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Mecklenburg trustees tripped up by questions on school policy

SoVaNow.com / March 19, 2014
Challenged recently by Superintendent of Schools Dr. James Thornton to strive for a better understanding of school policies and procedures, trustees on the Mecklenburg County School Board were reminded this week that the task is sometimes easier said than done.

The trustees, at a meeting Wednesday in Boydton, acknowledged they violated their own rules when they hired Board Chairman Robert Puryear’s daughter to be an assistant volleyball coach last fall. But members were split over whether Thornton’s decision to spend $37,000 to purchase “Cortez Math,” a remedial math software program, without first seeking the trustees’ approval was also done in violation of school board policies.

The formal admission by Puryear was accompanied by his agreement to repay $1,500, the salary he said was earned by his daughter in her capacity as volleyball coach.

The alleged violations broached the board’s “Special Anti-Nepotism Rules” and its purchasing requirements. The anti-nepotism rules prohibit trustees from voting to employ or pay the family members of a trustee or the Superintendent for any position or program maintained and operated by the School Board. The purchasing rules call for the School Board, not the Superintendent, to “award contracts for purchases exceeding $30,000.”

The policy makes an exception for purchases undertaken due to an emergency, which is defined as “an occurrence of a serious and urgent nature that requires the Mecklenburg County Public Schools to take immediate action to protect safety and property.”

Several members, among them Sandra Tanner and Thomas Bullock, acknowledged voting in favor of hiring the Puryear’s daughter, but they professed having no knowledge that she was related to the board chairman despite sharing the same last name.

Bullock laid blame for the violation on the director of school personnel at the time. Under school policy, however, the division superintendent, not staff, makes hiring recommendations.

Puryear said he, too, was unaware of the violation, pointing out that he was absent at the meeting when the vote to hire was taken to hire his daughter.

School Board members receive the agenda and supporting materials, via computer, at least three days in advance of each meeting according to school board policy.

As for the alleged purchasing violation, Tanner insisted that Thornton had every right to contract with Cortez Math Programs, absent a prior vote of the school board, because students were falling behind in their math skills. She reasoned that since the program benefited a number of students, the purchase was an emergency. Trustee Dale Sturdifen disagreed, again citing the definition of an emergency found in the policy manual.

Tanner argued that because Mecklenburg County schools belong to several purchasing consortiums — in which two or more independent organizations join together to leverage their purchasing power to obtain more favorable pricing, including for Cortez Math Programs — Thornton was not required to obtain prior board approval before purchasing the math program, though the price exceeded $30,000.

Current school board policies are silent on whether products bought through the consortium are exempt from the purchasing rules.

As written, for Thornton to approve the $37,000 expenditure for Cortez Math Programs without prior approval, school policy mandates:

he first obtain written informal solicitations from at least four bidders or offers

the contract have attached to it “proper documentation detailing the reason for the emergency”

the school board chairman receive immediate notice of the award, and

the “Assistant Superintendent of Administration and Finance to publicly post a written notice of the award.”

None of these conditions was met with the Cortez purchase.

Not discussed during the meeting was a contract awarded earlier this year to Brown Edwards, a Roanoke accounting firm hired to conduct a follow-up audit of select procedures. An initial audit, highly critical of the Superintendent and his purchasing practices, was performed by the South Hill accounting firm of Creedle, Jones and Alga.

In response to a Freedom of Information Request, School Board Clerk Sharon Shuttleworth acknowledged that the School Board never voted on the Brown Edwards contract since it did not exceed $30,000. However, School Board policy calls for “contracts not exceeding $30,000, awarded by the superintendent or designee,” to be reported to the School Board at the next regular meeting.

There is no evidence that such a report was made during any public session of the school board.

Aside from the commitment of Puryear to repay the school, no formal action was taken regarding these issues. However, Tanner’s solution called for replacing the current policy manual in favor of one written by the Virginia School Board Association, and dumping the trustees’ current legal counsel, Brad King.

Tanner said she wanted a lawyer who “works for the entire board,” and called existing policies “confusing,” opting instead to adopt rules that 125 of Virginia’s school systems follow.

Sturdifen said before he could agree to a new set of rules, he wanted a presentation on Virginia School Board Association (VSBA) policies.

Trustee Debra Smiley reminded members that this board, at one time, followed the VSBA guidelines, but dropped them when she, Tanner and trustee Joan Wagstaff were first elected to the School Board.

“If I remember correctly, at the time I think it was a consensus of the board that our policies were somewhat out of date, antiquated if you will,” said Smiley. “I think there was a preference that Mr. King go through [them] thoroughly and get [them] more up to date.”

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