Panel to urge yearly 15% reduction in Mehlville transfer student enrollment

By Alyson E. Raletz

A yearly 15 percent decrease in voluntary transfer student enrollment in the Mehlville School District was scheduled to be recommended to the Board of Education this week by the district’s Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corp. Committee.

The Board of Education was scheduled to meet Tuesday night — after the Call went to press.

The board-appointed VICC Committee has been evaluating Mehlville’s future participation in the program since September.

Court-ordered desegregation ended in 1999 and was replaced with a settlement agreement beginning with the 1999-2000 school year. The settlement agreement continues through the 2008-2009 school year and can be renewed at that time. School districts have the option of withdrawing from the program, under the terms of the settlement agreement.

About 1,380 VICC students attend Mehlville schools, according to September enrollment figures, and daily are bused back to the city on, for many students, hour-long rides. The district currently receives roughly $7.4 million annually for its participation in the program.

VICC officials fear the program could face a budget shortfall as much as $10 million for the 2004-2005 school year. The terms of the settlement agreement include a “midpoint formula” that addresses the possibility of a budget shortfall for the program. High-cost districts would be reimbursed at an amount less than their respective per-student expenditures, under the formula.

Because Mehlville’s per-pupil cost is among the lowest in the region, $6,200, its VICC funding will not be eliminated next year, according to district administrators, but future funding still is unknown.

Board of Education members were scheduled to consider the district’s future participation in the VICC program at their meeting earlier this week, but could have opted to delay consideration based on the VICC committee’s recommendation.

South Area Superintendent Keith Klusmeyer, who also serves as the main facilitator of the committee, told the Call the committee will be recommending a 15 percent change in enrollment after the 2004-2005 school year.

As for the 2004-2005 year, the committee is recommending that the district keep the current VICC enrollment so the district can plan educationally and financially for a 15 percent decrease every year after fiscal 2005.

“Quite frankly, actually, the enrollment decrease right now that we are seeing, for the past year … we’re experiencing an approximately 10 to 13 percent decrease anyway,” Klusmeyer told the Call. “So that decrease really follows the natural attrition rate.”

Besides completely removing Mehlville from the VICC program, the committee considered staying in the program without any changes to enrollment, staying in the program with a 15 percent decrease to enrollment, a 10 percent decrease to enrollment or a 5 percent decrease to enrollment.

Leaving the program was not a favorable option for the committee, Klusmeyer told the Call.

“We looked at actually getting out of the program, giving the two-year notice, which is actually required … We looked at that option and rejected it right away because we see the benefits of continuing as long as we possibly can,” he said. “We looked at making no change in enrollment, but that probably would not be financially or fiscally prudent. That wouldn’t be fair to the kids of the voluntary transfer program to not plan ahead … Those were rejected very early on in the process.”

He added tremendous value is found in the program because, “We feel there’s a benefit. We really do. The committee really does in terms of education, maintaining diversity in our community as long as we possibly can. We have diversity, but there’s an even greater diversity with the voluntary transfer program. We feel it benefits both kids in the program and those that are here in that it provides another option. That’s really at the heart of it.”

Comprising 9 percent of Mehlville’s annual revenue, Klusmeyer noted that, economically, the district cannot afford to immediately get out of the program.

“If we were to get out of the program in a couple years, financially, that would have a tremendous impact on the Mehlville budget. That’s something that probably would not be able to be absorbed without looking at other funding options,” he said.

During public forums conducted in January and February, according to district documents, VICC parents preferred reducing enrollment by 5 percent every year, however, other attendees were split between the 5 percent and 15 percent options.

Committee members selected the 15 percent option, according to district documents, because:

• It continues the program for students.

• It allows children to stay through graduation.

• The reduction is the most consistent with the current trend of voluntary transfer student enrollment decreases.

• The 15 percent yearly decrease after 2004-2005 will trigger a smaller “shocking” financial impact during the 2009-2010 school year in comparison to the 5 and 10 percent options.

However, district documents indicate that there would be a larger financial and educational impact to the district with the 15 percent option from the 2005-2006 school year to 2008-2009 in comparison to the 5 and 10 percent decreases.

Also, the recommended option would bring a larger reduction of students from the same years, compared to the other two options.

Klusmeyer said the committee most likely would recommend that the district continue to accept VICC applications for students in elementary and middle schools, but cease applications at the high school level.

“Educationally it’s much better for kids if we get them early. They’re in the system. They feel comfortable. They feel part of the community early on … High school’s a little more challenging if they have been through another system. It’s difficult to adjust sometimes … Also, in high school, we lose the graduating students. So that’s the natural attrition we’re talking about.”