Rockwood report card: Does the district have real problems or just bad public relations?
By: Marcia Guckes
When a bond issue fails, you have to ask why. And since it’s the time of year when students are receiving report cards, it seems a good time to report on the state of the district.
The Rockwood School District was one of 10 Missouri school districts with a bond issue on the April 2012 ballot. Additionally, two districts asked for tax increases. Voters approved all of the funding measures, except for those in the Rockwood and Washington (Mo.) districts.
So the question that begs to be answered is: Why did Rockwood’s $43.2 million bond issue, known as Prop R, fail when the district has successfully passed all but three bond issues in the past 21 years?
It’s hard to blame the economy, when all around the area citizens voted to pass funding measures.
Does the district have real problems that voters just were not willing to support? Or does the district have a public relations problem that displayed itself in the voting booth?
There’s no debating that during the past two years, the district has been the focus of controversy. A number of issues have spurred some district residents to speak out at Board of Education meetings, post comments online, and create a grassroots watchdog group.
Those issues included:
• The hiring of two of Superintendent Bruce Borchers former colleagues as $1800-per-day Rockwood consultants, while the two remained employed by the Anoka-Hennepin School District in suburban Minneapolis Followed by the hiring of those consultants to high-level administrative positions within Rockwood at salaries much greater than they had been making in Minnesota.
• The step down of Board President Steve Smith to director after questions were raised about his job at a construction management firm that was used consistently by Rockwood on projects funded by bond issues.
• The sudden and unexpected resignation of Matthew Fitzpatrick near the end of his first term as Board director.
• Reports of failing finances pointing toward a possible tax increase and then the subsequent decision to postpone after a community survey.
• The decision to put a no-tax increase bond issue on the April 2012 ballot, followed by the superintendent’s announcement that it really was not needed right now Followed by the decision to go ahead and put the $43.2 million Prop R bond issue on that April ballot.
Could one or all of these events have created a public relations problem that resulted in voters saying “no” to Prop R?
Or did it fail because voters are concerned about how the district’s Board of Education and administrators are handling taxpayers’ money?
The National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA) thinks Rockwood is doing a good job of working with the community. That organization gave its highest honor for public engagement and parent involvement, the 2011 Gold Medallion Award, to Rockwood for its “Guiding Change FY12 Budget Process.”
On the other hand, the grassroots watchdog group formed in 2011, Rockwood Stakeholders for Real Solutions (RS for RS), contends that the bond issue failed because “taxpayers want the district to exercise greater financial responsibility than they have in the past.”
RS for RS recently issued a list of 18 steps it believes Rockwood should take in order to be more financially responsible.
Construction management and the bid process
The district has always asked for bids but it has not always opened all of the bids it received and has even thrown away some of the unopened bids. In September, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Rockwood’s chief communications officer, Kim Cranston, stated in an email to a reporter that Rockwood’s assistant superintendent, Dennis Griffith, had destroyed records detailing proposed fees because “companies don’t want their fees being shared.”
At the same time that the bid process fell under scrutiny, it became widely known that Board President Steve Smith was employed by Glenn Construction, the company that had been managing the district’s bond-issue funded construction projects for a number of years.
About two months after those controversies flared in the media, the Board of Education reviewed and revised its bidding procedure. Smith resigned as president, but remained on the Board.
Consultants, benefits and salaries
In 2010, Superintendent Bruce Borchers, with Board approval, hired former colleagues Randy Smasl and Nancy DuBois as consultants and then administrators. Both Smasl and DuBois left their five-figure jobs in suburban Minneapolis for six-figure jobs in Rockwood. DuBois has since resigned, effective June 1.
Approximately four months after Smasl and Dubois were hired the Board reviewed and revised its policy concerning the hiring of consultants as Rockwood employees. This statement was added to the policy:
“No person who performs services for the district under a consulting contract may, for a period of one year after completion of the consulting services, be hired by the Board for a position created by, originating from or directly affected by the contracted consulting services.”
This past February, the Board extended Superintendent Borchers contract until 2015 and included an $8,000 per year car allowance. A quick survey of the Internet found that car allowances for superintendents across the nation can range from more than $21,000 to about $4,800. Some districts provide car allowances in the contracts for all of their administrators including administrative assistants.
At $234,600, Borchers is among the top 10 highest paid superintendents in Missouri according to figures published by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). DESE numbers also show that Borchers leads the third largest school district in the state as well as the largest district in St. Louis County.
At its meeting right before the bond issue vote, the Board approved salary increases in a new contract with nurses. And since the bond issue’s failure the Board has given salary increases to custodians and staff who coach or sponsor extracurricular activities.
The custodians’ contract also provides payment for unused sick days upon retirement. That policy is a benefit for other contracted employees as well.
Maintaining and updating facilities
If Prop R would have passed, LaSalle Middle School would have received $545,000 to construct a new addition for the nurse’s station; and the 40-year-old locker rooms at Eureka High School would have been replaced at a cost of $1.6 million – two items that were sited as in need of upgrade by RS for RS.
However, at its meeting April 12 the Board agreed with Board Vice President Matt Doell that without the money the bond issue would have provided those projects are “off the table.”
President Janet Strate further said in a statement to West Newsmagazine, “Without those bond issue funds, we’re going to have to stretch the operating budget to take care of some of the infrastructure and maintenance projects that would have been funded by the bond issue.”
RS for RS would like the district to consider funding capital repairs and renovations within the operating budget instead of depending on bond issue revenues.
Both Borchers and Broz said moving repairs and renovations into the operating budget instead of using bond issue monies is something that could be considered. Although Broz said such a move would probably require a tax increase; and Borchers said cuts would have to be made elsewhere in the budget.
Administration and academic outcomes
Rockwood has been accused of being heavy on administration. The district does have almost 85 administrators including principals and assistant principals giving it a ratio of 270 students for every administrator. However, according to DESE, the average ratio in Missouri is about 180 students for every administrator. In addition, state numbers also show that out of 522 school districts in Missouri, 505 have more administrators for every student than Rockwood does.
RS for RS’s recommendations indicated that 86 cents of every instructional dollar went to support services, but at West Newsmagazine’s request, Eileen Tyrrell, RS for RS founder, took a second look at the numbers and said, “Another way to put it is that 46 cents goes for support services and 53 cents goes to instruction.”
Superintendent Borchers countered that the district is operating in the best interest of the students.
“We want to be focused on our classrooms and what’s best for our students,” he said, “and we’re going to continue to be fiscally responsible on providing the best learning environment that we can within the dollars that we have here in Rockwood.”
According to DESE figures for 2011, Rockwood spends $9,619 per student. That is slightly more than the state average but less than a district such as Clayton which spends nearly twice as much to educate each student. Yet for the past eleven years DESE has ranked Rockwood among the state’s top 10 performing school districts in all academic areas.
On a national level two of Rockwood’s high schools, Lafayette and Marquette, won silver medals in U.S. News & World Report’s 2011 ranking of outstanding high schools and it was the only district in Missouri to win two silver medals. However, the most recent U.S. News & World Report rankings, released Tuesday, May 8, 2012, listed only Marquette High School as among the best of the best, ranking fifth in the state list and earning a silver medal overall.
The magazine ranks schools based on multiple factors including location, enrollment, student-teacher ratio, ethnicity, type of school, state proficiency test scores and and college readiness, which is based on the number of students taking advanced placement exams and how well they do on those tests. However, a quick look at this methodology raises more questions than answers.
According to available data, Marquette High School has a college readiness index of 43.8; Eureka High School has a college readiness index of 47.5; Lafayette High School has a college readiness index of 42.1 and Rockwood Summit High School has a college readiness index of 41.5. So why didn’t Eureka make the list? Did it boil down to Algebra 1 and English 2 proficiency, in which Marquette scored moderately higher than its Rockwood sister schools?
Proficiency in Algebra 1 for all four Rockwood high schools ranged between 50 and 61 percent in 2012. In English 2, the percentage of proficient students was higher, ranging between 78 and 89 percent, with Rockwood Summit being on the low end and Marquette on the high end in both categories.
Cash reserves and debt service
One of the items on the RS for RS list is a call for the district to utilize the $146 million the district lists as cash reserves in its 2011 Annual Report.
District CFO, Shirley Broz, said that money is not extra cash. She explained that the money is used to pay the bills for operating expenses that come up from July to December.
“It’s kind of like working construction or farming,” Broz said. “You have to save up in the summer in order to pay your bills in the winter.”
“If we had no fund balance at the end of the (fiscal) year, we couldn’t meet our $13 million a month bills. We couldn’t pay our payroll,” Broz said. “So we have to have some money set aside like in a savings account as we end our year until we get our income in December and January.”
In those months, the district receives 80 percent of its income from local taxes and the state.
In addition to the cash reserve, RS for RS has complaints about the amount of money the Board requires to be kept in the district’s debt service fund.
According to Broz, the debt service fund is an important factor in determining Rockwood’s creditworthiness according to Standard & Poor’s. The district currently has a AAA rating, which earns it lower interest rates on borrowed money.
Information published on Standard & Poor’s website states that the AAA rating means an organization “should generally be able to withstand … conditions of economic stress without defaulting.”
Redistricting and rethinking
RS for RS would also like the Rockwood Board to change boundaries to increase enrollment at underutilized schools instead of building more classrooms.
“We’ve done redistricting in the past when we built Wildhorse Middle School,” Broz said. “It’s a very difficult, emotional, time-consuming process; but if we had to do it, we would.”
Finally, for its last recommendation, the watchdog group referred to a newspaper article that quoted Borchers as saying, “It’s how we’ve done business” and asked that the district “Break away from the old groupthink model of just doing what they’ve always done.”
According to Borchers, RS for RS has taken that quote “a little bit out of context.” He said his statement was in reference to a reporter’s question concerning the district’s business model and its use of bond issues.
“It doesn’t mean we’re not going to look at our business model as a staff and as a Board,” Borchers said. “We always want to improve and if that means changing the business model, we’ll do that, but we’re going to do it for the right reasons and that’s to maintain the ‘Rockwood Advantage’ that we talk about for our children and our community.”
The district sees the Rockwood Advantage as its local, state and national reputation for student academic achievement, effective educators, quality facilities, and safe and caring schools. The details of these areas can be found on several national and local websites including those for DESE (dese.mo.gov), Great Schools (greatschools.org), U.S. News & World Report (education.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-high-schools) and Rockwood’s own website (http://www.rockwood.k12.mo.us/rockwoodadvantage).
So did Rockwood’s $43.2 million bond issue (Prop R) get voted down at the polls because of fiscal accountability questions or public relations issues?
Maybe the answer lies in the words of the ancient philosopher, Protagoras, who said, “There are two sides to every question.”
Or maybe a more contemporary philosopher, Mark Twain, had it right when he said, “I was gratified to be able to answer promptly. I said, ‘I don’t know.’”