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Rants, Raves and Circumstances

Opinion

BY BRIAN JONES
brian.jones@test.columbuspacket.com/packet

In which I muse about recent actions by the CVB and the local school boards.

The CVB
Last week, after debate that has flickered on and off all year, the Convention and Visitors Bureau formally changed their grant guidelines.  The tourism and quality of life categories are going away, and all grants will now be capped at $10,000 with no minimum or maximum expenditure levels.  (Previously tourism grants required at least 25 percent be spent on advertising and no more than 25 percent on entertainment.)
I have mixed feelings about this.  The category system and spending caps were not popular with festival organizers, who claimed they were too restrictive.  Organizers also accused the CVB of micromanaging their events.  While I agree up to a point about the CVB getting too involved in the events they sponsor, I don’t really have a lot of sympathy for those who want no strings attached.  It’s taxpayer money.  It’s being given to you.  You don’t have to repay it.  Why is it so hard to get your head around the idea that strings may be attached?  It’s.  Taxpayer.  Money.  Who are you that you should get something for nothing?
Somewhat lost in the shuffle is the news that pretty much all of the pre-existing events are now line items in the CVB budget.  They don’t have to make presentations anymore at all (although they still have to account for how they spend their dollars).  I think this is a terrible idea.  One of my major complaints about the CVB is that it does absolutely nothing to force festivals to look for other funding sources.  Quite a few of the events rely on the CVB grant for the majority of their budget.  First, if a festival can’t survive on its own, is it really that valuable to the community?  Secondly, it seems clear that supporters for these festivals are out there.  Despite being turned away this year by the CVB, Juneteenth – whose organizers previously claimed the festival could not go forward without grant funds – still put on their event this year.  Yet there they are, right there in the budget, and for the maximum grant amount, too.  Why?  What sort of precedent does this set?  What possible reason do festivals now have to be self-sustaining?
Finally, the executive committee of the CVB board took it upon itself to give Executive Director Nancy Carpenter a raise without informing the rest of the board.  Bernard Buckhalter finally brought this to light last week.  And by “brought it to light” I mean “talked about it in executive session.”  The executive session ended with the board formally approving Ms. Carpenter’s raise.  The discussion, of course, took place in private.
Are you kidding me?  The executive committee is going to act on its own, without any kind of public accountability, and then the rest of the board is going to essentially endorse that decision, especially when it’s about paying someone $95,000 a year in taxpayer money? Somebody please put the CVB out of our misery.  Not only are they misleading the public, but now they’re lying to one another.  And we, the citizens of Columbus and Lowndes County, are expected to meekly let it go.  How much longer are we going to stand for this crap?  Next time you see a member of that August board in public, give ‘em a good chewing out.  Tell them Brian sent you.

The CMSD Circus Continues
In what has become the new normal, the city school board met for over four hours last week.  Over half of that was spent in executive session.  As I said in our previous edition, the executive session was moved to the top of the agenda, and almost all the stakeholders had left by the time the board returned to open session.
These executive sessions are ridiculous.  Just for laughs I went back and looked how long the board spent in executive session at each meeting since May.  The May 13 regular meeting saw the board behind closed doors for an hour and 45 minutes; May 28 special meeting for one hour 45 minutes; June 5 special meeting, the entire two hours and 45 minutes; June 11 special meeting four hours, with a grand total according to my notes of 58 seconds in open session; June 17 regular meeting, five hours; June 25 special meeting, 45 minutes; July 15 special meeting, one hour and 15 minutes; August 6 special meeting, four hours; and August 19 two and a half hours.  June 18, the second meeting on June 25 and the June 26 meeting had no executive sessions at all.
Astounding, isn’t it?  Feel the transparency?
Along with the soul-crushing executive sessions, absurd lengths and the now-common infighting, the board also very nearly didn’t pay its bills.  All of the trustees, but especially Currie Fisher, Aubra Turner and Angela Verdell, expressed deep concerns with the state of the docket and the apparent lack of accountability.  At one point during the meeting the business office couldn’t explain why $5 million – that’s five million dollars – was moved from one account to another.  I am almost speechless at the fact that the district has been allowed to fall this far.  I have never had a high opinion of the CMSD, but this exceeds even my lowest expectations.
For a second, the district hung over the abyss.  Failure to pay the bills surely would have triggered a state intervention.  I am personally very pro-small government, and so this is something I never thought I would say in a million years, but at this point I think the best possible outcome would be a state takeover.  We are past the point where the district has hit the iceberg.  At this point, it’s hit the iceberg, backed up and rammed into it again.  The meetings could easily double as absurdist theater.  The finances are in shambles.  I’d be willing to bet that when the test scores are released next month we are going to see them fall.  The future of our children – and I really, really hate the stupidity of the “for the children” argument, so here’s something else I never thought I’d write – but the future of our children is at stake.  The board seems to be unable to do anything about it.  Something has to give.
I encourage any resident of the city school district reading this to contact your trustee and the superintendent’s office and tell them this is not acceptable.  Remind them they represent you, the taxpayer, and not their favorite city councilman or special interest group.  Tell them you’re tired of the fighting.  Tell them to get it together or get out.

LCSD: Oops, should we not have done that?
In June the LCSD announced at a public hearing, and published in the newspaper, that they were going to levy about $13 million for the next fiscal year.  Then they turned around and actually asked for $15.8 million.  County officials were not amused, and turned out Tuesday night to ask the county school board to explain themselves.
“Sure,” said the county board members.  “Here’s what happened…”
No, not really.  Those stalwarts refused to give the county an answer and then scurried into executive session to talk about it.  Nearly as troubling as their hiding behind closed doors was their apparent inability to grasp that they had done anything wrong.  Hey, c’mon, guys, we just misled the public and grabbed more money than we told you we would.  What’s the big deal?  Should we not have done that?
The district had a shortfall with the $13 million figure.  They wanted to make their budget whole.  I get that.  But why go about it in this secretive, deceptive manner?  It stinks and, frankly, sounds like something the city board would do.
I also have to question why they are not putting that massive fund balance to work.  A public school district is not a business.  It is not supposed to turn a profit.  That’s money they are taking straight out of the taxpayers’ pockets and then doing nothing with.  Put it to work, or drop some mills.  Or, better yet, do both.

The views and opinions expressed in Brian Jones’ columns are the author’s and are not necessarily those of The Columbus Packet or Packet Media, LLC.
Brian Jones can be reached at brian.jones@test.columbuspacket.com/packet.

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