Returning to Mehlville gives Chambers great sense of personal satisfaction

By MIKE ANTHONY

For an extremely brief time 10 years ago, Jerry R. Chambers was poised to become superintendent of the Mehlville School Dis-trict.

A divided Board of Education had voted to hire Chambers and to approve a contract with him to serve as superintendent.

But just moments before Chambers was to be publicly introduced as the district’s new superintendent to the 100 or so residents gathered for a board meeting in February 1996, he decided to decline the offer and remain as superintendent of the Washington School District.

Since then, Chambers has continued to have a keen interest in the Mehlville School District. So much so that when he learned the Mehlville Board of Education was seeking an interim leader, he was greatly interested in the post.

After interviewing Chambers during a closed session last week, the Board of Education voted unanimously to offer him the interim position — and he accepted.

He told the Call Friday that becoming the interim superintendent gives him a great deal of personal satisfaction.

“It does give me a great deal of satisfaction. I was fascinated with the Mehlville School District 11 years ago, but the difference today is the point of my life and the needs of the school district,” Chambers said. “I felt very attached to the Washington School District, but was convinced I should apply in Mehlville because of the opportunity.

“Frankly, I declined because I felt that school board was not only in conflict, but they couldn’t make a decision. The vote to hire me, in fact, was 4-3. The difference now is even though needs remain and there is disagreement and conflict on the Board of Education, the board members are very interested in healing and in finding common ground to move the district forward. I want to be part of that change,” he continued.

“My experience has been one of bringing people together, achieving high student scores and success and positive community relations. I hope that together we can find that result here in the Mehlville School District.”

Chambers, a Fulbright Scholar and a recipient of the Pearce Award as Outstanding Missouri Superintendent in 1999, served 10 years as superintendent of the Washington School District in Washington before retiring in 2000. After his retirement in Missouri, he served as superintendent of the Wolf Branch School Dis-trict in Swansea, Ill., for three years before stepping down in 2004.

A native of St. Joseph, Chambers, 58, holds a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Missouri-Kansas City and a master’s degree in education and history from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. In 1986, he earned a doctorate degree in educational administration from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

In 1969, Chambers began his career as a social studies teacher at Benton High School in St. Joseph. Eleven years later, he became an administrator for the St. Joseph Public Schools, first serving as supervisor of instructional media and later as director of media services. He became superintendent of the Washington School District in 1990.

During his tenure as superintendent in Washington, he raised test scores, including achieving the top test score in Missouri for sixth grade and helped oversee four successful tax elections. As superintendent of the Wolf Branch School District, he helped raise test scores to the top 5 percent of Illinois schools and helped oversee the construction of a new school with 73 percent of the costs paid by the state.

As interim superintendent in Mehlville, Chambers told the Call he plans to focus on student achievement.

“Mehlville has been known for high student achievement, but I feel our best days should be — could be — ahead of us. To achieve this, we need high teacher morale and real focus in the classroom. Teachers need to feel that the administration and the board appreciate their strong efforts and will do what we can to help them do the job,” he said.

“Another thing we need to do is improve our image in the community. We need to work respectfully with those who sometimes disagree with us, and again, find common ground to move this school district forward and to improve the community. The Mehlville School District should be a gem for the communities of Mehlville and Oakville and surrounding towns,” the interim superintendent said. “To do that, we’ve got to have mutual respect and cooperation. I hope I can lead that effort as well.”

Chambers said he also sees a need to improve the finances of the Mehlville School District.

“In order to achieve the results that we all want and have the Mehlville School District a premier district in this county, we need the resources to do that. However, we must prove to the community that we are using the current financial resources wisely and answer questions about district spending to gain their trust and support,” he said.

“I need to review our expenditures and discuss those with the Board of Education to see if we are doing everything we can to run an efficient business operation,” Chambers continued. “School districts are more than a business, but we’ve got to convince our citizens and our voters that we are respectful of the business side of our operations.”

Furthermore, he said, “We have been squeezed by state funding for many years. Even though we are no longer a hold-harmless school district, we have had less-than-adequate state funding for a number of years. So to get back to having the resources needed for a premier school district, we have some additional needs to discuss with the community. It’s simply too early for me to analyze the budget and understand that.”

Because he still technically is retired, Chambers will not be allowed to work more than 550 hours as interim superintendent. The board’s motion to hire him to replace retiring Superintendent Tim Ricker calls for Chambers’ salary to be determined by the state’s Public School Retirement System, plus car expenses.

“From my understanding, that will mean I will be paid 50 percent — one half — of what Dr. Ricker was paid and not allowed to work over 550 hours …,” he said.

Ricker’s total compensation package was $153,200.

“It’s not a huge issue to me. I think whatever the Public Retirement System allows will be more than adequate. I’m simply excited to be here, want to face the challenge and expect to get positive results. I’ll need a lot of help from a lot of people and I have a great deal to learn in a very short period of time,” he said. “Having only 550 hours, and the PSRS is very strict about that, I want to use those hours to the ultimate advantage of the school district. My plan is to use those days sparingly in July and the first part of August. The concentration of those hours will be from mid-August until January and then use them more sparingly in late winter and spring when I hope to help the school board with the selection of a permanent, long-term superintendent.”