This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: After a rough stretch of negative news – a highly critical audit, the resignation of one board member and ouster of two others by voters, defeat of a bond issue and departure of a superintendent – the Rockwood School District was more than ready to hear state Auditor Tom Schweich’s message Wednesday:
“I’ve got good news today.”
Since a report in February found enough issues that the district’s performance was rated only fair, Schweich said, most of the problems have been fixed, and those that have not been completed are in progress.
The follow-up report did say that one of the major findings of the earlier audit -- $1.2 million in questionable payments to a construction management firm that had ties to a Rockwood board member – has yet to be cleared up. The district has hired an investigator to look into the issue, with a report due later this year.
But, overall, Schweich was clearly pleased with the district's response. He said it could be a model for other governmental agencies whose audits raise questions.
Saying that Rockwood had done an “excellent and transparent job,” he noted that the district had posted on its website an ongoing progress report on how points raised by the audit were being addressed.
“Every single thing we asked to be done has either been implemented or is in progress,” Schweich said.
“They were very committed to getting this done quickly and putting it behind them.”
Among the items he noted were:
- the end to a policy in which an underwriter also served as a financial adviser to the district for bond issues;
- closer scrutiny of credit cards;
- a better competitive bidding process for professional services;
- a revised purchasing policy for spending over $7,500;
- tighter control over assets such as electronics and musical instruments;
- more attention to accurate reporting of student attendance;
- and a stricter conflict-of-interest policy.
That last item had prompted much criticism after the initial audit. Board member Steve Smith had also been an employee of Glenn Construction Co., which Rockwood used to manage construction and renovation projects.
Though Smith denied any conflict and said he had recused himself when dealings with the company were discussed and decided, he resigned from the board shortly after the initial audit was released. Smith said he had become a target and a distraction from educating students in the district.
In April, voters not only rejected a $38.4 million bond issue but also voted out two members of the school board. Then, Superintendent Bruce Borchers, who had already prompted controversy with his hiring of two assistants, decided to leave Rockwood to take a job in Tennessee for a smaller salary.
Comparing Rockwood’s response to the criticism in the earlier audit, Schweich noted that “sometimes, school districts are apathetic. Sometimes, citizens just don’t care.
“The people of Rockwood should be very, very pleased with the enthusiasm for these changes.”
That praise for the district was welcome news to school board president Bill Brown.
“This is a day we’ve been looking forward to,” he told a news conference after Schweich had delivered his office’s findings.
Praising a number of staff members at Rockwood for moving so quickly and so positively to respond to the audit, Brown noted that the process has been an open one.
“We took our medicine in public,” he said,” and we’re glad to take our physical in public as well.”
He urged everyone in Rockwood to spread the word about the good news that Schweich had brought to the district. But not everyone was totally pleased.
Eileen Tyrrell of the group Rockwood Stakeholders for Real Solutions, which had pushed for the audit and has been highly critical of the district’s operations for many months, praised Schweich for being so responsive.
But, she said in an interview after the news conference, while the audit follow-up might change public perception, it will not necessarily increase support for any future efforts to raise taxes or pass bond issues.
Noting that 81 percent of the district’s households do not have students in Rockwood schools, she said officials will have to be more active in reaching out to all of the voters in the district. So far, Tyrrell said, she is disappointed in the tepid response she has received from board members.
“We’ve reached out with an olive branch,” she said. “We’re waiting for them. The ball is in their court.
“It’s going to take a lot more than sound fiscal management, which is what every public agency should have.”