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

VIDEO: Three ex-Mehlville board presidents salute departing member Palamand

Palamand’s service lauded by current board members

The new Mehlville Board of Education sworn in last week was nearly identical to its makeup over the last year, with one notable exception: Longtime board member Venki Palamand left the board.

Palamand, perhaps the school board member most synonymous with the Mehlville School District in the past decade, chose not to run for re-election because he wants to focus more on his business and family.

He was first elected in 2007 alongside board member Larry Felton, then defeated by former board member Lori Trakas in 2013. He returned to the board in 2014 as the top vote-getter.

Three former board presidents — Dan Fowler, Candy Green and Ron Fedorchak — came to Palamand’s last meeting April 13 to salute the three-term board president who often bridged the gap between diverse views on the school board.

“Very few times do we see a generational board member come along, but Venki Palamand is one of those,” Fowler said, before quoting an editorial from Call Executive Editor Mike Anthony that Palamand “may be one of the most influential board members in a generation.”

Few board members can point to unique accomplishments, but “there are many things that Venki has done that would not be here if it were not for him sitting in that chair,” Fowler said.

Palamand served as board president during many of Mehlville’s major decisions, including Proposition R, the 49-cent tax-rate increase to balance the budget approved by 73 percent of voters in November 2015, Proposition A for AC that formed a dedicated fund for replacing roofs and HVAC, and the district’s first auditorium.

“There’s absolutely no question that (William B.) Nottelmann Auditorium would not be there today if it was not for the dogged approach of Venki Palamand — he does not give up,” Fowler said.

Palamand’s ability to broker bipartisan compromise gained unanimous votes for the auditorium and new tennis courts on a conservative-leaning board that included board members Rich Franz and Mark Stoner.

During Palamand’s tenure, he also pushed for tuition-free full-day kindergarten, weighted grades to increase academic achievement, solar panels, health-savings accounts as an insurance option, added Advanced Placement classes and Project Lead the Way project-based learning courses, high school counselors and speech, debate and field hockey teams and saved money by bringing lawn services in-house.

The 1985 Oakville High School graduate has also been a near-constant presence at school functions.

“It was always wonderful to hear … when we had a function, ‘Venki was here tonight, he came to watch us sing,’ or ‘Venki was here today,'” Green said. “I just want to show appreciation for myself, the families in the school district and our community.”

The only son of Leela and Krishna Palamand of Oakville, Palamand runs his family’s business Martak Machine. The Washington University-educated engineer is also known as the administrator of the Facebook group Oakville Residents Unite.

Although Palamand is well-known in Oakville now, it was a long shot when he first ran for the board, board member Lisa Dorsey noted.

“I know you said a couple of times, ‘People don’t know what a Venki is,'” Dorsey said. “Now we know what a Venki is.”

Every current board member praised Palamand as a respected colleague they hope to keep on speed dial. He recruited board President Samantha Stormer and mentored Dorsey.

Although he is their colleague, Palamand is also their friend, several said.

“Everybody’s talked about the service that you gave to the district, but you’ve shared Thanksgiving dinner with us,” an emotional Stormer said.

Newly re-elected board Vice President Jean Pretto said to her “right hand man Venki” that she “knew we could always count on you to be the voice of reason when things went off-kilter.”

“I’m going to miss your insight, certainly I’m going to miss your institutional knowledge,” Felton said. “I hope to hear that little voice in the background whispering, ‘I wouldn’t have done it that way.'”

But board member Jamey Murphy, who joined Palamand in several 5-2 votes under Superintendent Chris Gaines, said he’d miss Palamand the most.

Many nights, Murphy would get in trouble at home because he’d be chatting on the phone with Palamand about the school district, he said.

“I’ll miss somebody that says no, too,” Murphy said.

Palamand’s own farewell speech focused less on himself than praise for most superintendents he’s worked with, while challenging Gaines.

Former Superintendent Terry Noble rebuilt Mehlville after a destructive era, offering an open door to teachers, a willingness to listen to board members’ ideas and “steady, calm leadership” that led to a smooth transition to his deputy and the next superintendent, Eric Knost, Palamand said.

Knost’s “vision and promise” for the auditorium became reality due to dedicated administrators like Facilities Director Steve Habeck and former Chief Financial Officer Noel Knobloch. The seven rooftop solar panels Palamand and Knost installed with Ameren grants save utility costs and 210,000 pounds of coal every year.

Fedorchak talked interim Superintendent Norm Ridder into coming to the district over larger districts, and “without that, we don’t know where we’d be today,” Palamand said. They led the way to Prop R, turning around the district in a year.

“I think the district is in a great position,” Palamand said. “I think we are poised for success moreso than at any other time in the past 10 years. It hasn’t always been a straight path — sometimes it’s been two steps forward, one step back, sometimes it’s been two steps forward and maybe even five steps back. But we are at a better place today, especially financially, than we’ve probably ever been.”

His last words as a public official — at least for now — were a challenge to the “current superintendent and his administrative team.” With back-to-back ballot measures and higher assessments, the district has more money to work with than ever, Palamand noted.

“So my challenge is this: Use those tax dollars wisely,” he said. “Focus on the classroom teacher … The students and the taxpayers of Mehlville deserve and expect a higher-performing school district with improved test scores. You now have the revenues to make that a reality.”

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