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After hiring controversy, Rockwood reverses course, decides against seeking tax hike

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 19, 2011 - After the hiring of two administrators with six-figure salaries prompted a backlash from residents, the Rockwood School Board has decided not to put a tax increase proposal on the ballot in November as planned.

The board voted 5-1 Thursday night to reverse its earlier decision to ask voters for the tax hike, which was expected to be in the range of 60 cents for each $100 in assessed valuation.

Board President Steve Smith, who joined in the vote to pull the measure off the ballot, said he thinks Rockwood may be able to present a tax increase to voters in April. But for now, the timing clearly was not right, for several reasons.

"I've been undecided all along," he told the Beacon Friday. "To me, it's clear that we're going to need an increase. But I believe there are some legitimate questions about whether enough cuts have been made to make the case for our voters.

"And if you've watched the stock market over the past 10 days, you get some idea that the economy is readjusting to something now. All of those things point to the fact that we need to make sure we've done what we need to do and see what the economy is up to before we do something about a tax increase."

The controversy over hiring two top-level administrators by Rockwood Superintendent Bruce Borchers was prompted by a story in the Post-Dispatch in June. Borchers had hired two former colleagues in Minnesota as consultants to study the district's administrative structure, then hired the pair to serve in jobs that they recommended be established. Each of the new hires will be paid six-figure salaries at a time when the district has laid off teachers and other personnel.

Two surveys taken by the district about voter attitudes toward Rockwood -- one by telephone before the Borchers story broke, the other online afterward -- showed strong sentiment against a tax increase. And comments on the district's website that went along with the online survey were vehement at times.

Smith said all of those factors played a role in his vote to change direction on the tax increase.

"The survey demonstrated a public perception and a public view of it," he said, "and we've got to pay attention to that.

"I quit reading the comments online a long time ago. In many cases, they were anonymous, where people can say whatever they want without any identification."

No exact amount had been determined for the proposed tax increase, but district officials had discussed it in terms of about 60 cents. Smith said that each dime of the district's tax rate brings in $3.25 million, so 60 cents would have raised about $20 million -- money that the district will not have for the foreseeable future.

To make up for the loss of that money, he said, Rockwood is looking at a variety of cuts, including freezing salaries, eliminating teacher positions, changing transportation guidelines and getting rid of some administrators at its high schools, though not at central office. Possible cuts were summarized here.

One big issue remaining is restoring voter confidence. The answer there, Smith said, is to make sure Rockwood is concentrating on what any school district is created to do.

"The first thing we need to do is pay attention to educating students," he said. "If we can continue to do that in a strong way, that begins to bring some people back. We have to behave in a trustworthy manner and do the best we can.

"I don't think the answer is to say, 'OK, let's fire this person and that person' or anything of that nature. The answer is in doing the job we're supposed to do, and that's educate kids in a very high quality manner."

The latest figures from Missouri's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education show that Rockwood has been doing just that. Annual Performance Report data released Friday show the district once again met all 14 standards by which K-12 districts are judged.

Board member Peggy Devoy, who was the only one to vote to go ahead with the tax proposal in November, said Friday that her decision was based on the fact that Rockwood's budget was getting to the point "where we are seriously affecting children's ability to get the education I know we can deliver."

In that situation, she added, she wanted to make sure that voters had a say in how strongly the school system would be funded.

"I feel we had an obligation to parents to at least let them comment and say, here is what we're willing to pay for," Devoy said.

She noted that if the tax vote is postponed until April, students who have the opportunity to choose electives may be in a position to have to make two sets of choices -- one set if a tax levy passes and another if it fails.

Asked how she felt a tax levy would have fared if it were on the ballot in November, Devoy said she wasn't sure. But she added that in the segment of Rockwood voters that she is most closely in touch with, the feelings about the district are different from those expressed by those who are most vocal at school board meetings.

"The people I know don't show up at board meetings," she said. "They're happy with their kids' education and think we do quality work. The people I am in touch with want us to go forward with the kind of education we have been able to provide. Their energy is elsewhere. Their concerns are elsewhere. They truly think the administrator, teachers and others in the district are doing quality work."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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