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Still No Word on Lee Status

Lee Middle School

Lee Middle School

Board Agenda, Information Now On-line
CMSD Weighs Outsourcing

At their March 18 meeting, the Columbus Municipal School Board heard another appeal directed at the Lee Middle School campus, a presentation about new accountability and transparency measures and discussed putting several services out for bids from contractors.  New board member Angela Verdell was also sworn in.

The meeting opened with the swearing-in of Verdell.  Verdell was appointed to replace Tommy Prude.  Mayor Robert Smith administered the oath of office, and then the meeting proceeded as usual.

RJ Matthews, pastor of Kingdom Vision International Church, renewed his plea that the board decide on the status of Lee Middle School.  Matthews is one of two pastors actively trying to purchase the property.  [See my remarks below. – Brian Jones] “As we know, time continues to go by,” Matthews said.  “I know you’re entertaining various options and trying to make the best decision.  You have very viable options before you who are ready to go forward ministering and tending to the community.  Please strongly consider going ahead and making a decision.  We are interested, and I know [Shane Cruz of Point of Grace Church] is interested.  There are viable options in front of you.”
“On behalf of the board, we have not made a decision,” said President Currie Fisher.  “I can assure you that sometime this week you will get a communication from someone at the school letting you know whether we are going to proceed in a different avenue.”
[The status of Lee Middle School has become an unintentionally hilarious piece of performance art on the part of the school board.  The campus was put up for sale last year, and bids were opened in June 2012.  Point of Grace Church was the sole bidder, offering $175,000.  Even though the bid was opened in public session, and such bids are inarguably a matter of public record, then-President Tommy Prude refused to disclose any details.  The board rejected the bid in an executive session that night.  Bid details were later made public after an Open Records Act request by the Commercial Dispatch.
    [Point of Grace Pastor Shane Cruz returned in November to ask about the status of the property, and Mr. Prude refused to admit that it was for sale, even though ‘for sale’ signs are up.  Mr. Cruz continued to attend board meetings, but the issue appeared to be dead in the water until Mr. Matthews appeared in February.  He stated that his church had been pursuing Lee since it was first closed.  This was news to Mr. Cruz, who was clearly surprised to hear this.
    [The whole process stinks.  The secretive actions surrounding Mr. Cruz’s original bid, the bizarre denials that the property is on the market in spite of the for sale signs and the sudden appearance of Mr. Matthews don’t bode well.  And this from a board that constantly touts itself as “accountable” and “transparent.”  I know I say this a lot, but here I go again: Actions speak louder than words, and actions like these are why nobody trusts you. – Brian Jones]

Superintendent Martha Liddell then gave a presentation on the district’s newest transparency measures.  As previewed at last month’s special meeting, the board agenda and information packets will henceforth be available on-line.
“Last month we talked a lot about the new Board Book program, and we now have that up,” Liddell said.  “As we go through the agenda items, we will project them on the screen up there.  Even better, if you have your iPad or smartphone with you you can go to our web site and click on Board Book and see it there in front of you.  It is very important to be transparent, we have nothing in the world to hide.  Our job is to education kids and we’re trying to do that as well as we can.
“We also have a binder at the back of the room with all our board agendas and the data that supports that,” she said.  “If you want to look at that in a hard copy, please feel free to go back to that table.
“We also have our Transparency with Integrity plan,” she said.  “This is the first time we’ve done this in the district, and we’re just so excited to do it.  We have put together a new parent information system and test data portal right there on our home page.  Visit that any time.  We’re also putting all of the agendas and backup on line.  That is all on-line starting this month.”
The district’s web site is columbuscityschools.org.
[This is a great first step.  CMSD meetings are often incomprehensible blurs due to the fact that the trustees are discussing information that only they can see.  It will be nice to be able to follow along, but the district still has a long way to go. – Brian Jones]

Assistant Superintendent Craig Shannon asked the board to approve several requests for proposals for transportation, food service and building and grounds.
According to figures Shannon provided, the district spent $1.75 million in the 2008-09 school year, which was the last year transportation was in-house.  In 2009-010 all transportation functions were outsourced to Waters Truck and Tractor; that year’s total was $2.13 million.  Busing costs hit their high point in 2010-11, with a cost of $2.46 million.  Year to date the CMSD has spent $1.67 million on transportation this budget year.  Shannon said he expects the total to be around $2.4 million.
“We have about eight weeks of school left, and that figure seems right on target,” he said.
“And the escalated cost is attributable to what?” Fisher asked.
“Extra mileage,” Shannon said.  “And also gas prices.  When we first got the contract we were at Lee, and when we moved out to the new middle school that added to the mileage.  We also had several grants for after-school activities, and running kids home afterwards factored in also.”
Bidders must have a place to house and service buses, Shannon said.
“One of the ways in which we are saving is that we no longer have a bus shop,” he said.  “All our buses are housed at Waters, so we’re saving on utilities, the bus shop and the personnel.  All drivers will be employees of the vendor.  We currently do not have any bus drivers that are our employees.”
The district will continue to purchase fuel via Fuelman cards, Shannon said.
“We are able to realize some savings by buying fuel ourselves,” he said.
Most child nutrition services have been contracted out to Aramark since 2008-09, Shannon said.
“There are still some indirect costs there,” he said.  “Right now we have a $700,000 fund balance in food service, but we will have to pay some indirect costs in June, July and August out of that money.  That fund balance fluctuates, but we are on sound financial ground as of today.
“In 2009-10 we were spending about $158,000 on grounds,” he said.  “That was mostly lawn care.  We maintain over 85 acres with all of our schools and athletic facilities out there.  What has gotten us into a bind is that our grounds care staff has gone from five people to one person through attrition.  We normally ask the custodians to help during the cutting season rather than rehire.  We want to just get the numbers in and see if it would be more cost effective to bid that out.  Bidders can bid on single sites or on the district as a whole.  All of our equipment is aged, and there will be some equipment costs if that stays in-house.”
If outsourced, the contractor would start July 1.  The transportation contract would be for four years; nutrition for four years, renewed yearly; and grounds would be year-to-year.
“Could we save money by going in-house with any of these?” Aubra Turner asked.
“That would be hard to answer right now, with no numbers back,” Shannon said.  “Right now, with fuel costs going up and with the savings we’re getting from not having to operate a bus shop, we’re about where we would be if it was in-house.  For food service, it’s a grey area.  Right now it’s doing well, but we’ve had some declines in the past.  On grounds, it’s almost physically impossible for one person do maintain over 80 acres.  Right now we’re pulling people away from the buildings and we’re not doing as good a job as we could.”
Shannon agreed to do a comparison of in-house costs versus contracting.
The board unanimously approved the requests for proposals.


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