Rockwood School Board Candidates Talk Budget Issues at Forum
All but one of the six candidates said they would favor a tax increase, if necessary, to close what could be a $16 million budget gap.
A predicted multimillion dollar shortfall was on everyone’s mind at a Rockwood Board of Education candidate forum Tuesday night.
Though only a handful of the 11 questions asked of the candidates dealt specifically with money, candidates frequently referenced funding in discussions on the district’s gifted program, the voluntary transfer program that allows students from St. Louis City to attend Rockwood schools and more.
That’s what voters in attendance were expecting. About 70 people attended the forum at Crestview Middle School, which was sponsored by the League of Women Voters.
Laura Bradford, an attendance secretary at Eureka High School, said maintaining a quality education for students that’s fiscally responsible is the most important issue facing any of the six board candidates.
The district predicts an $8 to $16 million deficit in the 2012-13 fiscal year, depending on state funding cuts and the health of the economy.
“We’re at such a pivotal point in our history,” Eureka High School teacher Theresa Long said. She added that she attended the forum to learn more about the candidates so she could have informed conversations with her neighbors and friends.
“I was listening for someone with a good mind and a good heart to make those tough decisions (about the budget),” Long said. She added that she was pleased that many of the candidates’ answers when it came the budget weren’t hard and fast, but instead left room for flexibility based on the uncertain circumstances the district might face.
Some voters said not all their questions were answered at the forum. Several said more details were needed about potential cuts.
“Something’s gotta go, and I didn’t hear anyone say they would let go of anything,” Bradford said.
Six candidates are vying for three, three-year positions on the board. The candidates are:
- Keith Kinder, a former Rockwood high school principal and current assistant professor of education at Maryville University
- Stephen Smith, an incumbent and former administrator at Saint Louis University School of Law
- Roger Stock, a former principal of Chesterfield Elementary School and recently retired district administrator
- Kevin Mabie, an English teacher in the Parkway School District
- Matt Doell, an engineer
- Mike Geller, a political consultant
Here’s what they had to say about budget issues:
Potential Tax Increase
When asked if they would support a tax increase in order to close the budget shortfall, most said yes. The district has discussed a potential tax increase of anywhere from 32 cents to 62 cents. The Board of Education will have to decide by Aug. 29 whether to put any tax referendum on the November ballot.
“I’ve yet to run into a parent who says cut the programs back because I want as little as possible for my child. Every parent I’ve ever talked to always wants the best for his or her child,” Stock said.
Mabie, Doell, Kinder and Smith also said they would support a tax increase if one was necessary. Geller said he would not. A tax increase, he said, would take money out of the economy.
Guiding Change process
All of the candidates said they approved of the district’s Guiding Change process, which aims to involve the community in budget planning for future years. Most said the process has been transparent and expressed support for Superintendent Bruce Borchers, who is spearheading the program.
“I think it does a good job,” Doell said. “It outlines what the choices are going to be, what the consequences of those choices are and then moves forward.”
All agreed that it was important for the community to be involved in budget decisions. Smith said the Guiding Change process is a great start and, like everything in the district, will need to be continuously improved as it progresses.
Gellar expressed support for the process, but added that he’s heard from some community members that that don’t feel they have had enough input in the budgeting process.
Accepting Federal Funds
The candidates were also asked their thoughts on accepting federal funds, such as money from the Race to the Top program, if it comes with strings attached. The federal grant program gives money to schools, providing schools implement certain reforms, which can include raising academic standards or using data to better track student achievement.
Most of the candidates said any funding comes with strings attached.
“Anytime you get money, whether it’s from the federal government, from the state or from local taxpayers, there’s always strings attached,” Kinder said.
Kinder, Smith, Stock and Mabie all said the “strings” should be reviewed, and if it’s determined the money would help the district and benefit students, it should be accepted.
Geller said he wouldn’t accept the funding. He said that he was concerned that accepting strings would reduce local control of schools.
If it weren’t the budget, it’d be…
When the candidates were asked to look beyond the budget crisis and identify the next biggest issue facing Rockwood schools, most emphasized continuously improving the district.
“We can all become complacent pretty easily, and I think we have to concentrate our efforts in remaining at the top,” Smith said.
Several of the candidates said the way to do that is to focus on curriculum. Mabie, Geller and Kinder all said that the curriculum needs to be effectively taught and go beyond what’s deemed necessary by the state to ensure students can compete nationally and globally.
Stock said emphasizing professional development is the way to continuously improve the district. “The only way our children can grow is if our staff grows,” he said.
Doell said it was important that the schools operate as a team. He added that he was concerned that pending state legislation that impacts how much money the district receives could threaten the team atmosphere.
Kinder also said that maintaining the school buildings was a top priority.
Editor's note: Ballwin-Ellisville Patch will follow up with several stories about the candidates' responses to other forum questions and will also run candidates' written responses to five questions before the April 5 election.