South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

Superintendent looks back on eight years with district

After 28 years in education, Gaines retires from Mehlville
In the Rogers Elementary first-day-of-school scavenger hunt in 2019, second-grader Aleah Jacobsmeyer, right, and other students went straight to the top for help, asking Superintendent Chris Gaines if he fit any of their categories. He checked the box ‘I like vegetables.’

Mehlville School District Superintendent Chris Gaines is retiring in August after eight years with the school district.

Gaines’s official last day is Aug. 31. When he retires, he’ll have completed 28 years total in education.

Gaines was hired as superintendent by the school district in 2015, but his career in education starts in rural Missouri, when he was working as a math teacher, bus driver and girls basketball coach for the Risco School District in New Madrid County near Missouri’s Bootheel.

“I was the only math teacher in grades seven through 12,” Gaines said in an interview with The Call. “I left Risco and I went to Bourbon (High School) as a science teacher, coached golf and then I was a high school principal.”

In 2001, Gaines made the leap somewhat unintentionally from principal to superintendent of the Crawford County School District, which includes Bourbon High.

“They invited me in, told me everything they didn’t like about the guy who was superintendent and made me superintendent … they didn’t do a search … they just moved me up,” Gaines said.

About seven years later in 2008, Gaines went on to become superintendent of the Wright City School District before being hired by Mehlville in 2015. At that time, Mehlville was facing a budget crisis but part of that challenge is what attracted Gaines to the position.

“I knew there were budget challenges coming in so to some extent that was maybe part of the interest in coming in,” Gaines said.

His first year with the district oversaw the successful passage of Proposition R in November 2015, a 49-cent levy increase to improve funding for teachers, interventionists and some facilities and other operating expenses. Before that, the district had not passed a levy increase in decades.

“I think the success we’ve seen since — I’ve said over and over again we are the sum of our decisions and I think the community started making different decisions to be more supportive and invest more in the district,” Gaines said. “I think that’s what helped put us on a good path.”

Some of his highlights during his time as superintendent include not only Prop R, but also the passage of Proposition A in 2016 and most recently, Proposition S in 2021. Prop A was a tax-rate transfer to fund HVAC improvements, while Prop S was a $35 million no-tax-rate increase bond for facilities improvements. Under Gaines, the district also expanded its personalized learning options for students, including the creation of Mosaic Elementary and middle school academies.

“It’s kind of a weird long list (of highlights). So certainly the approval of Prop R, Prop S, Prop A, kind of all of those pieces certainly helped us,” Gaines said. “There’s obvious stuff like Mosaic and MyPath … being part of the early college program … all of those things have kind of been good. And all of that really has stemmed from showing people to some extent what kids in other parts of the country have access to and going ‘Well shouldn’t our kids have access to that too?’ So really just expanding the opportunities that our kids have.”

Of course, his time as superintendent did not come without challenges, the most obvious being navigating education during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Probably the biggest challenge that everybody has faced over the last few years was navigating the pandemic and coming out of that and that has led to challenges around employee shortages and this wage competition that’s happening that we’re having to deal with,” Gaines said. “And snow days, nobody likes snow days.”

While his time with the district is now limited, that time will be nothing short of busy overseeing Proposition E, a 31-cent levy increase that will be on the April 4 ballot to fund competitive salaries, as well as finishing out remaining Prop S projects.

Chris Gaines

“With all of the construction cost escalation that we’ve seen around Prop S, it is really lining out to make sure that all of that is going to be in good shape,” Gaines said.

For Gaines, this next chapter once he leaves Mehlville comes a bit unexpectedly. According to Gaines, he was not necessarily planning to retire yet, however the stars aligned when an opportunity with the nonprofit EducationPlus arose along with the fact that his son will be graduating from Mehlville this year.

“I didn’t come into the year planning to retire really … I always kind of let the board (of education) know that I would work through this year for sure because my kid’s a senior,” Gaines said. “I always had in my mind that I would work roughly 30 years in Missouri and then go to another state and keep working …When the EdPlus job became available, being able to continue working in the area without having to move was very attractive.”

For Gaines, retirement looks different than it may for others. He will still be working full-time but standard full-time is different than “superintendent” full-time.

“It’ll be nice not to have the stress, weight and worry of student safety every day,” Gaines said.

As far as the future of the district, Gaines said that largely lies in the hands of the community, its decisions and what it wants to see out of the district.

“The community is going to have some decisions to make about the school district not only this spring but the coming years. The kind of school district the community wants is up to the community … There’s a lot of investment that needs to happen — there’s such potential here and I think we’ve brought a lot of that out over the past few years,” Gaines said. “I worry if we aren’t successful with Prop E, some of that potential will be knocked out from under us. Because schools, really, are in the people development business. And we need high-quality people to help develop the little people that we serve and we need to invest in those big people.”