BY BRIAN JONES
The Columbus Municipal School District heard a variety of comments from citizens, discussed legislative action and tabled a variety of bids. The board also changed their meeting date and authorized Superintendent Martha Liddell to explore hiring an auditor to approve the district docket.
[That short list may give the impression that the meeting was brisk. It wasn’t. The meeting, in spite of the relative lack of action, stretched on for six hours: four hours of open session followed by an hour-and-forty-minute executive session, which was itself followed by an additional 20 minutes of action. More on that later. – Brian Jones]
Unusually, the board holds its meetings at Columbus Middle School’s auditorium rather than Brandon Central Office.
The meeting started with several individuals who signed up for open forum. The first was Debbie Harris. [I’m pretty sure I botched that name. It wasn’t clear at the time, and Ms. Harris wisely did not stick around for the whole meeting, so, Ms. Harris, if you’re reading this, I apologize. – Brian Jones] Harris suggested the district turn the Magnolia Bowl into a downtown parking garage.
“There is a need for more parking downtown,” she said. “Additional parking will open the city up to hosting more events and opportunities. It’s a central place, it’s convenient to Trotter Convention Center and Market Street festival. Some of the parameters I was thinking about was that the structure face Fifth Avenue North, and another lane be added to Fifth Avenue so traffic would be unaffected. You could also offer one-hour validation tickets for those who patronize downtown merchants. I would suggest putting bathrooms there, because there don’t seem to be a lot of public restrooms in the downtown area.”
The next speaker was Point of Grace Church Pastor Shane Cruz. Cruz renewed his plea for some definitive answer on the status of Lee Middle School.
“This will be my twelfth almost consecutive board meeting,” he said. “I have been coming since we placed a bid, almost a year ago, on Lee Middle School. Since that time we have been very diligent in trying to get an answer on when the property will be available again. During that time we have gotten answers that range from ‘we’re turning it over to a committee and we’ll get with you next week, we’re about to make that decision’ and…I know we can’t pressure you into making that decision. The ‘for sale’ signs are still up. If you don’t have an intention of selling, if it’s not a very high priority, please remove the signs and get that off of everybody’s mind. I’d also like to ask about the property at Brandon. Is it for sale? Signs are up there. Maybe if Lee Middle is not for sale, we may be interested in that property. We would just like an answer.
“I had asked a couple of the board members in passing if they had toured Lee Middle School,” he said. “They said no. I have toured Lee Middle School. With the vandalism and what has gone on there…one question I wanted to ask, I received a phone call warning us to do our homework and saying that about $80,000 of copper has been stripped out of the building. Will the school board repair that, or will it be sold as is? That will make a very big difference in pricing.
“I have been coming every 12 months, expecting an answer,” he said. “Now it will be at least another 30 days because it’s not on your agenda this month. If you haven’t toured that building, I urge you to do so so you can see what has happened there.”
Alex Davis, a seventh-grader at Columbus Middle School, addressed the board about the MCT2 test.
“I came to ask what is the MCT?” he said. “It is a test designed to test the student on what he or she has learned throughout the school year. The students are tested on math and language arts. Language arts is harder, because math questions are straightforward. The subject itself is not hard, but the way the questions are phrased makes it hard. I think the test should be shorter in length because many students have to rush to complete it, and they miss questions that they shouldn’t have. I think the questions should be reworded so that everyone can understand them. Some students don’t understand the questions the way others do, and so they misunderstand and fail.”
[I think it’s great that Mr. Davis came to the school board with his concerns. The MCT2 is, however, a state test. The school board has no control over the test’s content. I would urge him to address his remarks to individuals at the state department of education. – Brian Jones]
Tiffany Walker, a parent at Columbus High School, complained about the fact that several seniors are being forbidden to walk because they had to retake some portion of the Subject Area Tests. Walker was one of several parents who, along with their children, attended the meeting to protest. [In order to graduate, high school students must first pass each of four Subject Area Tests: biology, history, English and algebra. – Brian Jones]
“My daughter was informed last Monday that she would not be allowed to walk with her class,” she said. “She has completed all of her courses, but because of the Subject Area Test she was told she could not walk. She was tested again last Friday. I called the state and the lady that I spoke with told me Columbus schools paid $2,000 for a history test to come back at a certain time, but because my daughter is taking biology her test scores won’t be back until July. I told her that that’s ridiculous. A lot of parents are here about this tonight. I think it’s wrong. She has completed all of her course work. She passed all her classes. For her to not be able to walk with her class is wrong. As a parent I don’t see anything wrong with her walking with her class. I’m not asking for a diploma, I just want her to be able to walk. If you take that from a child, it will make her self-esteem low. I think it also has a lot to do with the dropout rate at Columbus High. This just breaks me up.”
Diamond Walker, Tiffany Walker’s daughter, also spoke briefly.
“I just don’t think it’s fair,” she said. “I passed all my classes. I think I should have the opportunity to walk. I really want to know why some test scores come back faster than the biology tests. Something needs to be done about that.”
Following open forum, Liddell gave an overview of education-focused legislation.
[Dr. Liddell spoke for nearly 20 minutes about House and Senate legislative efforts. Rather than recapitulate it all here, I’m just going to hit a few of the high points. – Brian Jones]
“The biggest game-changing piece of legislation is HB369, the charter schools bill,” Liddell said. “I want to hit on some of the highlights. It creates a state agency with exclusive charter jurisdiction. It also authorizes the board to create charter schools in some districts. A, B and C districts would have veto power. That is important to us because we are a D. We are working hard to change that, but it takes time. Charter schools will be able to name their own boards, and those folks will have complete jurisdiction over those schools. All public schools in the state will be required to accept transfer credits from charter schools.”
Requirements for teachers and administrators are lower than in public schools, Liddell said.
“Seventy-five percent of teachers will be required to be licensed by the state,” she said. “We require 100 percent. Administrators will be exempt from state licensure requirements.”
Charter schools will be funded locally, she said.
“The money will follow the child,” she stated. “It is so important that we get better. I hear the students and parents here today, and I feel what you’re saying. It’s heartbreaking when students don’t pass SATP. We have looked at that, but that is the law straight out of Jackson. We want them to be able to walk across the stage, but the law prohibits that. But there is some good news: The SATP is going away when we change to Common Core standards.”
Charter schools will also get first refusal on existing, unused school buildings, she said.
Senate Bill 2347 will require all students read on grade level by third grade.
“If a child is not reading on grade level by the end of third grade, we are prohibited from passing that child,” she said. “We have to get it right in pre-K, kindergarten, first and second grade. The reading gate will be closed on students who are not reading on grade level.”
Senate Bill 2633 guarantees religious freedom to every school child.
“It provides for voluntary student expression of religious viewpoints in public schools,” Liddell said. “It says the district shall provide students with the freedom to organize religious groups and activities, and shall provide a limited public forum at non-graduation and graduation events for student speakers. It prohibits school districts from discrimination against students for religious expression. School districts must adopt a policy that establishes a limited public forum. Students may express their religious beliefs in homework and artwork. The district shall not violate the rights of students as guaranteed by the US and Mississippi constitution. This is the same law we’re already following as school districts.”
[As Dr. Liddell said, all of those rights are already guaranteed by the Constitution. So why go to the time and expense of making a redundant law? I guess I was unaware of the sudden crackdown on religious freedom in Mississippi’s classrooms. You know, the ones where “One Nation Under God” plaques are prominently displayed.
[I also have to wonder if the proponents of this legislative jewel have thought through the implications. If little Timmy wants to wear his Flying Spaghetti Monster shirt to school and deliver a Pastafarian sermon at the “limited forum” school districts must now provide, there is absolutely no way to stop him. I personally think that’s exactly as it should be, but somehow I doubt the bill’s authors will agree. – Brian Jones]
The board failed to make a decision on the transportation contract.
Four years ago the district outsourced transportation, hiring Columbus-based Waters Truck and Tractor to run and maintain its buses. All bus drivers became Waters Employees and, while the district maintained ownership of its bus fleet and continued to buy gas, all other functions were taken over by Waters.
The contract with Waters came up for renewal after four years, and the district elected to seek new bids in an effort to trim costs. Two companies submitted proposals: Waters and Ecco Ride, a Tennessee-based consortium that operates bus lines in the northeast and in Florida. Waters bid $8,859,331 and Ecco Ride bid $7,572,131; both figures are for four years of service.
Assistant Superintendent Craig Shannon recommended Ecco Ride be given the bid, effective July 1, which launched an epic grilling by Trustee Jason Spears.
“How many districts in Mississippi does Ecco Ride serve?” Spears asked.
“Zero,” Shannon responded.
[It’s worth noting that Waters not only served zero districts in Mississippi, they served zero districts anywhere when they submitted a bid four years ago. They were one of three bids, and both of their competitors were much more experienced. Mr. Shannon said that in the past four years their service has been excellent, so I don’t really buy what Mr. Spears is selling here. – Brian Jones]
“How many in Alabama?” Spears asked.
“To my knowledge, zero,” Shannon said, “but I’m not sure.”
“That’s correct,” Spears said. “How many in Florida?”
“You may know that answer, but I do not,” Shannon said.
“How many in their home state?” Spears asked.
“One,” Shannon said.
“Their primary area is New York and Wisconsin,” Spears said. “Since they are a holding company with several different providers, what company will be providing services to us?”
Ecco Ride CEO Thomas McGaughey was in the audience and stepped up to attempt to answer Spears’s questions.
“We are a consortium of several bus companies,” he said. “Some of our companies have been around for 60 years, 75 years and operate many bus lines. We are new to Mississippi. Every state has peculiarities, none of which are radical. This is not something new to us. This is what we do. This is all we do.”
Randy Futrill of ACR Buses, which is an Ecco Ride company and is based in Mayhew, also spoke briefly.
“We have been in Lowndes County for 10 years,” he said. “We’re not far from the tomato farm, if you’re familiar with that. When I heard about the request for bids, I wanted to submit. The company is out of Tennessee, but my company is here and I will be on the grounds here. We are here, we are local. I hope that answers some of your questions for you.”
It did not, in fact, answer Spears’s questions.
“Why is the pricing so different between the two proposals?” Spears said.
“We looked at the bid sheets, and the thing that we could see was the individual route rate,” Shannon said. “Ecco Ride is stating they can operate at a route rate of $109 for the first and second year, and then $112 for the third and fourth years. When you look at Waters, that number is $129, $132, $136 and $139. That is the main difference.”
“As far as drilling down more into the numbers, Ecco Ride is reducing benefits and pay for transportation personnel,” Spears said.
“The benefits are comparable to what they are being given now,” Shannon said. “There is a dollar difference in pay. For example Waters is offering $21, Ecco Ride is offering $19.”
Spears continued to drill into the numbers behind the proposal, focusing on differences in health insurance and retirement. Shannon continued to attempt to answer his increasingly detailed questions, but finally returned to the district’s savings.
“We are going to save $300,000 per year if we switch to Ecco Ride,” Shannon said. “They are going to take our same employees, and even some of the same managers that Waters has now.”
“The bottom line is less, and I get that,” Spears said. “But why would we send our tax dollars out of state with the chance most of them won’t return to our local economy? We have a solid partner with Waters. Our student incidents have decreased over our current contract. Why make a radical change that’s going to result in a reduction in pay and benefits for our employees? That’s three-quarters of a percent of our total budget in savings we’re going to realize.”
[Mr. Spears is saying that, in four years, the district will save $1.2 million out of an estimated $160 million total. – Brian Jones]
“Dollars are something we have to pay attention to,” Shannon said. “Drivers are going to receive comparable benefits to what they get now, and the students will receive the same level of service they receive now.”
“At some point you’ve got to step away from the tree and see the forest around you,” Spears said. “We are looking at saving three-quarters of a percent of our total budget over four years. You’re affecting the entire local economy and I don’t think that’s prudent to do.”
“If there aren’t any more questions, I’d like to move that we table this issue,” Angela Verdell said, interrupting Spears. Aubra Turner seconded the motion, and it passed unanimously. Shannon was directed to look at Spears’s questions, and also to try to find a way that performance measures could be inserted into the contract.
Board Attorney David Dunn cautioned Verdell that new conditions could not be inserted at this stage of the game.
“They submitted bids on a specific Request for Proposals,” Dunn said. “You can’t go back and start changing it. The only thing you can do is reject the bids and start over.”
The current contract expires at the end of June.
The district also tabled bids on food service from Aramark and from a number of vendors for grounds service. The trustees said they wanted more time to review the information.
The district voted unanimously to change its meeting date to the third Monday at 6 p.m. The trustees felt that a later meeting would give them more time to digest their information packets before having to make decisions. The change will go into effect next month.
The board then went into executive session to discuss two potential litigation issues and one personnel issue. After an hour and forty minutes behind closed doors, they emerged and took one piece of action.
President Currie Fisher announced that some personnel were erroneously paid for doing work that was not governed by district policy. Because the workers should not have been paid, their pay will be docked until the amount in question has been repaid.
“That decision was made on a 3-2 vote,” Spears said. “Ms. Turner and Ms. Verdell voted no. The alternative was for the board members themselves to pay for it.”
[Ms. Turner often votes against paying the docket of claims because she does not feel she has enough information on expenditures. I could not find in my notes whether Ms. Verdell also voted no last month. I point this out because, if they both voted no they would not have had to pay anything back; the burden would have been borne by Ms. Fisher, Mr. Spears and Mr. Lautzenhiser. – Brian Jones]
Spears then made a motion that the district explore hiring a claim auditor to verify the docket of claims before it is sent to the board.
“Most districts our size have such a position,” Spears said. “We can look at other districts for ideas for the job description.”
Lautzenhiser seconded Spears’s motion.
“So we don’t believe this can be done in-house?” Verdell asked. “We can’t implement a policy to require that that type of information be provided to us prior to our adopting the docket?”
“A district of our size should have a separate person who is a claims auditor,” Spears repeated. “They verify every single thing that comes to the docket.”
“I just want to go on record to say that those types of functions should already be taking place,” Verdell said. “Nothing should be on the docket that does not have that authorization. You are asking the board to hire yet another person at central office to do something that should already be getting done.”
“You and Ms. Turner are saying that this should be done already,” Spears said. “But then you didn’t vote to pay the bills. You don’t pay the bills any night. If you believe this is already being done, why are you not voting to pay the bills?”
“My question was do we not already have people in the district who can perform the same function,” Verdell said.
“But I’m the one who paid the bills,” Spears said.
“If we have people who can provide that service, I don’t see the need to hire someone,” Verdell said.
“But I paid the bills,” Spears repeated. “You didn’t sign to pay the bills. These are the people you say are in the district already. If you believe that, why did you not pay the bills?”
“I do not believe there is policy requiring that at this time,” Verdell said. “If we create the policy and insure that the district is within policy, then we can have those performances done.”
“Before I brought this up tonight, we should have adopted a policy so you would feel comfortable paying the bills,” Spears said. “But you didn’t say anything about that until I made this motion. Again, I ask you why you didn’t pay the bills.”
“It is totally within my rights to vote how I want to vote,” Verdell said. “Let’s come up with an appropriate policy.”
Lautzenhiser finally called for the question. Spears’s motion passed 3-2, with Turner and Verdell voting no.