District 8 representative Frank Myers has been calling for more public accountability and transparency since he joined the Muscogee County School Board five months ago. Friday, he made one proposal and one complaint to help reach those goals.
Myers released the text of his proposed revisions to the board's policy regulating public participation at meetings. He expects his proposal to be on the agenda for Monday's 5 p.m. work session. That agenda wasn't publicly available as of Friday afternoon.
"This proposal will ensure that every interested person will have an opportunity to fairly and fully exercise their Constitutional right to free speech by giving citizens a voice at the public meetings of the Muscogee County School Board," Myers told the Ledger-Enquirer in an email.
Myers also emailed superintendent David Lewis a complaint regarding still not receiving promised detail about the administration's proposed fiscal year 2016 budget. The board received a summary of the spending plan but not a line-item budget, which was requested by the board's two other newly elected members: John Thomas of District 2 and Kia Chambers, the nine-member board's lone county-wide representative. They received 200-plus pages of "raw input data" but not a line-item budget, Thomas said during Monday's called meeting.
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For several months, the board has been discussing revisions to its public participation policy. It started with a minor tweak, to make the time limit consistent. The time limit was declared as 3, 5 and 10 minutes in various places. While they've been scrutinizing the policy, board members and the administration have made other suggestions, and the debate has sparked more arguments than agreements.
Although the board's consensus has settled on a 5-minute time limit, other issues about the policy remain. Myers explained in an email the changes his proposal suggests:
"Got rid of ridiculous idea that the Supt. must first be able to address a complaint before it is heard."
"Got rid of idea that you cannot criticize a school board employee ('performance' was key word that I omitted)."
"Got rid of requirement that subject you speak on must be on the agenda."
"Got rid of idea that you can't talk about the same subject twice in six months."
"Got rid of idea that Supt. and/or Board member could eliminate people from speaking without the rest of the board knowing about it."
"Only have to 'generally' identify the area they wish to address."
"Got rid of the 'be as brief as possible.' That is insulting."
The L-E asked the other board members in an email for their reaction to Myers' proposal.
"I believe that the public has a right to be heard by the board with as little restriction as practical," Thomas replied. "The school board is an elected body and should be open to public comment and questions at its meetings. Mr. Myers' proposal is clear and fair to all parties."
No other board members responded by deadline.
At the end of Monday's called meeting, after three of the nine board members voted against tentative adoption of the administration's proposed fiscal year 2016 budget because they wanted more information, Lewis promised he would try to provide it.
That information still wasn't sent to the board as of 4:07 p.m. Friday, Myers said. He wrote in his 12:11 p.m. email to Lewis:
"We have now had an opportunity to review the agenda for Monday night's work session. There is no new information regarding the budget.
"Also, I just checked with John Thomas, and he advises that he has received none of the information that was promised Monday night. That's another four days of delay.
"Dr. Lewis, I want to see THE ACTUAL PROPOSED BUDGET. I think everybody who takes their jobs on the board seriously wants to see THE ACTUAL PROPOSED BUDGET.
"John Thomas proved Monday night that line-item detail exists in the system. As you refuse to produce an actual budget, might you just turn over the line item information so we can all just see THAT?
"I hope you will give this matter your full and immediate attention."
Lewis explained in an email to the Ledger-Enquirer at 5:17 p.m. that technical trouble had prevented the administration from fulfilling the request, despite working "approximately 13-15 hours daily in an attempt to create a new document similar to the one requested Monday night."
The district's finance software program, Business Plus, doesn't produce reports in the requested format, Lewis said. Chief financial officer Theresa Thornton "encountered a problem in the formatting of the document which caused a delay," he said. "I have spoken with Ms. Thornton throughout the day and the formatting issues have now been resolved and the year-over year line item information has been sent to all Board members for their review.
"It is important to note that essentially the same information was previously sent to those Board members requesting this level of detail in a document of several hundred pages last Saturday. It was in a different format broken out by location/facility. No questions or concerns were received by district staff about this information until last Monday night's work session."
The L-E sought reaction from the other board members. Vice chairwoman Pat Hugley Green of District 1 and Thomas responded.
Thomas said in an email, "Dr. Lewis made it clear at the last meeting that he is only concerned with taking direction from the Board, and he went on to define the Board as 5 of 9. (The) meeting proved that the majority of the board members are ready to rubber stamp the proposed budget without any further scrutiny. The people who have an interest in the Muscogee County school district, whether it's as a parent, an employee, or a taxpayer, should be absolutely outraged by the circumstances surrounding this proposed budget. I know I am."
In a 5-3 vote Monday, the board approved tentative adoption of the administration's recommended fiscal year budget of $268,746,786 -- an increase of $4,029,176 (1.52 percent), including $2.7 million in raises for an estimated 30-40 percent of the 3,900 full-time employees. State law requires the tentative budget to be adopted two weeks before the final vote, which must be taken before July 1.
Mark Cantrell of District 6 joined Myers and Thomas in opposition. The majority votes were cast by Chambers, Green, chairman Rob Varner of District 5, Athavia "A.J." Senior of District 3 and Naomi Buckner of District 4. Shannon Smallman of District 7 was absent.
"The proposed budget and the information in it has changed little since it was presented Feb. 28th at our board retreat," Green said in an email. "One change is the document went from a couple of summary pages to several hundred pages (approx. 800) of line item proposals listed in alphabetical order by building abbreviated like ACM for Aaron Cohen MS. It details all expenditures for each building including the payroll liabilities. This information was requested electronically. I reviewed a hard copy from the CFO's office.
"It's a matter of taking the time to become informed and realizing that it is our responsibility to do so. The day to day operation of the school system is strictly the role of the Superintendent and his designated staff. Our role is to review the recommendation and ask meaning and helpful questions. The Superintendent and his staff are spending a lot of time providing duplicate information in different formats to provide clear information and the different requested formats."
The board has two more meetings to finalize the millage rate and budget:
June 8, 5 p.m. -- public hearing on tentative budget; monthly work session. Board members will gather at 4 p.m. to hear a Georgia Department of Education official further explain the options for governance, which the Ledger-Enquirer reported last week. That discussion also is open to the public. The board must choose its form of governance by June 30.
June 15, 6 p.m. -- vote on final adoption of millage rate and budget; monthly meeting.