Believing in the logic and power of grassroots efforts, Dennis Broadbooks' reaction to recent, widespread concerns about Rockwood School District's hiring practices was to organize a town hall meeting.
The meeting, which was held at in Wildwood, lasted a couple of hours and attracted nearly 35 participants on Sunday afternoon. Some were parents; some were district residents who send their children to private schools. Others had no children in schools, but are interested in how their tax dollars are being used in the district.
All attendees had one mission in common, however: to become better informed and engaged with the district's future activities to lessen surprises and influence its direction.
In the past few weeks, Eureka-Wildwood Patch reported several times regarding about the use of funds by Rockwood's Superintendent Bruce Borchers for consultants, and the consultants' subsequent hiring to the district. Borchers and Rockwood board of education directors said . Borchers even issued a , but negative reactions have not dissipated.
The whole ordeal left patrons, or collective stakeholders, thirsty for more facts and wanting to get to the bottom of what they perceive as lack of transparency in conducting the district.
Town Hall Opens Dialogue
Broadbooks, of Wildwood, has lived with his family in West St. Louis County since 1977. He has been in private business, primarily the insurance industry, for the past 34 years. "What qualifies me to talk about these issues, and why I'm here today, is that my family pays taxes in Rockwood," he said.
Pointing to a portion of St. Louis County tax bill for $2,461.24, Broadbooks started his introduction by saying he did not feel that was an insignificant amount of money. "That level of money entitles us to have input with what they (Rockwood School District) do, including their hiring practices," he said.
Broadbooks established the ground rules of the meeting as "not a gotcha’ session." He said his vision was to have a meeting about what needed to be done for the future, as tax-paying citizens. "We’ve seen what happened in the past."
Broadbooks projected Rockwood's 11-page organization chart, which was referred to as "a monstrosity."
"Look what box is at the top of the RSD organizational chart," he said. "It says citizens at the top. This is coming straight from the district's website. Who’s the boss, then? We are. And that's why we should have the authority to have discussions like this."
Broadbooks said the Rockwood board of education directors hired the two individuals in question from Minnesota. "Is it a path we want to continue to go down? Or is there another way?"
Rockwood officials, however, maintain that the typical hiring process also was followed in this case, which includes district teachers, sample administrators and parents. As first reported in Patch, 93 applicants were received for the two key administration jobs now being dissected. Six were interviewed of that group, according to Rockwood spokespeople. The two people hired coincidentally were the two applicants who had worked with Borchers in his former Minnesota school district and who had assisted him in developing the reorganizational plan for Rockwood earlier this school.
Rockwood directors Matt Doell and Stephen Banton attended Sunday's town hall meeting.
What Participants Voiced
Attendee Rob Thoele said he had lived in Rockwood his whole life. He is a graduate who now lives in Ballwin. He has two young children in the district.
Thoele said he got involved with the district four years ago when drive-by assessments pushed his taxes up by $1,000 in one year. He said he called former Rockwood chief financial officer, David Glaser, about his concern regarding the district's "windfall." He said he was then asked to be on the district's finance committee.
But Thoele's summary of his involvement was disheartening. "It (the finance committee) was mainly Rockwood employees, principals and PTO members. I was the only non-connected patron," he said.
He said it seemed Rockwood was in the habit of sponsoring no tax increase bonds every two years. "The board asked for a million dollar of savings, but we on the finance committee didn’t have input into that," he said.
Thoele said he asked why the district was giving salary increases when it was overall going into the red. "Why are you rocking the boat? This is how we do it. Whatever increases we give to teachers, we also to principals and superintendents, I was told."
He said he suggested that Rockwood financial caretakers start running the district like a business, but was told that was not possible. "Instead of assuming everyone in the district should get either 3 or 0 percent salary increase, what’s wrong with considering what will happen if everyone gets 1 percent?" he said was his position at the time.
Thoele said Rockwood's CFO was making a six-figure salary and that directors were averaging $110,000-a-year salaries. He said the common attitude and response was that they would be making higher salaries in the private sector, and that it's "not like we were being given something we don’t deserve."
He said he surprisingly was asked again to join the finance committee once Borchers was on board. But he felt the Guiding Change process instituted this past school year was really reflecting that the district was in a crisis mode.
"They did give 3 percent raises, and realized they would be hemorrahaging pretty bad," said Thoele. "Maybe there's been one other non-connected parent on the finance committee, not drinking the Kool-Aid."
Thoele said he recently expressed to committee members that he was not in agreement with the amount of money spent on excessive travel, hiring consultants and doing surveys regarding tax increases. He said he asked Borchers directly if the most recent survey was about how to sell a tax increase in the fall. He said the response from Borchers was: 'no, that's not the case.'
Thoele said that was the last finance meeting he attended. He said he sent an e-mail to Borchers and the entire board, stating his reasons for no longer participating. "I think my kids are getting a good education at Rockwood, but if it's not at a good value, then why are we doing what we're doing?"
One person in Sunday's group asked if administrators outnumbered the Rockwood teachers yet. Attendees want to dig into ratios between staff and students versus teachers and students.
Ron Cawood, a resident of Chesterfield who is a banker, asked if overall facts and comparisons from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) could be compiled.
Attendee Chris Howard said he has two kids attending Rockwood schools at Ballwin Elementary. "When you compare school districts, it's like comparing binge drinkers. You can talk about who drinks the least or the most, but it's still all about drinking," he said.
Howard said he grew up in a Chicago suburb, which he likened to Ladue. "We were bigger than Marquette or . But we only had one superintendent, who made less than $100,000 a year," he said. "I haven’t met Bruce (Borchers), and I'm sure he’s a really good guy. But with a quarter million dollars funding, we could have paid for teacher salary increases, reinstated some Rockwood programs that had to be stopped, or could've not spent it all."
"I want everything for my kids that the district can give. But by the time my children get to Marquette, I think we need to ask ourselves what’s an educated child look like? And what’s the ROI? It doesn’t cost anywhere near that much to do so."
Howard said he believed Rockwood was a great district compared to many others, but that it was "a Byzantine Empire."
"Rockwood is bigger and more encompassing than many congressional districts. It’s enormous. It can do whatever it wants to do!" he said.
"Unless we all get together, they are going to continue to do what they do. I don’t want to hurt the teachers, but I believe there are plenty of places to cut from."
Check back to Eureka-Wildwood Patch for more articles springing from this town hall meeting. For readers' ease, the information will be broken into a series of articles.