For the 12th time in 21 years, voters in the Rockwood School District will cast ballots Tuesday on a bond issue — this time, a $43.2 million package of projects that district leaders said not long ago they could delay.
School officials now say the bond issue is the best way to keep up with technology and repairs without drawing from classroom funds.
The bond proceeds would go for computers, building additions, electrical, roofing and heating and cooling projects, safety upgrades and other projects. A four-sevenths majority (57.14 percent) is required for passage.
Some question whether the projects are truly needed. For others the vote is more broadly about whether the district, which enrolls about 22,000 students, should continue its heavy reliance on school bonds for construction and upkeep — especially when the district's days of booming enrollment have passed.
The four candidates running for the Rockwood School Board are split on the issue.
Scrutiny of the bond issue comes against a backdrop of recent questions over Rockwood's management of construction-related services and its 15-year relationship with Glenn Construction Co.
Last fall, after the Post-Dispatch reported on the issue, Rockwood announced it would break from its pattern of asking for a new bond measure every two years.
Citing the troubled economy, Superintendent Bruce Borchers told the School Board in October that the district could get by without asking voters for more money this spring. "We could survive another year and not put the bond issue on," he said.
But just a few weeks later, Borchers and the board reversed course.
District officials say that while seeking a bond measure isn't ideal, it's the best immediate way to prevent using classroom dollars on repairs, technology and construction.
The district itself has acknowledged that asking voters again and again to fund such projects isn't a sound long-term plan.
A better option, according to a report written last year by the district's facilities department, would be to rely more on the building, maintenance and utilities fund, within the operating budget, to pay for capital repairs and renovations.
"While we normally experience positive bond-issue acceptance, the failure of a bond issue would seriously hamper and delay the many needed large-scale maintenance projects," the report stated.
Shifting how projects have come to be funded is no easy task, Borchers said. "It's how we've done business."
Without bond money, he added, "those things will come, or start to come, out of our operations side, which definitely and immediately impacts our reserves, which ultimately impacts our students."
Two candidates for the School Board oppose the bond measure.
"We need a long-term, sustainable plan that does not include more taxes or more bonds applied to these decisions," said Jennifer Kelly, a former Army officer and manager with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs who is running for the School Board.
Board candidate Sherri Rogers, a business consultant, also says the district needs to be weaned off of bond issues.
But board candidate Victor Hieken, managing director of UHY Advisors, said he believes most items that would be funded by the bond issue "are essential to maintain a high-quality environment for the students."
William "Bill" Brown Jr., a government and politics teacher at St. Louis University High School and a former Rockwood teacher, said he wants to do what is best for the students and not use them "as hostages in a dispute over adult issues."
THE END OF GROWTH
For years, Rockwood's heavy reliance on bonds went hand in hand with booming enrollment. Nine measures passed since 1991 have generated $408 million, much of it to keep up with the growth.
But a demographic study the district commissioned last year predicts that without sustained migration of young families into the district over the next five years, Rockwood will see a "marked decline" in enrollment that will continue beyond 2016.
The bond issue calls for classroom construction estimated at $875,000 per school at the Early Childhood Center in Clarkson Valley and the Eureka, Stanton and Ellisville elementary schools, and $1.1 million at Geggie Elementary.
At Eureka Elementary, proposed construction wouldn't accommodate more children. Rather, the district hopes to "bump out" four classrooms because they're not as big as the school's other classrooms. When the school rebuilt areas damaged in a fire 34 years ago, updated fire codes required that a hallway be widened, taking space away from the classrooms, officials said.
The other schools would get more classrooms. Geggie is the closest to full capacity, and district officials say the nearby Mirasol development in Eureka has been adding students.
Critics say the district should consider boundary changes instead. Two schools within two miles of Geggie are 100 students below capacity, the demographic report says.
"If we get to that point where we think we have some real reason to look at boundaries, of course we would do that," Borchers said. "But at this time, we don't think that's an option that we would recommend to our School Board."
Rockwood Assistant Superintendent Dennis Griffith noted that even if enrollment declines, schools have different educational issues than they did 20 years ago and, therefore, need more space.
If the measure passes, the biggest chunk — $7.5 million — will be spent for technology, most of which would go to replace the district's oldest computers.
Several million more dollars would go toward replacing items such as heating and cooling equipment, flooring and roofing, addressing what the bond measure refers to as "end-of-life-cycles." David Blickenstaff, Rockwood's director of facilities, said typical life cycles are 30 years for electrical systems, 15 years for roofs, heating and cooling equipment and paving, 20 years for tile and seven years for carpet.
"I use the life cycle as a guide, but we certainly don't just replace carpet because it's 7½ years old," he said. "We replace it if it's 7½ years old and it's worn out."
The bond issue also would allot $3.99 million for a program or construction manager, architectural and engineering fees, permits, and related costs. Critics have questioned how the district handles such services.
For years, the district hired a "program manager" in the planning stages of bond issues, months before voters would go to the polls. This time, Rockwood is waiting to see whether the issue passes before deciding who will oversee construction-related projects. The district had sought proposals for the work in the fall, and a committee was poised to recommend Glenn Construction Co. for the job. But the board didn't make that hire after Borchers announced there would be no bond issue.
For the last 15 years, the district has used only Glenn in that role. The relationship has continued with little or no competition.
Muddying matters is that School Board member Steve Smith works for Glenn Construction as a project coordinator, acting as a liaison between the company and the district on bond issue projects.
Smith, who abstains from voting on Glenn-related matters, stepped down as School Board president in December, saying he did not want his leadership position to negatively affect any future bond issue.
Brown, one of the board candidates who supports the bond issue, said those issues should be kept separate from the merits of the measure.
"A lot of people are upset with Rockwood's Board of Education and the Rockwood administration for various reasons, and some people have told me, 'I'm voting against it because I'm going to send a message to the School Board.'" he said. "That's like me watching my neighbors' kids misbehave and then sending my own kids to their bedrooms to punish them. You're hurting the wrong people."