VICC panel’s recommendation OK’d by Mehlville board

By Mike Anthony

The Mehlville School District will reduce voluntary transfer student enrollment by 15 percent annually beginning with the 2005-2006 school year.

The Board of Education voted unanimously last week to approve the 15 percent annual reduction in voluntary transfer student enrollment, which had been recommended by a board-appointed committee, the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corp. Committee.

Beginning with the 1999-2000 school year, court-ordered desegregation ended and was replaced with a settlement agreement that continues through the 2008-2009 school year. The Mehlville committee was charged with reviewing the settlement agreement and providing the Board of Education with options to consider regarding the district’s future participation in the voluntary transfer student program.

Mehlville’s VICC Committee, comprised of students, faculty and residents, formulated its recommendation after meeting over a six-month period. The committee had considered other options, such as decreasing annual enrollment by 0 percent, 5 percent or 10 percent, but believed the 15-percent option was the most viable for the district and was similar to Mehlville’s natural attrition rate for VICC students. The district currently receives nearly $7 million annually for its participation in the program.

Board members previously delayed consideration of the committee’s recommendation because they wanted to obtain more information from VICC officials and other districts before making a decision. Because no other area school districts have made recent decisions regarding their involvement in the VICC program, board member Rita Diekemper said March 30 that a premature decision by Mehlville could “spur reaction” from other districts.

At that time, Superintendent Tim Ricker was scheduled to meet with other VICC officials April 30 and planned to report the results of that meeting to board members.

During the board’s nearly five-hour May 11 meeting, Keith Klusmeyer, the district’s south area superintendent who also served as the main facilitator of the VICC Committee, briefly reviewed the panel’s recommendation and supporting documentation.

“If you look at the numbers, particularly the column ‘Annual Impact on the Budget,’ this option was recommended by the committee simply because it provides Mehlville, we think, with the most prudent financial outlook over the future in that if you go to the year after the settlement agreement ends in ’08-’09,” he said.

Under the option recommended by the panel, the district would lose nearly $800,000 in revenue in 2009-2010.

“Of the three options that the committee looked at, this one has the least significant impact in that year when the program is supposedly going to end,” Klusmeyer said, noting that the “upfront” costs to the district may be a little more, but the committee believed it was better to be prepared, “particularly when you’re talking about the unknown.”

Ricker also discussed the April 30 meeting of VICC officials, noting that for some time, districts have been talking about the future of the program and its funding.

“Most of the districts who were the high-cost districts indicated that they had been talking with their boards of education and felt that the program had worth,” the superintendent told the board. “They felt that the issue of integration and the positives that were brought to the school districts and the positives taken home by the students who were involved in those programs far outweighed getting out of or withdrawing from the program at this time …

“So, obviously there’s deep concerns about funding for that, that program,” he said, noting that such high-cost districts as Clayton and Brentwood could lose from $4,000 to $6,000 in tuition per student. Clayton, in fact, will lose more money per student than the Mehlville School District receives for each transfer student, Ricker said.

Through media reports, officials from other districts have been aware of the discussions regarding Mehlville’s future participation the program, he said.

“Some of the school districts said, you know, asked the question: ‘Well, how are you going to do that?’ and I explained our committee process and the recommendation possibly could be considered by the Board of Education,” Ricker said. “And the first question out of their mouths was: ‘How much is that going to be?”’

Noting that it is “a lot of money” and “a big decision,” Ricker said that the Mehlville community and such former board members as David Gralike and Rich Huddleston, “were concerned about us being left holding the bag” if other districts began withdrawing from the program.

“… So the group listened to that conversation. Others commented where they were headed … But we took a vote on the midpoint conversation, which essentially capped any reimbursement for city students at $7,000,” Ricker said, noting that only about four districts are left that aren’t fully funded. Mehlville could be next, he said, noting the district currently spends roughly $6,500 per student.

But future funding of the program remains a concern, according to Ricker, who said, “… I think we still have problems with how long that funding is going last for the program. So I think everybody’s kind of in the same boat. The difference in our situation is that we’re still fully funded. Many of the other districts not being fully funded may have to go back and look at what their communities want to do as far as continuation in the program. Remember, if you’re fully funded, you can make the choice of opting out and it’s a two-year process. At the same time, you still have to take students in …”

Districts that no longer are fully funded can withdraw from the program by giving one year’s notice, Ricker said, noting, “This is the time frame for making that delineation for opting out. No one committed, sitting around that table on the 30th, of opting out at that point in time …”

Ricker said board members would have to make the best decision for Mehlville and noted concerns about future funding for transportation of VICC students.

“Whether it’s 5 percent, 10 percent, 15 percent … the concern the board has to have right up front is what’s best for us. What you feel is best for our kids and our community. The kids that are here will continue to be here, although once a decision is made of this nature, I think there is a residual, unintended consequence from people saying: ‘Well, how long can we stay here? What’s the opportunity?’ And then some of the factors that have been thrown in is will there be full funding for transportation? Well, the answer to that is we don’t know, possibly not,” Ricker said.

The superintendent also expressed concern that by decreasing the number of VICC students by accepting less applications could have “an unintended, residual consequence of an exodus could happen.”

Diekemper said, “That was my question. You said that Rockwood has a reduction program …”

Ricker said, “They have a 10-year reduction program and I think they’re in year seven.”

Diekemper asked, “So have they experienced an exodus from their program?”

Ricker replied, “Well, no they haven’t, but I don’t think they’re looking at the level of reduction (that Mehlville is). They were looking at a more single-digit reduction, 5 or so percent …”

Regarding concerns VICC parents may have if the board accepted the panel’s recommendation, Klusmeyer said, “I might add, if the board were to approve this tonight or something at some point, part of our job administratively will be to get something out to the VICC families and let them know what our plan is specifically, try to allay some of those fears of yes, their kids are going to graduate, kind of what we talked about at the open forum that was held at Bierbaum. That’s going to be very important for us to do so that that mass exodus doesn’t happen for a fear of not understanding what really we’re trying to accomplish for the kids.”

Responding to a question from board member Mike Heins about future funding for the program, Ricker said, “It will be based upon the funding level that’s available through the program. So this next year, we’ll be fully funded. If the funding level decreases, it could be a portion of the fully funding until the money is gone, which means we would accept, we would incur that expense for the education of those children.”

Heins said, “With zero reimbursement?”

Ricker said, “Yes.”

Board member Bill Schornheuser said, “… I mean at that point there would probably be no transportation money …”

Ricker interjected, “Probably not.”

Schornheuser continued, “They would have a hard time getting here …”

Diekemper said, “But if the parents are listening and understanding, they know that it could end in ’08-’09 anyway and so we’re even saying that we would if it extends beyond that we are willing to have it beyond that. So in terms of the mass exodus …”

Heins interjected, “I’m not sure we should make that promise.”

Diekemper said, “Well, I understand that, but I’m saying right now there’s a possible cutoff that’s even more strenuous than our possible cutoff.”

Heins said, “Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying we shouldn’t do that, but I’m not saying we should make that promise and then not be able to back our promise up when we start going in the hole financially.”

Board President Cindy Christopher said she believed the board could provide some direction about what its intent is regarding future involvement in the program.

Heins said, “(What) the intent is, is not a promise.”

Ricker said, “… The settlement agreement lasts through ’08-’09 and a new agreement could be written. A new funding structure could come forward, a new extension of the program, a new — all of that could be tied into it through ’08-’09.”

Diekemper said, “So there’s already a lot of uncertainty from a parent standpoint, too. I don’t feel that our, our decision is going to weigh heavily in that.”

After further discussion, Heins’ motion to approve the VICC Committee’s recommendation, which was seconded by Schornheuser, was adopted with a unanimous vote.