Responding to critics who question his hiring of two, high-level administrators, Rockwood School District Superintendent Bruce Borchers said Wednesday they were the best suited for the new positions.
Filling two, key Rockwood School District administrator positions, held vacant since the 2009-2010 school year, prompted public scrutiny and comment. Many questions surfaced after Borchers recently filled the positions with two colleagues he previously worked with in a Minnesota schol district prior to taking the Rockwood helm.
Critics, including St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan in a Wednesday column, focused on the fact that the same two professionals consulted for Rockwood this year, specifically assisting Borchers in planning the district's reorganization, which included the two jobs in question.
On Wednesday, in an exclusive interview with Eureka-Wildwood Patch, Borchers said the two professionals were the best suited for the reorganized positions they created. Rockwood school board president Steve Smith said the school board was aware of Borcher's plans and actions throughout the process. Additionally, Rockwood communications and human resource executives said the typical Rockwood hiring process was followed.
So what steps led up to the issue now considered controversial by many?
Conflict of interest?
The context starts with former Rockwood Superintendent Craig Larson, who retired but suggested that the two positions not be filled for sake of enabling his replacement to assess what and who would best meet the district's needs. Actually, he and the board of directors agreed not to replace three positions: associate superintendent, executive director of elementary education, and the executive director of secondary education.
Larson used consultants frequently, said Rockwood's chief communications officer Kim Cranston. "In fact, when Dr. Larson joined Rockwood, we were going through redistricting discussions, as well as the five year strategic planning process, and consultants were hired to assist with both efforts."
She said he and former superintendents hired colleagues with whom they had worked prior to Rockwood, so this recent incidence was not the first time 'familiar colleagues' had been added to the district's teams.
Nancy DuBois and Randy Smasal, previous co-workers with Borchers, accepted consulting contracts with Rockwood this school year while still employed full time in Minnesota, McClellan's article said. The two individuals then were given full-time positions with Rockwood as an "executive director of learning and support services" and as an "associate superintendent of learning," respectively.
Smith said the board of directors held a work session before Borchers was hired to build norms as an overall group, including outlining a "learning plan" for Borchers about who and what Rockwood is.
Borchers said board members told him his mission was to look for opportunities for Rockwood to get even better. He said his original goal and "entry plan" was all about listening to the people within the district and exploring all the great things occurring in it.
"I learned then, and continue to learn about the district every single day. What hasn’t come out while people are talking about Rockwood this week is that we have an excellent staff and board who have dealt in a very forthright way about these positions," said Borchers. "They just wanted me to have every opportunity to get aligned and focused on continuous improvement."
Cranston said it is critical to remember the positions being scrutinized already existed. "It's different than what is being portrayed, because we deliberately didn't fill them until now," she said.
She and Borchers said the leadership and supervisory duties associated with the unfilled positions were divvied up while he learned about Rockwood. "Our immediate staff was inundated with handling additional responsibilities on top of their full-time jobs. They really didn't have the time to be able to help me with the reorganization," he said.
At the same time, the executive, or superintendent cabinet, team also handled the Guiding Change budget process, which caused additional pressures and time commitments regarding budget cuts.
Karen Siebert and Jim Ramsey were established as interim executive directors but Borchers said they had limited hours and certain projects to direct.
"Everyone was stretched to the max, including myself," said Borchers. So he said he engaged his former colleagues, who he believed had the skill sets and experience that would help him complete a presentation the directors expected in January.
Borchers said he definitely felt the pressure of how to place everything into a comprehensive presentation while at the same time incorporating everything he learned "on his journey."
Cranston said budget challenges started right away in September, further adding stress to an already stretched staff.
"I would have much rather focused on relationships, rather than immediately on things and processes," said Borchers. Starting with snow days, he said a series of tough decisions hasn’t allowed that, however.
"Relationships should be the primary focus, but given our time constraints, we needed some other people who could help to compare strategic ideas while we took care of the day-to-day," he said.
Cranston said community meetings and a series tour that included all Rockwood buildings during Borcher's first two months took the bulk of his time. "He missed many of his own childrens' events, while focusing on the district," she said. "He’s a band dad, for example, but constantly juggles time for the community and people, and it takes more than five or six months to cultivate deep relationships."
Consent agenda items
It was clear to board members Borchers couldn't do everything expected without some assistance, said Cranston.
She said they initiated the assistance and handling the amount of funding in an appropriate and allowed manner, as a consent agenda item.
Smith said perhaps a board member should have asked that this item be removed from the consent agenda. "No one did, and I have no access to their thinking on that. I did not, because the item made sense to me," he said.
"In response to the opportunity, I did tell them it would be nice to have an account with a limited amount of money that I could go to, if needed," Borchers said.
Cranston said not only was it at the board’s suggestion that Borchers secure consultants, they "approved the contracts, and approved everything."
She said Rockwood's typical interview protocols were followed, including the involvement of parents and staff. Patch confirmed that Rockwood had 40 applicants for the associate superintendent job, and 53 applicants for the learning and support services role.
Smith said it does not seem strange to him that Borchers would pick people whose work he knew and who he trusted as consultants, who later became candidates.
Money reportedly saved
Borchers said only 24 percent, or $60,000, of the allocated $250,000 had been used through May for consulting services. He then aligned with the consulting services of another acquaintance from Solution Tree, and devised a staff development plan based on what he believed the district needed.
"It's important to remember in the current restructure, that $70,000 was saved from passing over filling the jobs since the 2009-2010 structure," said Borchers.
He said another $180,000 will be saved over a year's time due to the new way he organized the team.
"We flipped the administrator/teacher ratio from this past school year of 17 administrators and eight teacher leaders to nine administrators and 17 teacher leaders now," said Borchers.
Cranston said a defined, strategic pay plan also was followed, and that the two newly hired professionals are making less than those who previously held the comparable roles two years ago.
At the end of the day, Borchers said all the effort is about how decisions impact the 22,000 Rockwood students. "It's difficult when you give your life for that, and it’s portrayed differently."
Cranston said approximately $90,000 of the entire $250,000 allocated for consultant services has not been spent or earmarked and will go back into the district's general operating funds.
Smith said the board did not have a specified way of determining the amount of money to set aside for consultants. "I think the amount came from wanting to have something limited but enough to do something with," he said.
Whatever direction Borchers guides the district toward, his own children also will be affected, in that his son just attended Ellisville Elementary and his daughter is a Lafayette High student.
One difference between the previous and current comparison cited by some Rockwood parents is that the district was not as strapped for cash two years ago. Some Patch readers indicate they want every available penny for the district to go toward supporting students in direct, rather than indirect, ways.