s the measure of success? How will we know at the end of all of this that we’ve been successful?”

Wright said, “… I think those are two different questions, and I can only answer the first question from my perspective of not being one of you. I don’t live in this district and my kids go someplace else, but at least what it seems to me that from my perspective as an outsider, that we spent a lot of time, energy and resources putting together what I think is a really outstanding plan to improve this school district. We have only taken one step towards implementation of that with the referendum that occurred in November and there’s a gap between what this group collectively decided it wants to do, which I think is a good plan, and the ability of the district to achieve that plan.

“In my view, that’s a story that needs to be told to the community and the community needs to tell us are we really committed to this plan and do we want to go forward with it and implement it or are we going to say because we lack the resources to do that, what we’re doing now is good enough, both on facilities and operations. My sense is that this community is behind the work this group did and will work to accomplish that, but I don’t know. You don’t know until you ask. But I think it’s important to ask …,” Wright said.

“The measure of success is a good question. How much input is enough input? If we get input from 4,000 people, is it enough? I would leave that up to you to decide,” he continued, noting that his firm also used surveys in other community-engagement programs. “We got input from several thousand people from a lot of different ways, but we also did a public-opinion survey …”

In one of those community-engagement programs, the co-chairs “decided that when there was an alignment between the input from the engagement program and the results of the public-opinion survey, that meant that that’s what the community wanted …”

Goldak later said, “Let me throw out an answer to my question. It’s probably one of many answers, but I’ll throw it out. To me, the measure of success is that after we’ve done all of this, the COMPASS committee can put together a report that convinces the Board of Education that a request for additional funding from the community is appropriate.

“Big deal. If the board’s convinced, then we’ve kind of done our job, and then the ultimate success is that funding increase is approved by the community. If you can’t get both of those to happen, then it doesn’t matter what we do here. And if we do a real good job here, that’s no guarantee that either of those is going to happen. So there’s a gap in my mind between doing a good job with a video and creating enough groundswell in the community that says we buy into this and we have to support this,” he said.

Micheal Ocello, a member of the Board of Education who serves on the Facilitating Team, later said he supported Wright’s proposal, but emphasized he believes the effort should be to truly educate the community.

“… I think there’s a lot of education that needs to happen for people to really understand where our district’s at, where it’s going, what we want to accomplish. But I’m just going to express a concern, and it kind of goes with what Paul (Goldak) said as far as a goal in this process,” he said.

“We’ve said we want to do this to educate our community and ask them a question,” he said. “Well, ultimately we know we’re going to need money, but if we’re going to educate them, well, let’s educate them. Let’s share what it is we’re doing, help them to understand that without presupposing that we’re going to influence them or manipulate this so we can get them to say yes. I think the first thing that’s going to happen is we’re going to step out of the gate, and we’re going to have a tremendous amount of people saying: If Mehlville’s coming to talk to us, it just means they want money, and they’re going to shut down.

“And without opening a can of worms about what’s happened in the past because I’m not so concerned about it at this point, I still think that we have some establishing to do with the community that look, we are really here honestly wanting to make sure that you see what’s going on that, yes, eventually we’re going to ask,” Ocello continued. “But let’s all be reasonable about this. If we thought that we could go out and get a tax increase right now, we’d do a survey and go do it. I doubt that anyone sitting around here believes this is a good time, and I know Rod (Wright) might say: Well, it’s never a good time. But in the history of the United States, this is probably the second or the third worst economic crisis we’ve ever faced …

“Let’s do it from a pure sense of let’s communicate. Let’s don’t go out there presupposing we’re going to try to get in their pocketbooks, and then when the time is right, then we can ask them what they really think. And I think if we don’t establish that early on, it’s just going to be the school district’s coming back with some more propaganda so that they can ask for a tax increase,” Ocello said.