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CMSD Votes to Look for New Legal Counsel

 Nearly 50 RIFed Teachers
to be Rehired

District Tax Collections on Target

At their May 14 meeting, the Columbus Municipal School Board rehired 49 teachers that had been let go as part of a reduction in force, voted not to renew longtime board attorney David Dunn’s contract for legal services, heard a financial report and accepted several grants from Ecolab.

Board votes against rehiring Dunn as board attorney
When Dunn’s rehiring was discussed last month, several board members said they wanted to compare the costs of Dunn’s legal services with other options. Trustee Aubra Turner said she wanted to compare Dunn’s fees with the fees of other firms.

Packet reporter Sarah Fowler submitted an Open Records Request for Dunn’s fees, 2009 to present. According to documents provided by the CMSD, Dunn was paid $81,929 in 2009; $33,855 in 2010; $40,747 in 2011; and $24,441 as of May 2012. [For a detailed, month-by-month breakdown of Mr. Dunn’s charges to the district, see the table provided. – Brian Jones]
Dunn also received payment from the district through his role in several issuances of bonds. In March 2009, Dunn’s regular fees amounted to $2,660, but with an additional $41,948 of income from the 2007-08 bond issuance. In June 2009, his regular fees amounted to $4,320 with an additional $8,838 from bond issuance. Finally, in June 2010 Dunn’s regular payment for service was $1,969 and he received an additional $10,115 for the Qualified School Construction Bond. [The Qualified School Construction Bond was part of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, and, despite the title, did not have anything to do with the bonds that financed construction of Columbus Middle School. – Brian Jones]

Monday night an attempt to rehire Dunn failed 3-2, with the board deciding to explore other options.
President Tommy Prude brought the matter up.
“This is critical in that the current board attorney’s term expires next month,” Prude said. “There’s not enough time to advertise and get proposals for a replacement attorney. It’s crucial in that we’re going to have a new superintendent real soon to have some continuity with our legal litigation and advice. We need to do something without it, as time is running out.”
Trustee Glenn Lautzenhiser made a motion to rehire Dunn.
“I’d like to say what I said last month,” he said. “There is no school board attorney in the state of Mississippi who is more knowledgeable or experienced than Mr. Dunn. He has done a terrific job for us, and kept this board and this district out of trouble. We don’t have to advertise. We are not required by law to ask for proposals for professional services.”
Prude called three times for a second. When it became evident that there would not be a second, he passed the gavel to Vice President Currie Fisher and seconded the motion himself.
The motion failed 3-2, with Fisher, Spears and Aubra Turner voting no.
“I concur with [Lautzenhiser’s] assessment of [Dunn],” Trustee Jason Spears said. “In our current situation and trying to nail down all the nickels and dimes, I think that Ms. Turner’s proposal to compare prices is fair.”
“You also understand as of the end of next month we will not have representation until we find another attorney,” Prude said.
“We have special meetings frequently enough that we can evaluate any proposals brought before the board,” Spears said.
Dunn has served the district for more than two decades.

49 RIFed teachers rehired
Earlier this year the board voted to non-renew nearly 70 teachers. At Monday’s meeting, Interim Superintendent Martha Liddell announced that nearly 50 of them will be rehired.
“The budget team has worked diligently to re-evaluate the budget for a third time to make sure we have the personnel numbers as close as possible to what we need to run our district in the next term,” Liddell said. “We are trying to both reduce our class size as much as is possible and also take into consideration the dollars that we’re going to have available. We have realized that we can rehire 49 teachers at this point. That’s a victory for this management team and this board.”
[At the same meeting, the district recognized 27 staff members who retired. – Brian Jones]

Financial report
Business Manager Ken Hughes gave the board an update on ad valorem tax collections.
“We’ve collected $12.3 million out of our original request of $13.3 million,” Hughes said. “That is 95 percent with three months remaining: April, May and June. Last year there was $620,455 collected in those three months. The amount we need for the same period this year is $691,899. The big difference in last year and this year is the millage rate was 62 mills, now it’s 65 and a fraction. With the millage rate set correctly – we feel like it is set correctly – we are going to be very, very close. We could collect a little less or possibly a little more. The bottom line is that we are ahead of where we were at at this time last year.”
“[Tax Assessor Greg Andrews] has promised me that as a retirement gift we are going to meet or exceed what we budgeted,” said Prude. “He promised that for my going away.”
“As I said, it will be very close,” Hughes said.
“He said it will exceed,” Prude said.
“It’s a good possibility,” Hughes said.
“What we really need to note is that finally the millage has been adjusted to reflect our needs,” Prude said. “We’ve been short-changed on that for a number of years, and now it’s been set correctly. That’s the important thing we need to take away tonight.”
[Prude is referring to the fact that then-Superintendent Del Phillips was apparently in the habit of asking City of Columbus Chief Operations Officer David Armstrong, who sets the city’s tax levy, for less money than the district actually needed. During last year’s budget crisis, Armstrong wrote a letter to local media outlets where he stated: “Since fiscal year 2008-2009 (“the past three years”) the school millage was set by the City at 62.97 mills because that is the exact amount that former School Superintendent Del Phillips asked for from the City. In the first meeting I had with Glenn Lautzenhiser, Tommy Prude, Interim Superintendent Dr. Martha Liddell, school board CFO Kenny Hughes, the Mayor, three of our Council Members and our CFO, Mike Bernsen,  I told Glenn Lautzenhiser what Dr. Phillips had requested, and Glenn responded: ‘Well, Dr. Phillips had no authority to ask for less millage.  He never told us he had done so.’ But there’s more to this story.  Last budget season (sometime in August of 2010) I advised Del Phillips that his telling us (the City) we only needed to set 62.97 mills to fund their requested taxes was far before the millage actually required.  I showed Del my notes.  He read them, agreed, then said; ‘It doesn’t matter.  I can make it work; I can make it work.’ According to Mr. Lautzenhiser, Del never conveyed this to his Board.  When City representatives met with Del Phillips, he claimed he advised his Board and that they were fully aware that the millage he requested from the City was inadequate.” The problem goes back further than Dr. Phillips, though. The CMSD has declared a shortfall for something like nine out of the past 10 years. – Brian Jones]
Spears asked if the district has considered incrementally increasing its millage, rather than raising it by large amounts at one time.
“As far as the tax rate, and where it’s currently levied,” he asked, “the 65.87 mills…is that enough, along with the cuts, or will we have to raise the millage again a couple of years down the road? Should we go on and raise incrementally now, or leave it as it is?”
“For fiscal year 2012-13, this team has been charged with cutting expenditures,” Hughes said. “Mr. Andrews has told us that the value of a mill will decrease next year, going from around $203,000 down to $195,000. In the year that we’re in now, we are getting into our district fund balance. We found cuts in the fall of around $400,000, and that decreased the amount we’re getting into our fund balance to about $1.7 million. Our starting point for next year is to reduce $1.7 million, but then you’ve got factors coming into play…like the assessed value decreasing will leave us about another half a million to come up with. We’ve also got other costs coming on, like retirement contributions increasing. Now we’re looking at cutting around $2.8 million just to stay where we’re at.”
“The way it stands now, it would make sense in the short term, to stabilize the cutting side, because we can only cut so deep, to stimulate revenue as best as possible,” Spears said. “Then we can get on sustainable cutting as things improve in the macroeconomy.”
“That option was put out there last year,” Hughes said. “It was put out there that we could go as high as nine mills, but it ended up a 2.9 mill increase. But additional revenue always helps.”
“We have a lot of expenses in our budget that we truly need to downsize,” Liddell said. “A lot of that had to do with bringing in more personnel than we had funds to cover. We need to look at our budget and see where we can get those efficiencies before we put any additional burden on our taxpayers. The first thing we’re doing is getting our expenses in line. We have a lot of things like administration and athletics that can be cut down.”

Ecolab grants
Ecolab-Microtek donated $15,252 to the CMSD to buy curriculum materials.
The grants were part of Ecolab’s Visions for Learning program. Through the Ecolab Foundation, Ecolab donates 1.2 percent of its pre-tax earnings to communities where its employees live and work.
The donations were:
• $1,800 to Daphne Bordelon, pre-kindergarten teacher at Sale Elementary.
• $1,469 to Deborah Pounders, science teacher at Columbus Middle School.
• $1,200 to Melanie Ford, medical technology teacher at McKellar Technology Center.
• $2,800 to Michele Shepherd and Melissa McKinney, fifth grade teachers at Sale Elementary School.
• $2,983 to Rosalyn Hodge and Breann Taylor, second grade teachers Stokes-Beard Elementary School.
• $2,000 to Terrie Gooch, physical education teacher at Franklin Academy.
• $3,000 to Gwendolyn Latham and Valerie Gwinnup at Stokes-Beard Elementary School.

In 2009, Dunn & Hemphill reported that they charged the Columbus City School District $81,929.56.
Columbus City Schools noted “In March of 2009, we paid the regular bill of $2,660.41 and the 2007-2008 School Bond Issuance in the amount of $41,948.51. In June of 2009, we paid the regular bill of $4,320.00 and the 2009-B School Bond Issuance in the amount of $8,838.96.”
In 2010, Dunn & Hemphill reported that they charged the Columbus City School District $33,855.29. According to officials within the Columbus Municipal School District, “In March of 2010, we paid the regular bill of $1,969.56 and the 2009 Qualified School Construction Bond Issuance in the amount of $10,115.68
In 2011, Dunn & Hemphill reported that they charged the Columbus City School District $40,747.43.
Year-to-date, Dunn & Hemphill reported earnings with the CMSD of $24,441.67.

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