The Rockwood School District is one of the biggest and best in Missouri. There's no question about it. However, our investigation also found that Rockwood seems to be far above the norm in the number of district-owned vehicles it allows employees to drive home.
This story was prompted by a complaint from Rockwood taxpayer Jan Weis, who has lived in the district for 45 years. Three of her children attended Rockwood schools. In fact, Weis is a huge fan of the district, but on a recent Sunday she saw a district-owned vehicle at a Walgreens and she got upset about it. So, she sent us an email and we looked into the use of those Rockwood vehicles.
We referred the Rockwood vehicle number identified by Mrs. Weis to Kim Cranston, a spokeswoman for the district. The district checked its fleet and insisted it had no vehicle with that ID number. Mrs. Weis later told us she may have gotten the wrong combination of numbers, but she insisted it was a Rockwood vehicle. Rockwood told me it is unaware of any confirmed incident of an employee using a district-owned vehicle for personal use in recent years.
Rockwood told us it allows 25 employees to take home vehicles that cost up to $30,000 each. Most of the trucks cost between $18,000-22,000. District spokeswoman Kim Cranston says the vehicles are used by maintenance-related workers who are expected to respond to school "emergencies" after regular hours.
According to Rockwood the district spent $60,000 during the last fiscal year on gasoline just getting those vehicles from work to home and back to work again. The maintenance and repairs cost another $30,000 a year. It's much more than other larger districts spend on similiar vehicles.
The biggest school districts take the opposite approach of Rockwood. Parkway has one take home vehicle. The City of St. Louis district has 5. Hazelwood stopped using them a decade ago because it was making budget cuts and couldn't justify it. Hazelwood spokeswoman Diana Gulotta says the district only saved about $15,000, but it was a popular decision in the community, and it hasn't had an impact on how school employees respond to emergencies.
Edwardsville has 9 take home vehicles, which is a lot for a district that size. But Superintendent Ed Hightower says the district covers around 185 square miles, which is even larger than Rockwood. He says the vehicles are needed to help lower response times. But unlike Rockwood, which initially refused to consider cutting back on take home vehicles until the 2013 school year, Dr. Hightower made the decision to cut back on their use while we were talking in the parking lot. So, beginning this summer, Edwardsville will cut back, and possibly eliminate the use of take home vehicles when school is not in session.
After the interview with Ms. Cranston, she sent me an email clarifying the after hours responses by the employees using those take home vehicles.
"As far as specifics from last year, the majority of the responses were for electrical problems, many of which were fire panel/fire alarm issues. If a fire alarm goes off in one of our buildings, someone must respond. This can happen for a variety of reasons, including power outages. There were also several responses due to HVAC problems. There were plumbing problems in some situations – broken sprinkler head, leaking water softener,"