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Mecklenburg school board, supervisors hash out capital priorities

SoVaNow.com / May 28, 2014
The joint education committee — comprised of members of the Mecklenburg County board of supervisors and school board — after much back and forth has developed a list of priorities needed to “provide a comfortable atmosphere for our students,” in the words of Superintendent of Schools James Thornton.

The committee is investigating the feasibility of building a consolidated high school/middle school campus for Mecklenburg County.

Supervisor Claudia Lundy expressed frustration with the school board’s perceived inability to settle on its top priorities, thereby hampering work by the board of supervisors to develop a capital improvements budget for the schools.

“When we left the last meeting, your top priority that we discussed, walkways to the gyms and boilers to the gyms in two middle schools,” said Lundy. “And now we come back today and we have something else. We can’t keep jumping around. You give us your top priorities. We work on those. Try to get to some concession. But if you keep jumping around, we don’t know what you want, and when you want it.”

Thornton replied that the needs of the schools are unchanged and that among the $2.7 million in repairs he is seeking, the five most important are repairs to the mechanical systems in several schools.

Projects include:

a chiller at South Hill Elementary

boilers at Park View Middle School and Bluestone High School

installing walkways to the gymnasiums at La Crosse, Chase City and Clarksville Elementary schools

new bleachers at Park View and Bluestone Middle Schools

paving the parking lots at Chase City, La Crosse and South Hill Elementary schools,

and replacing the HVAC units in the elementary schools.

“None of this is in the budget,” said County Administrator Wayne Carter, “because we didn’t know what to ask for.” But he explained the county could amend and re-advertise its budget if funds are authorized for any or all of the requested repairs. He asked Thornton for pricing for new boilers.

Thornton also shared a preliminary review he asked energy consultant Honeywell to conduct in an attempt to pinpoint problems with the heating systems. In addition to aging boilers, the Honeywell consultants found that the centralized controls had been overridden, wires were pulled from thermostats, and switches on HVAC system controllers were broken.

There was also a timing problem with the system in that it failed to turn on the heat in some of the schools in time to warm the classes above 55 degrees before the start of the school week. In addition, the master control system was removed. Thornton said the consultant speculated that it might have been auctioned off.

Once the Honeywell consultants completed their review, Thornton said he would present their findings to the full school board for consideration.

“This is the system we have so we’ve got to make it comfortable for our students,” said Trustee Sandra Tanner.

Supervisor David Brankley cautioned Thornton, “We want a guarantee that they will save us money,” after Thornton suggested he would recommend rehiring the company to service the HVAC system in the schools.

At one time, Honeywell was under contract with the county schools, but they were dismissed prior to Thornton coming to the county. When asked why, Carter said he did not know the specifics but recalled the major complaints with the company was that it was charging “a lot of money [for] simple service.” He also shared that the county has the same system and no service contract. Instead, county maintenance staff rely on the system to direct when and where repairs are needed.

In other business, Thornton discussed employment statistics and clarified that Mecklenburg County is not losing 100 teachers at the end of this school year. Seventeen were retiring and another 17 were leaving for other reasons, he said. Since 2007, the school system lost 100 teaching positions, adding that many leave because of the pay.

Brankley responded telling of a specific teacher who he said was not leaving for pay reasons. He asked, if pay was the issue, then why we couldn’t not try to find the money to increase that teacher’s pay.

He was told that, as currently written, the teacher pay scale is not merit based, but uses steps, thus preventing the superintendent from negotiating with teachers on pay issues.

Thornton said he did want to implement performance pay, something he did back in Cumberland County.

Brankley then asked, “Why can one guidance counselor get $60,000 when some who’ve been here longer are making $30,000 or $40,000?” He was told that teacher pay is set by a formula that looks at years of experience and education.

Before ending the meeting, committee discussed the audit of the school activity fund. Sandra Tanner read a letter for the school board’s newly hired attorney, Craig Wood, the attorney hired by the school board May 9. In his opinion, there was no criminal or illegal activity with respect to expenditures made using the school activity funds in 2012/13. The auditor disagreed with the procedures followed by the school administration, but that all public monies were accounted for.

Relying on information provided by the school board, from what both finance director Donna Garner and Thornton referred to as “the second audit,” which was conducted by Brown Edwards accounting firm, the attorney’s opinion letter concluded that the school board needed to implement “more consistent controls” over the use of its student activity funds.

The attorney’s opinion was written in response to an independent audit letter, issued by Creedle Jones and Alga on Aug. 26, 2013, which reported that the school activity funds were used by administrators to pay for such items as new classroom furnishings and employee salaries, “in direct noncompliance” with department of education policies. There was, in the words of the auditors, also evidence of order splitting, which is prohibited by the Virginia Procurement Act.

Garner gave “a short statement” in which she said the second audit had findings that were both similar and different from the original audit conducted by the accounting firm of Creedle Jones & Alga. She continued, “At no time were student funds used” for the purchase of desks, or to advance a coach’s salary. The payments were made from general funds placed into the student activity fund accounts.

Not mentioned is the fact that Chris Banta, the accountant who conducted what Garner called “the second audit,” emphatically told the School Board at its April meeting that he and his firm did not conduct an audit, but a limited review of only 25 transactions made through Park View Middle School and Bluestone High School’s student activity funds.

Thornton again blamed “a female reporter” for misconstruing the facts and causing the uproar over the use of the student activity fund, when he was simply following past practices and the guidance of Department of Education.

He and Garner assured Supervisors that under the new polices drafted by Garner, there would be no more confusion relative to the use of student activity funds, which Garner said she authorized based on her understanding of the Department of Education polices and the Virginia Procurement Act.

Under questioning from Brankley, Thornton acknowledged that in “hindsight” it may have been a better practice to allow the school board to approve the purchase of furniture in advance, “and then we would not be having this conversation.

“Lesson learned,” Thornton said.

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