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CMSD Nearly Adjourns Without Paying Bills — Trustees Question Financial Accountability — Dates Set for Lee Walkthroughs

BY BRIAN JONES
Staff Writer
brian.jones@packet.media.com

The Columbus Municipal School Board discussed a financial consultant, opening Lee Middle School for public tours and skirmished over paying the bills at a lengthy August 19 meeting.
The meeting, in what has become the new normal for the CMSD, lasted for over four hours, much of which was spent in executive session.

Interim Superintendent Edna McGill

Interim Superintendent Edna McGill

Monday night’s meeting had barely gotten started when Glenn Lautzenhiser asked that the executive session be moved to the top of the agenda, rather than being held at the end of the meeting.  The board promptly vanished behind closed doors for two-and-a-half hours to discuss potential sale of property, pending litigation, potential litigation and personnel issues.  When they emerged, President Jason Spears announced no action had been taken.
    [I think it’s a bad move to handle the executive session at the start of the meeting like this.  While turnout was, predictably, down from that of previous months, there were still quite a few community members who showed up to watch the meeting.  Nearly all of them had left by the time the board returned to regular session.  Members of the public commonly state that they think the trustees hold long executive sessions to try to wait out public scrutiny.  Whether or not this is the case, I think it is inconsiderate to the stakeholders, especially at a time when trust in the school board is at an all-time low. – Brian Jones]

The district voted to retain business consultant Frances Goldmon for up to eight more work days.  Goldmon was retained to help put together the budget in the absence of a business manager.  Temporary Interim Superintendent Edna McGill is asking that Goldmon be retained to help close out FY13 and to offer guidance to whoever takes the interim business manager position.
McGill stated that Goldmon would work no more than eight days, eight hours per day, at a rate of $95 per hour.
Currie Fisher objected.
“I think that we would be wise in not making this so broad,” she said.  “I think it would be wise for us to post the open position for business manager instead of continuing to incur costs for this.”
“I think this stems from that after speaking with (the Mississippi School Board Association) we should have someone who is familiar with our financial system while we are vetting candidates,” Spears said.
“It says eight days and interim transition,” Fisher said.  “That means there are going to be more than eight days.”
“We’re asking for up to an additional eight days to help close out the year,” McGill said.  “If we get an interim we want to be in a position to help that person transition.”
“It seems to me we are hiring her as a trainer instead of just performing the budget functions,” Fisher said.  “This information is not proprietary to any one person.  She should not have to walk the next person through.  The figures speak for themselves.  It is what it is.  Educated adults should be able to take over after a certain point.  We have people on staff who can help with the transition.”
“We can remove the interim transition if you like,” McGill said.
Fisher changed tacks, instead questioning whether district policies were followed.
“The policy states that the superintendent can request in written form that the board do this, but there is no written request from her,” Fisher said.  “Instead we have a letter from (Excellence Group, Goldmon’s employer).  This does not follow policy.  We need a letter from the superintendent to request this.”
“My understanding is that we have just the recommendation,” Spears said.  “Do we need the letter from Ms. McGill?”
“I’m sure she can provide you with that,” said Board Attorney David Dunn.
The matter was temporarily put aside to allow McGill to write a letter making the request.  Once the letter was submitted, it was approved 3-2, with Fisher and Verdell voting no.
    [I found this whole rigmarole to be a bit silly.  I have commented before on the oddity of Ms. Fisher’s sudden love affair with following policies to the letter.  Marvelous how ‘round about late May or early June she suddenly discovered the policy manual. – Brian Jones]
The crisis management plan was approved 3-2, but not without a bit of a struggle.
Aubra Turner made a motion, seconded by Spears, to table it because none of the board members had had time to review it.  However, Deputy Superintendent Craig Shannon said that it had to be submitted to the Mississippi Department of Education by September 10.
“It is a critical part of our accreditation process,” he said.  “Keep in mind that it is a working document, and can be changed at any time.”
The motion to table was voted down 3-2, with Fisher and Angela Verdell voting in favor.
Lautzenhiser then made a motion, seconded by Turner, to approve it.  His motion passed 3-2, with Fisher and Verdell voting no.

The board balked at paying the docket of claims.  Turner recused herself without explanation when the item came up.  Lautzenhiser made a motion to approve, seconded by Spears.  The vote deadlocked 2-2, with Lautzenhiser and Spears voting yes and Fisher and Verdell voting no.  Because it was a tie, it failed.
At the end of the meeting Spears, during the ‘such other matters that come before the board’ portion of the agenda, brought it up again.
[One thing I should point out before going further: Immediately before Mr. Spears brought the docket up again, Ms. Fisher complained that the district’s email had been down for over a week.  She said she had been unable to retrieve any email she had sent since August 10.  I bring this up because Ms. Fisher and Ms. Verdell mention it during the upcoming discussion. – Brian Jones] “We voted not to pay the bills, but that is going to bring the department of education to our doorstep and threaten to put us in the throes of conservatorship,” Spears said.  “Can we bring that back up for consideration again?”
“Anything can come back up during this portion of the agenda,” Dunn said.
“If we leave without paying the bills, teachers don’t get paid and lights get turned off,” Spears said, “and the state comes and wonders why we made that decision.  I would like to know what the rationale is for not paying these vendors and our personnel.”
“For me it was not having the capability of email,” Verdell said.  “I couldn’t follow up on things I saw on the docket.  It hinders me from being able to ask the questions that I needed to ask.  I need to ask those questions to do my own due diligence.”
“We’ve been here for four hours, what’s another hour?” Spears said.  “Let us discuss it now.  There were times email was unavailable, but each one of us had the opportunity to come here and ask those questions or call or use personal email.  But let’s discuss this, because if you want to collapse the district I am more than willing to sit here and watch it.”
“We had numerous special meetings,” Verdell said.  “I’ve been on the board since March and have probably been to 20 meetings.  I would ask that we have time to review this document and ask questions.”
“We have had two weeks to review the docket and ask these questions,” Spears said.
“I have concerns regarding the docket as well,” Turner said.  “I don’t feel comfortable because I feel like there is no accountability.  Until we can have a meeting where we sit down and establish checks and balances on how things are placed on this docket…I just don’t feel comfortable when I don’t know what I’m voting for.”
“I don’t know where you get two weeks from,” Fisher said.  “ We have not had two weeks.  I came to the central office and picked up my packet so I could review it.  After getting here tonight it was brought to our attention that there is a huge bill that we’re getting because of somebody’s oops.  When we asked if there were other charges, we were told they’d have to get back to us.  If I have to stand alone, I will.  We should not be signing payments for things we don’t have a clue what they’re for.  Then we find there’s an uh-oh in the docket.  Since it seems like I’m being held hostage over letting the state come in and take over, I will entertain a motion about the claims docket.”
Turner recused herself and left the room again.
Spears made a motion to pay the bills, and Lautzenhiser gave the second.
“I am not trying to bully anyone or direct anyone,” Spears said.  “I am trying to bring reality to the doorstep.  It is in the scope of the law that we must pay the bills.  With respect to the large items, we are going through an investigation to find out how there was a breakdown in communication.  I understand that frustration, but we can empower others and claim back anything to restore us to be whole.  It is not my intention to bully anyone into anything.”
“I can’t be bullied,” Fisher said.  “Most people who know me know that.  I think it is so wrong for this board to be so selective in how you invoke policy, how you invoke ethics.  We go back and retrofit things.”
The docket was approved 3-1, with Verdell voting no and Turner recused.

    The board set a date for the public walkthrough of Lee Middle School.
“We will open the building Saturday, September 7, at 9 a.m.,” Spears said.  “Also a second showing will be at Thursday, September 12, from 4-7 p.m.  We encourage individuals who are interested in purchasing the property or developing it to please come.  You can sign up your group or individual to view it.  Anyone who comes must be over 21 years old, and will need to bring the proper equipment like flashlights that may be necessary to navigate through the facility.
“One of the reasons that this board has not moved faster than we have is that we are trying to be good stewards for the taxpayers,” Spears said.  “We have considered plans to develop the property rather than sell it outright.  It would not be in the best interest of the school district to sell it for 18 to 30 cents on the dollar.  Some offers that have been put on the table would remove it from the tax rolls.  We have taken it upon ourselves to try to attract developers to help cultivate and develop it and put it back on the tax rolls.”
    [The board has, for over a year now, been refusing to discuss the Lee property at all.  They have declined to even confirm that it is for sale, in spite of the prominent ‘for sale’ signs.  Two local churches, Point of Grace and Kingdom Vision International Church, have been pursuing the property.  I’m glad that the board is actually moving forward, but I think it could have been handled in a much less confusing and strange way. – Brian Jones]
Beyond the announcement, the board took no action.

In other business:
• The board voted to table the instructional management plan.  The trustees felt they did not have enough time to review it.
• Shannon reported that the new transportation contractor was performing well.  He said the district is currently operating 57 buses, and that they had “for the most part” been on time, but that there was “room for improvement.”  He said he wanted to have elementary buses at schools by 7:15 a.m. and at the middle and high school by 7:45 a.m.
• Shannon reported that the students were responding positively to the new food service arrangement.  This year the district took food service back in house after contracting it out for years.  “More food is being prepared from scratch, there are more choices and participation at the high school is up,” Shannon said.
• Kingdom Vision International Church Pastor RJ Matthews appeared during open forum to ask about the status of Lee Middle School.  He was told that Lee would be discussed later in the meeting.  [I believe Mr. Matthews left before the board returned to open session.  I don’t remember seeing him during the later part of the evening, but I may be mistaken due to fatigue. – Brian Jones]
    [I have quite a bit to say about Monday’s meeting, and the continued fracturing of the school board.  However, I am out of time for this week and will take it up in my column in next week’s Packet. – Brian Jones]

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