A former member of the CAC (Community Action Committee), Herb Cohen, questioned the school board about the status of the implementation of certain suggestions contained in the CAC's final report, which was presented to the then board of education on Oct. 29, 1996. The report, compiled by eleven local residents (among whom were lawyers, accountants, architects, contractors and a public relations person) determined that from 1987 to the 1995 school year the district was mismanaged, both in terms of fiscal administration and policy oversight.
Following are some of Mr. Cohen's questions and the response made by the board:
* The status of a possible lawsuit against an architect. Board member Richard Sussman claims that the board voted not to pursue the written recommendations of three different law firms. School Board President Bob Scheer disputed Mr. Sussman's claim, responding instead that previous boards voted not to pursue the architect's contract on advice of counsel. Mr. Sussman objected to this statement, insisting that the board ignored the advice of three different law firms. Responding, Mr. Scheer, asking Mr. Sussman to provide evidence to support his claims, said, "produce it and publish it in the paper."
* The status of a possible lawsuit against an accounting firm. Mr. Scheer replied that a claim was settled, however, one of the terms of the settlement require that the terms not be disclosed. Mr. Cohen asked if Superintendent of Schools Dr. Al Inserra also had a gag order imposed on him, to which Dr. Inserra answered "yes." (However, the terms of the settlement are available to the public under the Freedom of Information Act.)
* The specific CAC recommendations in regard to the business office. Assistant Superintendent of Schools for Business Larry Blake replied, "yes, they implemented."
* What happened in regard to ensuring that all change orders with a gross amount of $5,000 and over need board approval. Mr. Scheer replied that the CAC's recommendations are "in effect." Alluding to statements made to the contrary by Mr. Sussman in a letter-to-the-editor, Mr. Cohen said that he had heard something different. Mr. Scheer pointed out that the letter was "an opinion of a board member," and added that Mr. Sussman had "not backed his statements up" with specific supporting evidence. Mr. Sussman then objected. Mr. Scheer then called for Mr. Sussman to provide documentation and verifiable information for his claims, saying "produce it and publish it in the paper."
* Are internal audits being performed? In a phone conversation, Mr. Cohen described this procedural policy as "an employee of the district checking on the work of the administration." One example he used was "How expenses are paid." Continuing he said, " It's really a double check on administration to ensure that problems from the past do not reoccur."
Another audience member, Holly Martin, asked the board to consider another review by the CAC to look at what suggestions were adopted and which ones were not during the two year period following the issuance of the report.
She was particularly concerned with the problem of contracts for which the work went beyond the completion dates established in the contracts... She noted that the district can invoke certain clauses in the contracts that make the contractor pay penalties for work not completed by a date specified in a contract. She recommended that the district make a presentation in which a list of contracts that are late be examined. And, she added, where possible, the district should take advantage of the "opportunity to recoup some money." She requested that for the board's Oct. 20 meeting, the board have the answers to the questions.
Mr. Scheer replied that at the school board meetings, the Visitor's Comments time is only a comment period.
Mr. Cohen asked, "How do we have our questions answered then?" Replying, Mr. Scheer said, "You can write us a letter."
Ms. Martin asked, "When can we ask you a question and have you answer it?" Replying Mr. Scheer said, "We do not have that policy."
"Well then, you need to change the policy," said Mr. Cohen.
"You can petition the school board to do that," Mr. Scheer replied, adding, "I cannot make that rule, sir."
A few times during this discourse, Ms. Martin stressed the importance of the board establishing a "dialogue with the public," saying at one point, "We have a right to know where our dollars are going."
Also during the course of the debate, Mr. Scheer pointed out that, in regard to contracts that had not been completed by their contractual date, projects with unmet completion dates aren't always black and white situations. "There are explanations," he noted.
The board announced the hiring of an educational facilities planning consulting firm, KBD Planning Group, Inc. for $25,000, plus reimbursable expenses. Board member Dr. Roy Nelson reported that nine firms initially responded to the RFP (request for proposal). Four respondants did not pass the initial screening when it was determined that they were architectural firms that subcontracted the educational consultant's role. The remaining five firms were subjected to reference checks. Out of those five, consultants were eliminated for different reasons: unavailability, excessive cost/timeline and presentation.
Eventually, the committee designated two firms as primary candidates. Both remaining firms toured the facilities and met with each building principal. Both consultants were interviewed by the Ad-Hoc Facilities Committee, Dr. Inserra and Dr. Karnilow. Clear-cut differences in each firm's approach to the project appearted at that time, according to Dr. Nelson. The KBD proposal for review of the district's demographics was much more thorough and detailed. In addition, the firm had experience working in New York State and was familiar with State Education Department requirements.
Also, the firm would be able to work essentially full time, said Dr. Nelson and anticipated completion in 60-90 days.
Finishing his report, Dr. Nelson said, "Negotiations with both firms resulted in reductions in their fee schedules for the project." However, the firm not selected was still 50 percent more than KBD.
The next regular meeting of the Board of Education will be on Oct. 20 at 8:15 p.m. at Schreiber.
Asking about the specifics of the new teachers contract, Frank Russo asked the board to clarify the term "shared authority, which he had read in some of the teachers' letters-to-the-editors. Mr. Scheer replied that until the teachers ratify the contract, the board will not speak about it. Once the contract is ratified, he added, the district and the teachers will issue a press release. He then suggested that perhaps Mr. Russo should ask the teachers who wrote the letters-to-the-editor to define the term for him.
Stan Ronell requested that this year board members try to curtail superfluous detailing of minutiae when they speak and do their homework before the meetings, so as not to prolong the meetings to the point where audience members become so tired that they go home. When this occurs, he says, "The board doesn't get the input from the community it deserves."
Mr. Ronell also voiced his "personal opposition" to hiring the facilities consultant. "We already have a plethora of consultants," he said. "The work should be done in house."
Two residents complained about the delay in completing the athletic field at the Daly School. Assistant Superintendent of Schools Larry Blake informed the speakers that the field should be leveled and seeded the week of Sept. 14. One of the speakers, Debra Odell commented that the children are getting dirt in their eyes and then she demanded that the district pull all the trucks off all of the other jobs currently under way in the district to complete this project.
Eileen Ronell said that she is delighted that the teachers contract is settled. She hopes that the substitutes can settle their contract. "Three years is a long time to wait for a settlement," she said.
Debra Berkowitz, co-chair of Weber HSA, thanked the board for focusing on the Middle School this year. She feels that with the district contemplating spending between $18 million and up on renovations, they need educational consultants to help combine the program needs of the Middle School with an architectural plan.