BY BRIAN JONES
The Columbus Municipal School District rejected bids for food service and grounds, accepted a transportation bid and heard a report on federal programs at a May 28 specially called meeting.
The meeting continued the CMSD’s recent trend towards the epic, stretching on for nearly four hours.
The meeting began with a dispute about the agenda. The board called the meeting during its regular May 13 session. At that time the stated reason was to hear a presentation by Assistant Superintendent Anthony Brown on federal funds. A facility rental request and bids for food service, grounds and transportation were all tabled at that time, and so were also set for discussion at the special meeting.
When the CMSD posted the notice of a call meeting, the notice stated: “The Purpose(s) of the Meeting is: I. Consolidation Application for Federal Programs and OCR [Mr. Brown’s presentation. – Brian Jones] and Such Other Matters That May Come Before the Board.” By Tuesday night, the agenda had swollen to over a page in length, including recognitions, accepting donations, personnel items, the district’s summer camp and a summer reading program.
As soon as the meeting started, Trustee Aubra Turner demanded to know why the new material had been added.
[Ms. Turner is right to be concerned. Piling items onto a special meeting agenda like this is of, at best, dubious legality. When a special meeting is called, the board may only discuss the items specifically set out in the meeting notice. As I illustrated above, there was only one item of business in the notice. “Such other matters may come before the board” has been listed on CMSD agendas ever since they got into hot water years ago for coming out of executive session and taking up new business that somehow never made it onto the agenda. It violates the spirit, if not the letter of the law. Remember this sort of thing next time a district wonk enthuses about how transparent they are. – Brian Jones] “I noticed that items have been added for the special meeting, and that is something that I object to,” Turner said. “This was not the intent of the special meeting.”
“One of those items requires no action, it’s just a recognition,” responded President Currie Fisher. [A recognition of Coach Ben Moore, who was named All-Area Soccer Coach of the Year by the Dispatch. – Brian Jones] “One of those items is a donation. If we do not approve it, it cannot be accepted. [A donation by Belk to Franklin Academy. – Brian Jones] Item seven is time sensitive and needs to be accepted before our first regular meeting. [Personnel items. – Brian Jones] Generally we will take care of items that are time sensitive. Item eight is a question from a board member, and we need to take action because it’s time sensitive. [Approval of summer reading program. – Brian Jones]”
“So you’re telling me these other items could not wait until the regular meeting,” Turner said. “We have to approve them at this meeting, today.”
“The ones that I said are time sensitive, yes ma’am,” Fisher said.
“They can’t be done at our regular meeting,” Turner repeated.
“I just explained that to you,” Fisher said.
Fisher and Turner spoke over one another, with Turner repeating “They’re all time sensitive?”
“No, they are not all time sensitive,” Fisher said. “Only the ones that I identified are time sensitive.”
“I’m not understanding what you’re saying,” Turner said.
“I just went through them,” Fisher said.
“So why didn’t we do this at our regular meeting?” Turner asked.
“We could have done this in the time that it took to distinguish all these differences,” Fisher, clearly exasperated, said.
“At our regular meeting we voted to have a special meeting to be presented with a federal programs presentation, and you have all of these additional items on here just as if this was a regular board meeting,” Turner said. “That’s what I’m telling you. I have an issue with that. I have an issue with this being added to a special meeting agenda.”
“We could just call another meeting,” Turner said.
Turner made a motion to remove the new items from the agenda, and was seconded by Jason Spears. Her motion passed 3-1. Fisher voted no, and Trustee Glenn Lautzenhiser was not present.
Bus driver Walter Clay addressed the board during open forum. About 20 bus drivers, including Clay, were in the audience.
Clay was given five minutes to speak.
“The drivers have an issue that we feel is really important,” he said. “We was hired by Waters Transportation in 2009, and we agreed on a salary. The salary was $16.45 an hour. We worked three and a half years, and this year they chose to take $2.50 from the drivers. Blamed it on health care, which we can’t see. Then they came back and increased our insurance. We were paying $4 a week. It sent to $28 a week. This is a six-time increase. We as drivers feel obligated to the city and to the children to continue for the school year, but we wanted to be heard after the school year. We felt like it was very important that we not do anything to upset the school system during this time.
“Now the drivers are asking to be made whole and to be put back where they was,” he said. “I think it’s only right. We’re doing 20 or 25 hours a week and only receiving $170 anyway. Mr. Spears said, and Mr. Shannon, they thought we was making $19, $20. We would like to see that. We have to take care of people’s childrens. When we pick them up in afternoon, we can only drop them at home. A parent must be at home. If they are not we are responsible for them. We were patted on the back and told we were appreciated, and then that appreciation was shown by cutting our pay. We ask the board when you award [the transportation contract] that you put a stipulation in there that the bus drivers not be mistreated.”
The board took no action.
Assistant Superintendent Craig Shannon came before the board with the service bids that were tabled at the last meeting.
First was grounds maintenance.
Shannon said the district maintains about 95 acres, and they have one full-time grounds person. At the previous meeting he explained that the district had been pulling building custodians off of interior work to cut grass, and said that the current system is unsustainable.
With no discussion, Turner made a motion, seconded by Spears, to reject the grounds bids and continue service in-house. It was approved 3-1, with Fisher voting no.
Food service met a similar fate.
For several years the district has outsourced all its food service work to Aramark. [I couldn’t find in my notes exactly when the contract began, but it’s been at least four or five years. – Brian Jones] Earlier this month the contract was tabled after trustees asked questions about how rates would be adjusted during its term.
“We were told that all increases or decreases in rates must be approved by both parties,” Shannon said. “We can certainly request a decrease if [cost of food] goes down.”
Verdell made a motion to reject the bid and that “the services remain in house.”
“Let me clarify something,” Fisher said. “We do not currently have these services in house.”
Verdell responded, but spoke off-microphone and was inaudible.
Turner seconded Verdell’s motion, and it passed 3-1 with no further discussion. Fisher cast the dissenting vote.
[Both of these decisions are remarkable. I’m unsure how the trustees expect one man and some erratically available custodians to handle 90+ acres of landscaping. I am even more appalled at the decision to scrap the Aramark contract. The district currently has no food service personnel of its own. They do not have arrangements to buy food. Other than physically owning the kitchens, they have nothing, and have no apparent plans to meet these needs. The summer feeding program begins immanently, if it is not already under way. More to the point, the district will now have to hire personnel to staff its kitchens, adding more personnel costs to the budget.
[I’m not sure that Ms. Verdell understood what she was doing here. When she made her motion she clearly said “remain in house” even though there is no in-house food service staff. There was no discussion, so who knows what the trustees were thinking or how they think the looming summer needs will be met. I think this is a debacle in the making. – Brian Jones] Finally, Shannon brought back the bus contract. Earlier this month he brought two proposals: Waters Truck and Tractor, which currently holds the contract, and Ecco Ride, which is a conglomerate of several bus companies and primarily operates in the Northeast and Wisconsin. At that time Spears grilled Shannon on the details of the bus proposals, and Tuesday night he went at him again.
“I don’t mean for this to be a cross-examination, but unfortunately I think it’s going to be,” Spears said. “Did you instruct service providers not to share information with one another during the proposal period?”
“No, sir,” Shannon said. “After they turned over their bids, after they were opened, one company contacted the other company to get information that we deemed was specific to a particular brand and we asked them not to share any information until after the board approved a recommendation.”
“Dr. Liddell, have you provided all submitted information for every board member to review?” Spears said. “This includes proposals, supplemental documents, policy reports and other materials that would provide us with complete information to make a decision?”
“To my knowledge, we provided everything,” Liddell said.
“Everything that has been submitted to you,” Spears said.
“Everything that has been submitted through the process,” Liddell said.
“Not just that, but every bit of information that has been reported to you,” Spears said.
“Every bit of information that has been reported to me has been shared,” she said.
“Will you make sure that’s reflected in the minutes, please?” Spears asked Jan Ballard, who prepares the minutes.
“Mr. Shannon, with respect to the two proposals they state that employee benefits should be competitive, correct?” Spears asked.
“Employee benefits should be comparable,” Shannon said.
“With respect to pay,” Spears said, “based on Ecco Ride’s proposal they will pay less than current personnel earn.”
“Correct,” Shannon said.
“With respect to health insurance coverage, based on information submitted, Ecco Ride will split premiums 50/50,” Spears said. “Currently Waters pays 63 percent. That’s a 13 percent shift to the employee.”
“Correct,” Shannon said.
Spears also questioned Ecco Ride’s claim they would provide a 401(k), claiming that they did not currently have one in place.
“In their recent submission of answers to our questions, they responded by saying we anticipate establishing a new plan,” Spears said. “In their proposal they say they’re going to match employees 10 percent, but in actuality they don’t have a 401(k) plan.”
Several members of the audience began to speak out, but Fisher hushed them.
“Do they have a 401(k) to offer employees at this time?” Spears asked.
“I would have to research that,” Shannon said.
“You said that, we didn’t say that,” an Ecco Ride representative called out from the audience.
“This is not participatory,” Fisher said in response. “This is not a dialog. This is a board meeting. Please refrain from any murmuring.”
“Is there a time limit for one board member to address the presenter?” Verdell asked.
“We’ve never had one,” Fisher said.
“I would like to make sure that we do not badger Mr. Shannon or anyone who comes before the board,” she said. “We want people to be comfortable and not feel intimidated or belittled.” [I don’t agree with this at all. Especially not when we’re talking about reducing pay and benefits to employees, and to say nothing of a would-be contractor offering what seems to be contradictory information. – Brian Jones] “How is it that we’re going to make pay competitive when clearly the proposal that is before us does exactly the opposite,” Spears said.
“Did you read the rest of the questions that we submitted?” the Ecco Ride representative called out.
“You do not have an opportunity to speak out at this point,” Fisher said. “If I have to ask again you will excuse yourself or be removed.”
“The facts do not cease to exist just because you ignore them,” Spears said. “It’s right here in front of you. I encourage all taxpayers to submit a Freedom of Information Request and see for yourself. I’m not advocating one person or entity over another. I’m going by the facts. Lastly I am disheartened by the relentless efforts of some here tonight to side with a wing and a nod rather than the facts.”
“I didn’t understand your last phrase,” Verdell asked. “What?”
“A wink and a nod,” Spears said. “They were responsive. That just means you give an answer. One proposal before us clearly outlines everything, whether it’s higher dollar or not, and you can evaluate everything in there. The other is just responsive. They just give a few ideas we’re going to do something, but there are no material facts. That’s why I encourage everyone to look at the proposals.”
Ecco Ride was awarded the contract on a 3-1 vote, with Spears voting no.
The board held a one hour, forty-five minute executive session to discuss personnel, a student matter and potential sale of real estate. [Dr. Liddell was sent out of the room for 45 minutes during the personnel discussion. The potential sale was clearly about Lee Middle School. – Brian Jones] When they returned to open session, Fisher announced no action had been taken.[I am out of time for this week, but there are two other matters from Tuesday’s meeting that bear mention. First, Mr. Brown made a lengthy but very informative presentation about the federal dollars used in the district. I regret that I don’t have time to get into it, and I will try to revisit it next week. Secondly, Board Attorney David Dunn asked the board to approve a resolution finding it necessary to outsource transportation. He explained that it should have been done during the earlier contract discussion, but was not. Under Mississippi law such a finding must be made before a service may be outsourced. What should have been a minor item turned into a half-hour-long tug-of-war between Mr. Dunn and Ms. Turner, who insisted she didn’t understand why it was necessary. The resolution did finally pass, but the effort it took to get there was truly spectacular. – Brian Jones] 0