League of Women Voters' (LWV) volunteers hosted and governed a Rockwood School District Board of Education candidates' forum Tuesday night at Crestview Middle School in Ellisville. All four candidates participated. An estimated crowd of 60 to 70 was present.
Voters on April 2 will choose among four candidates to fill two open positions on the board. However, with member Steve Smith's resignation from the board on Monday, a third new board member will be added, according to Rockwood's policies. See related article: Resignation Comes from Rockwood Board of Education Director Steve Smith
Rules for Tuesday's forum, as delivered by the League Women Voters' Kathleen Farrell, were that candidates could make a two-minute opening statement, take one-minute turns answering all questions, and would offer a two-minute closing statement. Farrell emphasized participating was paramount, and that the forum was about "Rockwood education issues, not personalities."
See previous candidate-related article regarding backgrounds: Meet the Four Candidates Running for Rockwood School Board
Of the 80-plus questions submitted by the forum's attendees, league representatives batched them by similar topics, and offered 17 questions to candidates.
This article will go through the gist of the first eight questions, with candidates' responses summarized. Patch will publish a second article with the remaining questions, as well as third article with the candidates' closing remarks.
Rockwood communications staffers told Patch that DVDs of the entire forum would be rendered and copied so a DVD could be placed at each of Rockwood's schools for viewing by anyone who would like to do so.
Editor's Note: For the remainder of this article candidate Janet Strate will be referred to as JS; candidate Steve Banton will be SB; candidate Loralee Mondl will be LM; and candidate Jeffrey Morrell will be JM. The candidates' names will appear on the April ballot in the order here. At the forum, the League of Women Voters ensured the sequence for which candidates answered each question was rotated. The responses will be offered in that same sequence.
QUESTION 1: How would you restore confidence in Rockwood's Board of Education?
SB: Adopt policies and change ways the construction change orders are done. If brand new project, rebid it.
LM: Would want to meet with the district's lawyer on April 3 to discuss what and why items are dealt with in closed versus open sessions. Too many things have been secretive. Need to share absolutely everything we can. Reconnect with the community by doing so.
JM: Meet with Rockwood's CFO to outline a realistic approach with what is a deficit situation and fiscal chaos. Employment decisions are made from the budget, so it is crucial.
JS: Review policies regarding construction management and bidding. Conduct a series of town hall meetings to ensure accurate information is among residents, not third-party information and innuendos.
QUESTION 2: Were Glenn Construction costs reviewed each time a bond was issued?
LM: Everything needs to be more open. Rockwood is on front page of papers with adults being bad. Rockwood kids are doing great things.
JM: Use common-sense judgment in way contracts are handled. Alarming to hear contracts were not bid out. These aren't mistakes, it's negligence.
JS: All contracts were reviewed by district administrators. Glenn Construction knew Rockwood's buildings really well and worked with the district to save funds where possible.
SB: Go back to rules and regulations to make sure problems, such as recent ones, don't arise again. Started to make sure policies are reviewed on a deliberate cycle now. View how policies or changes in policies fit goal of student achievement.
QUESTION 3: What have you done to understand and get familiar with actual education in classrooms?
JM: Of the candidates, I have the least amount of experience in education. But am open and want to engage with students, administrators, teachers regarding what problems they have. See the reports on class size and do not see a negative effect with increased numbers of students per class. Do not want district to be top-heavy.
JS: Have been a classroom volunteer, served on district curriculum reviews and committees. Important to read periodicals, such as Education Week. Monitor information from DESE and federal government.
SB: Active on school committees. Served on Rockwood Schools Foundation. Am district's member for the Missouri School Board Association. Go to events, such as Reading Week.
LM: Am a former Rockwood teacher (Marquette). Have been volunteering at Rockwood schools; seen first-hand what teachers are going through with everything around them in the press. Teachers still are doing what they love to do. Also served on the guidance counselors advisory committee.
QUESTION 4: Rockwood's teacher salaries are 26 percent less than Parkway School District's teacher salaries. Explain.
JS: Board is aware of the problem with salaries. Goal is to move teachers toward the mid-point. Increased teacher salaries wanted by board, but economy derailed that.
SB: Need to get as close to mid-point as possible, given Rockwood's finances. Want to keep and attract top teachers. Seeing lateral moves to other districts because of salary differences.
LM: About fiscal responsibility and looking at long-term goals, instead of year-to-year budget issues. CFO Tim Rooney is fine addition, met with him. Make efforts to raise salaries, to give teachers more compensation, or they will keep going next door for more money.
JM: When moving to St. Louis, family only shopped at homes with Rockwood District. Need to set a plan that can be stuck to. Better teachers are here, can't continue to lose them but we will if this isn't fixed.
QUESTION 5: Budgets for Rockwood counselors also are getting cut, yet the level of student intervention needed these days is more complicated. How do you plan to balance academic needs with emotional needs of students?
SB: Treat all Rockwood professionals as best as possible.
LM: From serving on the Guidance Advisory Council is why I'm running, next to loving kids. Stories counselors tell are overwhelming, about students hurting themselves. Problem is finding out why students are going through what they are.
JM: Focus on operating model. Passion and reason for running is so that when teachers or children need something, we don't have to tell parents no.
JS: Honestly say, seven board members all found it difficult to cut millions of dollars out of Rockwood's budget. Often is question of increasing class size or adjusting other staffing. Counselors are important to the team serving children.
QUESTION 6: Rockwood appears to have problems due to bad budgeting and poor decisions. How will you correct this?
LM: Openness. So much done in secret. Need more community involvement. Hard to hear audit showed $1.2 million cost. Get funding into classrooms where it belongs.
JM: Private sector cuts 15 percent without cutting muscle. Sure public sector can, too. Public needs forum so their voice can be heard. Ask why aren't we doing it this way?
JS: New CFO has been looking at variables. He is producing estimates that are more accurate than we had in past.
SB: DESE uses two financial formulas with respect to funding. In the old one, Rockwood loses $8 million per year. In the new one, Rockwood gains $5 million per year. That's a potential difference of $13 million, and is hard to work ahead on.
QUESTION 7: Did it make sense to extend Superintendent Bruce Borchers contract before the audit results were announced to the public?
JM: Not three days before audit, seems like back-room deals. Don't agree with the extension. Who's responsibility is all this, for embarrassing state audit?
JS: Rockwood board has policy in place that dictates superintendent's contract must be addressed, and approved if it's going to be, during February each year. We were running out of time. He is focused on student achievement; it was a 4-3 vote.
SB: Superintendent was addressing some of the construction problems. Bonds were done before he got to Rockwood. Didn't make sense to hold him responsible for things that happened before he was here. Superintendent was meeting the goals and policies as set by the board. If he's doing the job and attacking the problems, there was no reason not to renew.
LM: Know Superintendent and that he's data-driven. He had some issues with consultants that he couldn't overcome. An apology was issued, but would have like to hear or see admission of mistakes. The explanations about renewing are hard pill to swallow when done behind closed doors.
QUESTION 8: Communication with district stakeholders is important, but monthly calendars don't include attending the monthly PTO meetings.
JS: I attend every Rockwood Presidents Forum meeting to hear concerns and share information.
SB: It's important, but I can't due to having a full-time job. As lawyer, have responsibility to be in court sometimes; don't have flexibility at times.
LM: Is co-president of Rockwood South PTO. I see Janet at every meeting; she does good job of informing parents there.
JM: Transparency is needed to earn public trust. Not going to please everybody. District's communications team could be leveraged. Projects could be placed on website. Pull out issues and discuss pros and cons.