Residents at Mehlville public forum focus on school district’s public relations

Board Vice President Frank: More to communication than trying to spin news

By BURKE WASSON

As the Mehlville Board of Education indicated a willingness to have a public forum, district residents showed last week that they’re more than willing to speak.

Residents and board members discussed various topics — predominantly the district’s public relations — chosen by residents during the nearly 90-minute forum Aug. 23 at the former St. John’s Elementary School.

The school also was recognized that evening as part of an open house for its new function as the home of SCOPE, or South County Opportunities for Pursuing Education. The school offers education to suspended students in eight school districts and is also the site of Mehlville’s new alternative school.

Besides the first in a series of open forums to occur roughly four times each year one hour before a scheduled school-board meeting, the district also had its first cafe session Saturday at the St. Louis Bread Co. near the Westfield Shoppingtown South County.

Director of School/Community Relations Patrick Wallace said the next cafe session tentatively is scheduled from 9 to 11 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 22 at the same site. Each session will be attended by Superintendent Terry Noble and two school-board members.

At last week’s open forum, a variety of topics including preventing teen suicide, the SCOPE program, the validity of clothing drop boxes at district schools, teacher salaries and an interest to hire more social workers in the district were discussed. But the most-discussed topic at the Aug. 23 forum was the effectiveness of the district’s public relations, which was mentioned by five of the forum’s eight speakers.

Noble said after the forum that this concern with the district’s communications is precisely why he recommended — and the board unanimously voted last week — to pay UNICOM•ARC an additional $77,000 to assist, advise and mentor the district’s School/Community Relations Office.

“I haven’t been here long enough to have official, scientific survey results from the community to say: ‘What are some things that we really need to improve in?'” Noble said. “But I know communications is going to be at the top of the list because I do hear that informally …”

In response to concerns from resident Cindy Martin that the district is paying UNICOM•ARC for its additional work in the School/Community Relations Department on top of paying Wallace’s $73,618 salary, Noble said the department needs that professional help to improve.

“We’re trying to raise the bar with everything we do,” he said. “Communications is a priority of this district. And so we’re looking for some professional help and guidance to enable us to get there … I think the proposal will give us the opportunity to have the benefit of having this entire firm … to help us direct the strategic plan for the future. We can execute it and then hopefully raise the level of our communications as part of our program to a level that top-performing districts have. And we need some expert help, in my opinion, to help get us there. And that’s what that proposal is about.”

“And I agree that we probably do,” Martin said. “But I don’t believe the cost of $77,000 plus paying Patrick Wallace his salary is worth it at this time. As a taxpayer and a district parent, definitely not.”

To the contrary, resident Ginny Antonacci said at the forum that she believes all administrators and teachers fairly received an across-the-board 6 percent raise.

“Unfortunately, there are some people that have written (letters) in the Call that indicate that our teachers don’t deserve raises,” Antonacci said. “And that is not really true. Our teachers are very good at what they do … They totally deserve to have raises just like every one of us. If we went to our job and did not get raises, it would be very upsetting and it would be very hurtful. Our teachers deserve raises, our educators, the administration, they all deserve the raises that they have gotten … We need to stay competitive to keep our educators to keep our education at the level of what it is.”

As for improving the district’s communication with residents, resident Linda Mooy proposed a cheaper alternative to using a public-relations department.

“Personally, I think you guys should take Communications 101 at the junior college rather than spending thousands of dollars on a PR person,” Mooy said.

Board Vice President Karl Frank Jr. responded that while he had, in fact, already followed through on Mooy’s suggestion, he supports paying UNICOM•ARC to assist with the district’s public-relations department for the good of residents.

“Ironically enough, I am taking Communications 101 at the community college,” Frank said. “But, in all honesty, we’re a publicly funded, democratic organization. And we have 100,000 residents or so roughly. And they, the community themselves, have a right for us to communicate effectively with them … It’s not for our purposes to have good communications. What is our purpose, because we’re part of the community as well, but it’s also for the people who want us to communicate better with them because it has been an overriding theme. And people want us to communicate better. So we are coming up with ways that we can do that.

“And there’s a lot more to communication than just trying to spin news. There’s an ongoing communication process that has to take place between us and our stakeholders in the district. Not just the people that have kids in the district, but private-school parents, the senior citizens, the newlyweds and the different people that work in our area,” he said.

Antonacci also spoke in favor of considering a name change for the district. The board discussed that possibility at a July retreat in Maplewood.

“There’s a north and a south,” she said. “One of the first questions I got was: ‘Are you from the north or the south?’ Well, I don’t know. I’m from Mehlville School District. So there’s some people that just don’t understand that. And I think our school board was just trying to unite our district. They didn’t mean to upset anybody. They’re just trying to unite our district.”

Board Secretary Micheal Ocello said many “brainstorming” ideas came up at the retreat because board members are not usually allowed that opportunity, which he also said was cheaper than some residents might think.

“By law, no more than three of us can have a conversation without posting a meeting,” he said. “So there is no time when, as a board, we have the opportunity to sit down and say: ‘What do you think?’ … And, for the record and someone correct me if I’m wrong, someone made a comment about us wasting all this money on these fancy retreats. We spent $75 that day.”