Six Mehlville school-board candidates meet at forum

Candidates try to win support for two seats on school board

By BURKE WASSON

Six candidates trying to win voters’ support in Tuesday’s election for two seats on the Mehlville Board of Education addressed a small crowd last week during a forum at Mehlville Senior High School.

Phil Black, Chris Brown, Mark Carter, Larry Felton, Randy Lowry and Venki Palamand are seeking election to the two seats, which carry three-year terms. Incumbent board members Rita Diekemper and Tom Correnti did not file for re-election.

Asked why they’re running for a three-year term on the Mehlville Board of Education, the candidates responded:

“As a businessman, I’m trained to look for opportunities,” Black said. “And this is, in my mind, an opportunity with a lot of potential. I really believe that this is a good school district, but has the potential to be a great school district … I am convinced that there is a lot more we can do to have this be a direct reflection on our community, which I am proud to be a part of … I feel that I am focused and I can help the board focus on a longer-term vision and especially with open communication with the residents.”

“I look forward to the opportunity to help out the school board and bring to them the opportunity to put more money into the classrooms, more books and technology to succeed in the 21st century as well as continue to make sure this is a safe environment for all students and all residents in the district,” Brown said.

“The reason I’m here is I feel, with the adaptability that I’ve acquired through the years in the music industry, I can help this school district refocus,” Carter said. “Not to take anything away from the actions and the debate in the last two years, three years. But I’d like to see a more grassroots approach in the schools and get back to the classrooms … There are far too many classrooms where teachers don’t have materials for their curriculum. They don’t have the things they need day to day to teach the children. Maybe it’s time to just refocus and reprioritize and redefine what it is we do as a district.”

“If I’m elected, I have three key priorities I’d like to achieve,” Felton said. “The first one I’d like to do is establish a well-defined set of educational priorities for the district so that there’s no confusion that the childhood education of our children is our first, last and only job here. The second thing I’d like to do is work with the administration to develop a five-year, firm curriculum plan so we can have a dynamic curriculum that can adapt to the changing needs of society … And finally, I would like to see a comparison done of all the like schools — elementary, junior high and high school — to make sure that each school provides the equivalent opportunity in facility, material and education so that geography is not a barrier to what you can learn in school.”

“I’m running for the school board because I was taught long ago by my mother that there are two kinds of people in this world,” Lowry said. “There are those that sit and there are those that do. And unless you’re going to sit around and complain, you should stand up and do something about it … I think that the board we have right now is as good and as stable as we’ve been in many years. And I’m extremely proud of a lot of the work they’ve done. So a lot of my reasons for wanting to run is I want to come in at a good time. As a political rookie, so to speak, I can learn a lot from them as well as bring a lot to the table.”

“I’m running for the Mehlville school board for a couple of reasons,” Palamand said. “One is fiscal responsibility. I want to make sure that every dollar we get from the taxpayers is spent wisely … My experience in a small business helps me determine what is good and what are things we can maybe do without. And the idea is we have to show the public that we are careful with their funds. The other reason I’m running is to improve academic achievement. And I got a great education while I was here, but I think we can do better … I’d like to see students at Oakville and Mehlville get pushed to the point where they can compete with anyone at any school.”

The candidates fielded a variety of topics in questions written by those in attendance at the March 20 forum.

Among the topics covered was whether candidates support a tax-rate increase for the school district. Every candidate except Felton was opposed to studying a tax-rate increase at this time. Felton said if necessary educational components are being compromised because of a lack of funds, then asking voters to approve a tax-rate increase is “an obligation.”

“This is where I guess I disagree with my colleagues,” Felton said. “If your educational process is in trouble and you need money, then you go out. And a tax increase is the rational way to do it.

“I think the first thing we have to ask is are we spending the money that we have wisely? Are we spending it in the right places and is it all focused on education? If it’s not, then I think we need to make changes internally and look at the priorities we have for the district and determine if it’s necessary. If we get to the point where we can prove ourselves as board members and we can prove it to the community that our funding is such that we’re going to compromise curriculum, materials, teacher salaries, resources, if we’re going to compromise those, then we have an obligation as a school board to reach out for a tax increase to pay for that.”

Another discrepancy between candidates was whether foreign languages should be taught in elementary schools. While four candidates support the concept, Brown and Carter both are opposed to offering a foreign-language class in elementary school because it is already available in secondary schools and they believe it would take away from elementary pupils’ basic education.

“I’m afraid if you introduce into the elementary school the mandatory or even the opportunity for another language, you’re going to take away from the precious time that we need right now to teach our children’s basics,” Brown said.

“Time in grade school needs to be spent on the basics,” Carter said. “You’ve got to crawl before you can walk and walk before you can run. As an elective later on in middle school or high school, most definitely. It is necessary … Grade school? It’s just too much too soon.”

When asked what they believe is the big-gest problem in the school district, Brown, Carter, Felton and Lowry all said they believe funding for more textbooks, learning materials and supplies in the classroom is the district’s most pressing problem.

“I think we’ve gotten so involved in the big business of running a school district that we’ve forgotten what our product is,” Lowry said. “And our product is putting out educated young people that are ready to take on the world when they leave our school district. And I think maybe we have lost sight of that. And that all starts at the school level. That all starts with textbooks and pay for teachers.”

While they also agreed that funding for more classroom materials is a key component to the district, Black and Palamand identified another issue as the district’s largest problem — communication with the public.

“I think the biggest challenge is communication,” Black said. “That’s what I heard. I’ve talked to residents and students. I’ve heard that more times than anything else.

“I believe that the communication be-tween the board and the teachers and the students, we’ve just got to improve on that. And I believe we’re starting to, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement. So I believe communication is key. And I really believe the more informed everyone is and the more they understand the issues, everyone will understand why the decisions were made and the reasons they were made.”

“I think a lot of the problems that the district faces financially all stem from public trust,” Palamand said. “And it starts with that. If the public believes in what you’re doing, if the public believes you’re carefully spending their money and you tell them you need this or you need that, I think the public would step up and support the school district. So, in a sense, the core of most of the problems in the district I think stem from public trust. And I think things have gotten a lot better over the last year and I’ve heard that from parents and from teachers. But if we can establish that, then we can move on to the core topics that the other gentlemen have talked about. We need to have books in classrooms. We need to have teachers that are paid fairly. We’re 18th out of 21 districts in St. Louis County.

“And, to me, that’s just not acceptable for a school district like this. We have to do better. We have to attract better teachers. And with better pay, we can do that. So, at the core, you start with public trust and you move on to the other issues.”

At the end of the two-hour forum, some of the candidates’ final thoughts included:

“What an honor to be able to look back on your school and realize that a teacher or the school somehow reached you,” Black said. “Because, quite honestly, there were a few years that I might have been unreachable. But someone cared enough to reach out to me and really contributed and made me what I am today. And I can’t thank that school system and the teachers that cared enough to spend the time to reach me. And I just want to help our teachers reach our children.”

“The Mehlville School District has been moving in the right direction over the last year or so,” Brown said. “And we need to make sure that we continue that. In the up-coming election, you will be electing two of us to help replace outgoing board members. Whereas I think that all of us bring a unique tool to the table, myself, my experience in retail management and having to deal with budgets and make the priority of choices in the past are key tools toward helping giving myself a step up over some of the other individuals. I’ve worked with budgets and know how to succeed with them.”

“This is my chance to be involved in the education of our children,” Carter said. “Not to teach the children directly, but maybe to teach adults a little bit about the old way. Not to be misunderstood … the technology is not lost on me. But you’ve got to crawl before you can walk and walk before you can run. That said, my business record, I wish I could put it up on a Power Point for you. My dad calls me Midas because in business, since I stepped into the music industry, everything, he says, everything I touch has turned to gold. I can take care of your money for you and can help take care of your kids. I’m not a politician. I’m never going to mislead you. I’m always going to be there.”

“My strength is I understand the district,” Felton said. “I’ve worked in it a long time. I know it very well. I’m a planner. I’m a process-type person. I like to see plans, ideas and things put in place so you can take long-term directions so you can make good short-term decisions that are all going to fit together down the road. Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t kind of get on the testimonial bandwagon that this has been a unique experience. These are people I’d go out and have a beer with. We’ve got a different approach to things, but we’ve been civil with each other. Heck, we’ve had some downright rude conversations. But it’s been a real experience. And I think whoever’s elected has had the opportunity to get six good minds’ worth of ideas. So somewhere in here, there’s two of us that are going to carry all of these for us. And I think we’ve got an obligation to do that.”

“If you are interested in electing somebody to this board that has passion for the teachers and for the students of this district, someone who genuinely cares, someone who has the emotion, understands what it is like and is out there to help motivate and I guess, to some degree, help coach as well, you know what?” Lowry said. “I’m on the team. And put me in, coach, because I’m ready to go. I love this district. I love all the people that have been a part of it that have helped shape it. And I would appreciate your support and your vote on April 3.”

“I feel like I’ve been blessed in life,” Palamand said. “I had a good start, good parents that have helped give me a good start. And that was being in the Mehlville School District. I’m fortunate that I got to go to school here. And as a 29-year resident of this community, I feel like Mehlville is my school district even though I haven’t set foot in the classroom as a student in 22 years.

“But it’s my school district. I want to see it succeed. And I certainly want to see it prosper. Our goal should be to be the very best school district in the area. We owe it to the children that we provide the best curriculum, technology, teachers and facilities. Our kids need to compete in a global economy like we’ve all talked about before. And you have to be willing to adapt and have to be willing to be creative. What you’re doing at age 20, age 30, age 40 probably won’t be the same. And we have to prepare the kids for a lifetime of learning.”