Superintendent says his goal is to unite Mehlville community

Knost outlines his rationale for having town-hall meeting

By MIKE ANTHONY

Superintendent Eric Knost wants to unite all segments of the Mehlville School District community.

That theme punctuated Knost’s remarks during a town-hall meeting last week that drew roughly 75 people to Grace Union Church, 3900 Union Road.

Knost officially became Mehlville’s superintendent on July 1 after serving as deputy superintendent since November 2006.

He said he wanted to conduct the town-hall meetings on a regular basis throughout the school year and offer residents a forum to speak, especially if they’re uncomfortable going to a school board meeting and signing up to speak during a period for public comment.

His goal is unity, Knost said. But that doesn’t mean everybody will agree with how he thinks or how a school board member thinks.

“… I want to engage people with the common ground of doing what’s good for the Mehlville School District, (and) in turn, what’s good for the community. That’s the effort …,” Knost said Oct. 25 as he outlined his rationale for having the town-hall meeting.

“… I want to just talk a few minutes about where this idea came from. I own it. It’s my idea and I’m responsible for it,” he said. “So if there are issues with the idea, I want you to bring those issues to me. It wasn’t a board decision or board idea. It wasn’t my predecessor’s idea. It’s my idea. I’ve been in the Mehlville district for 10 years. I’ve only been the superintendent since July, but I’ve done a lot of observing over the years. As a principal, I’ve observed things that have happened. I’ve observed things that I think work well and I’ve observed things, quite frankly, that don’t work so well. And I’m not interested in the things that don’t work so well.

“I think we’ve spun our wheels a lot in the Mehlville School District. I think for the right reasons a lot of times. But what I’ve heard in the past is that — and people have been very candid with me about this, and I can’t stress enough I appreciate candid people when it’s brought to me in the appropriate context and mind-set, I embrace critics and I mean that sincerely — but what I’ve heard about community engagement efforts in the past is that even though we say we open our doors, the very nature of us opening our doors, we know that a lot of our parents are going to come out. We have a lot of staff members that come out and that’s OK. We’re not going to turn those people away. I think that can be understood, especially if they’re staff that are taxpayers,” he said.

“But I understand and I mean this sincerely, if you have a school building where people may not have an everyday connection to it and you load it up with a lot of people that support the school district in every way and then you say it’s open to anybody and everybody. Somebody may show up with a viewpoint that’s a little bit different coming in, and then we force them to sit around tables of people that may think a little different than them and I think it potentially — I don’t think, this is what I’ve been told — it stifles some of the comments people want to make …”

Noting a few staff members were present, Knost said, “I’ve not asked principals to make phone calls and get people out. I haven’t done that. I have not asked staff to come. I’ve told staff in one email — I sent one email about this about three week ago, I think …”

The superintendent emphasized that the town-hall meeting had no specific agenda other than to hear from residents.

“… Also, from feedback I’ve received in the past, I didn’t bring you here to show you a big PowerPoint to tell you what I want to do, what we want to do, what we want you to buy into what we’re going to do. We’re not going to make you get in little groups and brainstorm this, that and the other. We just want to talk and we want to be available. I want us to be available …” he said.

“… We’d like to try to keep it positive. It doesn’t mean I don’t want you to be candid,” Knost later said. “I want you to ask your question or make your statement or your comment. In some cases, maybe it’s not appropriate for us to comment. Maybe it’s just appropriate for us to listen to what you have to say and absorb that …

“I had a few calls that are afraid this may turn into either the last board meeting or the board meeting before that, and I don’t want that to happen. And I’d like that to not happen. I’m asking you to not let that happen, to help me not let that happen where we’re singling people out or not liking what this board member does or what that person thinks … I want to be constructive …,” he said.

During an interview with the Call after the town-hall meeting, Knost said he was pleased with how the evening went. Given the response to the town-hall meeting, he likely will have two more this school year with the dates to be determined.

The tenor of the meeting was refreshing, he said.

“… I give credit to the people that showed up because you can state how you want it to go and you can kind of try to set your tone, but it’s up to the people there to determine how that’s going to play out,” Knost said. “And I think that’s how everybody showed up wanting to handle the evening. So it was pretty easy for me to facilitate, actually … I was curious how it was going to go, but I couldn’t be happier with how it played out.”