Two St. Louis County school districts are asking voters to put recent controversies behind them and approve bond issues next month to help bring facilities up to date.
In Rockwood, where two bond issues have failed in recent years, $68.95 million in bonds would pay for improved technology and increased security along with better athletic facilities. In Ferguson-Florissant, a $31 million bond issue would fund capital improvements and repairs, safety and security measures and updated technology.
Also on the April 7 ballot are a 65-cent tax increase and $28 million bond issue in the Webster Groves school district as well as a $6.1 million bond issue for schools in Maplewood-Richmond Heights. Each proposal would require a four-sevenths majority for passage. If the Rockwood and Ferguson-Florissant bonds are approved, they would require no increase in either district’s tax rate.
Rockwood hopes that changes prompted by a state audit, as well as a new superintendent, will help erase a negative voter attitude that resulted in the rejection of two earlier bond issues: one in April 2012 for $43.2 million and another a year later for $38.4 million.
In between those two votes, a highly critical state audit found several problems with the district’s operations, including a relationship between a board member and the firm that managed Rockwood’s construction and renovation projects.
That board member resigned, and when voters rejected the bond issue at the April 2013 election, they also ousted two other members of the Rockwood board. A few months later, Auditor Tom Schweich came to the district to report that almost all of the problems cited in the earlier report had been fixed, and the district had done an “excellent and transparent job” in responding to the earlier criticism.
Rockwood also has a new superintendent, Eric Knost, who has been active in promoting the benefits of Proposition 4 on the April 7 ballot. It would pay for projects in four areas:
- Updated technology and renovated high school science labs
- Increased safety and security
- Preventive maintenance at all schools
- Synthetic fields and replacement tracks at all high schools
In his first year at Rockwood, Knost has emphasized financial responsibility. But he has also clearly laid out the situation in the district as far as the needs that have accumulated in recent years after earlier bond issues were rejected.
Noting that a facilities and maintenance review found $170 million in projects that should be done, Knost noted in a recent communication with district residents:
“Regardless of these compounding needs, I have never, nor will I ever, present this scenario in a way that suggests the sky is falling in Rockwood. I’ve seen countless school districts go down that path, eventually alienating many who would otherwise support their efforts.
“The true spirit of public education is, and should be, that we will always do the very best we can with what we have, and in Rockwood, it is my pledge that we will remain committed to students and committed to excellence, regardless.”
To do his part for the district’s finances, Knost recently received an extension on his contract, through the end of the 2017-18 school year, but he turned down a proposed 3 percent increase in his $235,000 annual salary.
A group that had been highly vocal during the controversy over Rockwood’s critical state audit, known as Rockwood Stakeholders for Real Solutions, is no longer active, and no organized opposition to the bond issue on next month's ballot has surfaced.
In this north county school district, the controversies haven’t been financial. Instead, they have involved the superintendent’s position and how members of the board are elected. Both issues have had racial overtones in an area that has become a worldwide focal point for such concerns, with the name “Ferguson” helping to sharpen that focus.
Against that backdrop, Ferguson-Florissant is asking voters to approve a $31 million bond issue, Proposition I, which would pay for $16 million in safety, security and technology improvements and a second $15 million phase to help convert one of the district’s facilities into a STEAM center to teach Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math.
The district last passed a bond issue in 2010. Last August, voters approved a 50-cent tax increase, and officials say if the bond issue fails, money for capital projects would have to be taken from the operating budget, requiring cuts to instructional activities.
In the fall of 2013, Ferguson-Florissant made news when the board placed Superintendent Art McCoy on administrative leave. Like nearly three-quarters of the district’s student body, McCoy is African-American, but none of the members of the board who voted to remove him from his position was black.
McCoy later resigned from his job after charges were issued against him that have never been made public. In last year’s election, one of three African-American candidates was elected while two incumbents were also returned to their seats on the board.
In December, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a voting rights suit alleging that because Ferguson-Florissant elects school board members at large, rather than from districts, black residents do not get a proper say in how the district is run. The suit said the district violates federal voting rights laws, which the district disputes.
Two seats on the school board are up for election in April. One incumbent, Brian Ebert, is seeking re-election; incumbent Paul Schroeder is not. Ebert is white, as is one of the other candidates on the ballot, Donna Dameron. Three other candidates – Roger Hines, Michael Person and Courtney Graves – are black.
In February, the district hired Joseph Davis, an African-American educator from North Carolina, as its new superintendent He is set to start his job July 1.
Webster Groves and Maplewood-Richmond Heights
Among other school-related proposals on the April 7 ballot are two in Webster Groves: Proposition S, a 65-cent increase in the district’s operating tax levy, and Proposition W, a $28 million bond issue that would increase the district’s tax rate to retire bonds by 28 cents.
If both proposals pass, the school district would have the highest combined tax rate in St. Louis County.
Proceeds from the bond issue would be used to convert a sixth-grade center to an elementary school, ending the need to use trailers as classrooms at three schools. It would also build an addition for sixth graders at Hixson Middle School and improve facilities at Moss Field.
The tax increase would provide funds to improve technology in the district, provide all-day kindergarten and increase pre-school scholarships for families who need assistance.
District officials say if the tax increase fails, Webster Groves would have to cut staff and programs in the coming school year and would not be able to ease overcrowding.
And in Maplewood-Richmond Heights, voters will decide the fate of a $6.1 million bond issue, Proposition K, to pay for additional space for growing enrollment in the district's pre-school and early childhood programs. If the bonds win approval, the district's tax rate would increase by an estimated 15 cents.