BY ELIZABETHE HOLLAND email@example.com 314-340-8259
St. Louis Post-Dispatch Sunday, June 19, 2011
Two newly hired top administrators in the Rockwood School District will begin their new roles July 1, each with a six-figure salary. Their paychecks, however, won't be the first they've received from the financially stressed district.
In October and again in February, Rockwood hired the two - Randy Smasal and Nancy DuBois - as consultants to the district's first-year superintendent, Bruce Borchers.
All three had previously worked together in the same Minnesota school district. Borchers thought his two former associates would be perfect to help craft a reorganization of and institute changes in the Rockwood District, one of the largest and best regarded school systems in the state.
Over the past school year Smasal and DuBois were each paid $30,600 for 17 days of consulting work, according to their contracts.
For each, that amounts to $1,800 a day, or about $8,000 shy of the annual salary of a first-year Rockwood teacher.
In offering their advice to Rockwood, Smasal and DuBois did the bulk of their consulting from Minnesota, rarely visiting the district that serves more than 22,000 students from cities such as Ballwin, Chesterfield, Eureka, Fenton and Wildwood.
In fact, both were on contract with Rockwood while keeping their full-time jobs at Anoka-Hennepin School District in suburban Minneapolis, the district where they had worked with Borchers.
The two offered the new superintendent advice on "the development of processes and strategies to align curriculum, instruction and assessment to meet the strategic goals," according to their contracts.
Also on the table was restructuring the district's administration and staff, redefining some of the top positions.
Now, two of those posts will be filled by Smasal and DuBois.
They say the idea of taking permanent jobs at Rockwood wasn't in the picture when they started as consultants.
"That was never on the radar for either one of us," said Smasal, a 19-year veteran of the Minnesota school district. "The more that we talked to individuals down there, the more interesting that opportunity became later on."
Effective July 1, they will be among the district's highest-ranking and highest-paid administrators. Smasal, who made $97,200 as Anoka-Hennepin's director of secondary curriculum and instruction, will be paid $138,000 as Rockwood's associate superintendent of learning. DuBois, who made $79,958 as a secondary teaching and learning specialist for gifted and talented students in Minnesota, will make $125,000 as Rockwood's executive director of learning and support services.
Rockwood's relationship with the two came about thanks to a $250,000 fund the School Board quietly allocated to Borchers in September to pay for consultants and other needs while transitioning into his new role as a first-time superintendent.The money was approved at a meeting without discussion.
NOT ON THE AGENDA
The board voted Sept. 2 to take the $250,000 from the district's operating fund "for superintendent contingency items," according to district records. But the $250,000 wasn't noted on the board's main meeting agenda. Rather, the topic was listed as a "consent agenda item" in another board document and voted on as a 2011 "budget adjustment."
Consent agenda items typically involve noncontroversial board business that requires no discussion before passage. If a board member wants to discuss an item, it can be pulled from the consent agenda and discussed at a board meeting.
The $250,000 allotment was not pulled from the consent agenda and was approved without discussion, district spokeswoman Kim Cranston said.
Rockwood does not have a dollar limit on items that can be approved by consent agenda, she said.
Borchers, in a phone interview, said he never asked for the money but that he took the board up on the offer, in large part because the departures of three administrators left him short-handed as he was beginning his new job (two were hired back part-time using other district funds).
Board president Steve Smith said the $250,000 "seemed like a good idea."
"I think, to all of us, that as he gets accustomed to Rockwood, gets accustomed to his position and begins to implement his vision for the district short-handed, (he) might want some help," he said. "We thought it prudent to set aside money for that purpose."
Borchers said he decided to hire consultants not only because of departing administrators but because he wanted to get to work on a "continuous-improvement system" focused on student achievement.
At the time, he didn't know how he would reorganize the district, so he was hesitant to hire for positions that might later change. He said he turned to consultants "to help me frame that new structure and reorganization."
In December 2010, about three months after setting aside the $250,000 for Borchers' use, the district announced it would have to cut $5.3 million to balance its 2011-12 budget, partly through staff reductions and salary freezes for administrators and support staff.
Six middle school teachers, 10 counselors, four drivers education teachers and three parking attendants at high schools lost their jobs. Rockwood also decided it would increase kindergarten tuition, high school parking fees and admission to sporting events to raise revenue.
The district's financial woes remain far from over. This coming fiscal year, Rockwood expects a deficit of $6 million to $16 million, according to Cranston.
"These are difficult economic times, and our schools are feeling the effects," Borchers said of the 2010-11 cuts in an explanation on the district's website.
Trimming millions "from an already lean budget is a challenge that is requiring some tough decisions," added the superintendent, who draws a salary of $230,000 and an $8,000 yearly car allowance.
Two months after the School Board decided to make the cuts, Smasal and DuBois signed a second round of consulting contracts with Rockwood, again with fees of $1,800 a day. (The two later were given an additional $2,201 for travel expenses accrued while interviewing for the positions they eventually accepted.)
Earlier this month and in May, Borchers turned again to the $250,000 allotment - not all of which has been spent - to pay for $97,500 in work from Solution Tree, an Indiana-based consulting firm that offers workshops and other services aimed at improving staff and student performance. Rockwood consistently ranks among the best districts in the state for measures such as standardized exams and graduation rates.
Borchers lauds Solution Tree and says the company allowed him to make changes more quickly.
Otherwise, he said, "that's a one-year delay on student achievement and it's a one-year delay on needed staff development for grade administrators and teacher leaders," he said. "This is an excellent district, but my charge from the board was, ‘How can we move to the next level?"
As for Smasal and DuBois, their total of four contracts - two signed Oct. 1 and two Feb. 4 - allow up to 20 days of consultation each from Sept. 1, 2010, through June 30, 2011.
Because the two consulted while working full time in Minnesota, they performed their work for Rockwood mostly at night or on weekends, Borchers said. At times, he met with them over Skype on the Internet.
All three said they didn't need to be in the district to achieve what Borchers wanted of them.
"I've worked with them before ... and their experiences around creating systemic structures, around continuous improvement, were incredibly beneficial," said Borchers. He said he ran ideas past them to help him determine if he was on the right track.
"That's why they gave me these dollars, so I could have access to folks like this to help me think through some of these things and stumbling blocks," he said. "That's the role that they played, because we didn't have the staff here that I could work with to do this reorganization."
Smasal and DuBois said in a phone interview that their consulting work involved preparing research, presentations and communications for Borchers, as well as sharing experiences from having worked with Solution Tree in Minnesota.
"What he was looking for was some feedback from some people who have been through this kind of work of trying to put continuous-improvement structures in place and to help move those strategic directions all the way down to the classroom level and back up," Smasal said. "We've both had those experiences."
Some district employees have chafed at the consulting arrangement and the reorganization, which reduced the number of administrators to nine from 17, and raised the number of "teacher leaders" to 17 from eight.
"There is a concern among staff members that we're not getting the full picture," said one district employee who asked not to be identified.
"People are not getting raises and yet the district has the money to hire consultants - and they do it in a way that is not transparent."
Borchers said he had heard few concerns about the money he was given for consultants.
"Let's just say we spent $180,000," he said, defending its use. "You could equate that to three teachers."
But, he said, using that money instead to hire Smasal, Dubois and Solution Tree could "help create this conceptual framework for continuous improvement that affects 22,000 students, 1,600 teachers and other support staff."
"That's the hat I have to wear," he said of his decision. "But what I'm charged with is making that strategic plan come to life and to achieve it. And I believe what we're doing with those dollars was spent ... professionally on things that will lead us to increased student achievement."