Rockwood School DIstrict – How Rockwood citizens lost their vote!
December 19, 2011 1 Comment
Rockwood School Board President Steve Smith is used to withholding his vote.
In fact, at some School Board meetings, he abstains more often than he votes.
During a meeting in May, Smith abstained from voting on 11 of 18 agenda items. At a June meeting, he abstained from 13 of 18. And last month, he left the room during votes on four items, so as not to participate in the discussions.
Smith says he does so to avoid conflicts of interest on a range of issues facing the school district.
Since 2004, Smith has been a project manager for Glenn Construction Co., which has overseen millions of dollars in construction projects for the district over the last two decades. Smith acts as a liaison between Glenn and Rockwood regarding bond issue-related matters.
“My intention is always to abstain on Glenn Construction Co. bills – anything that goes to Glenn Construction Co. – and I’ve been trying to abstain on bills in general, just to be safe,” Smith said in a recent phone interview. “It’s easier for me to abstain on the whole package than to try to figure out if there’s something hidden in there that I ought not vote for.”
Smith said he does, however, feel it’s acceptable to vote on bond issue-related construction items. “If it does not benefit me personally or my employer, Glenn Construction, then I think it is OK, appropriate, to vote on that,” he said.
But the precautions he takes aren’t enough for some district residents. The citizens group Rockwood Stakeholders for Real Solutions sent a letter to the state auditor late last week, requesting that the office look into Smith’s roles on the board.
Those responsibilities include his seat on the Rockwood School District Educational Facilities Authority, an entity the district formed several years ago when it issued revenue bonds related to the construction of the district’s early childhood building.
According to Smith and the district, Rockwood was required by law to form the authority and maintain it until the bonds are paid off. Smith said that the group meets once a year and that it creates no conflict of interest for him.
Smith first served on the School Board from 1989 to 1995, during which time the board first hired Glenn Construction. He served a second and third stint in 2003 and 2010, when he was appointed to fill vacant board seats. And he was elected to the board this past April.
But Smith’s employment isn’t his only conflict of interest.
Smith said he also abstains from voting on any issues regarding retiree benefits and health insurance because his wife is a former Rockwood teacher, and the two buy health insurance through the district.
All those missed votes have led some to question whether his intertwined roles leave him incapacitated as a board member.
“What good is it if you can’t vote on, or express a level-headed opinion on, things that pertain to dollars and cents related to the district?” asked Rob Thoele, a former member of a district finance committee. “I’m not sure why he’s on the board.”
Rockwood board members knew of Smith’s conflicts of interest in May 2010, when they appointed Smith to fill a vacant board position. They later sought advice from the Missouri School Boards’ Association about when Smith should abstain.
Five residents applied for the seat, including Smith.
All but Smith indicated in their applications that they had children in district schools, and some cited extensive volunteer work in the schools. One applicant said she had sat on several district committees, including a technology committee and the curriculum advisory council. Another wrote that he was the chief executive officer for a company focused on charitable foundation development.
Asked in their applications whether they had possible conflicts of interest, each of the candidates said no – except Smith.
Board Vice President Janet Strate said she and others on the board were surprised when Smith – someone with board experience – applied to fill the open seat. “Experience is important,” she said.
Strate, who has been on the board as long as Smith has been with Glenn, said she didn’t know specifically what Smith does for Glenn.
“It’s really not an issue,” she said. “He’s very knowledgeable, he’s very calm, he’s very thoughtful.”
Smith said that when he interviewed for the board post in 2010, the board asked him whether he would have any trouble differentiating his roles.
“And my answer was, and it still would be, we all play lots of roles,” he said. “I’m a father, a husband, I was a law school associate dean. … We all play roles, and when you need to keep them separate, you just do that.”
When the board announced on its website that it had chosen Smith, a news release said he was a Eureka resident who previously had served on the board.
It made no mention of his employment.