Residents voiced their concerns over Columbia's shared service agreement with the ELANCO School District, at last week's Columbia Borough School Board meeting.
(Part One of the coverage is HERE.)
Resident (and former board member) Quinn Hartman: "First of all I'd like to say I've been on the board nine and a half years and never seen this many people in the audience. I wish it was like this every meeting. When I heard about this idea of the shared superintendent, I thought man what a great concept, it solves our problems. I'm thinking this should save us fifty, sixty thousand dollars a year, so when I heard it only saves $8,000, I was disappointed. This contract that the board agreed to, can we define Garden Spot as a third party vendor?"
Attorney Michael Grab: "Well, they're a separate entity with whom we have a contract. Under certain circumstances a separate entity could be considered a third party vendor, I don't know if that would qualify under these circumstances, but there's certainly a separate and distinct legal entity from the Columbia Borough School District."
Hartman: "According to Title 65, Chapter 11, Section 1102, definition. And it states, define a "Conflict or conflict of interest as use by a public official or public employee of the authority of his or her office or any confidential information received through his or her holding public office or employment for the private pecuniary benefit of him or herself, a member of his or her immediate family, or a business in which he or she is a member of, or his/her immediate family is associated.
"Does anyone dispute that definition? I mean I'm reading right out of the (inaudible). So, if I understand the events correctly, the current director of operations was a sitting board member when we made this decision to go into this contract, is that your take?"
Grab: "Yeah, that's correct."
Hartman: "Was the position itself approved while he was sitting on the board?"
Grab: "When the statement of work was approved by this board it included provisions both for the simultaneous superintendent for Dr. Hollister and for a position called Director of Operations, so that was definitely included in the statement of work."
Hartman: "Ok, so we agree that he was sitting on the board at that time, is that what you're saying?"
Grab: "Mr. Strickler was sitting on the board at the time that the statement of work was approved by the board, now he did recuse himself from any participation in the approval of that."
Hartman: "Whether he recused himself or not, he was still there then, he was still in the know about what happened.
"When both parties were supposed to vote on it, I think there was a discussion earlier about that, delaying the vote, changing the date, why was that done?"
Dr. Robert Hollister
Superintendent Dr. Robert Hollister: "I was still checking references and I didn't get references checked in time. There were ten candidates, I interviewed five, I checked references for three and that took longer than I hoped it would, while folks got back to me from vacations, so I had to delay the hiring of the person I eventually chose."
Hartman: "So, we really didn't fulfill the contract terms. We were supposed to vote on that date, according to the contract."
Hollister: "July 18."
Hartman: "Columbia School Board didn't have any say in the delay?"
Hartman: "Just trying to make that clear. We don't consider any of this a conflict of interest based on the definition I just read?"
Grab: "I do not."
Hartman: "You don't think its a conflict of interest?"
Grab: "A conflict of interest for whom? Are you talking about for Mr. Strickler?"
Hartman: "What I'm talking about is a sitting board member, it's pretty clear to me confidential information received through his authority of job counts as a conflict of interest. Still sitting on the board while you're making decisions count as a conflict of interest?"
Grab: "Quinn I understand what you're saying, but my understanding is that Mr. Strickler recused himself from any votes to approve a statement of work or anything to do with the director of operations, so under those circumstances he's not actively participating in that process for approval of documents, so there's certainly is no - facially any conflict of interest with regard to the approval of the statement of work, is what I would say."
Hartman: "No public employee or his or her spouse or any business, which in this case would be Garden Spot, in which the person or his or her spouse is associated shall benefit in any contract valued at $500 or more with the school district or any subcontract valued at $500 or more with any person who has been awarded a contract with a school district unless the contract has been awarded through an open and public process including prior public notice and subsequent public disclosure of all proposals considered and contracts awarded. Now, this actually comes from this board's policy manual. Now the question I have then is, was this an open and public process? Last week's meeting the board didn't have a whole lot of answers to some of the questions that were asked.
Hollister: "I didn't have an answer to every question that was asked. I don't think anyone ever did."
Hartman: "The public didn't really have a chance to discuss the information, if it's not a public process this doesn't meet the definition of this policy. Were proposals sought out? Did you check with any other school districts?"
Grab: "This is a concept that is really outside the intended structure of those kinds of statutes it's all about a standard kind of contract for contracted services this is obviously an [inaudible] of two districts trying to combine their executive, supervisory duties, so I would say that all of those strictures under these circumstances wouldn't necessarily apply. For example, you talked about ELANCO being a third party vendor under these circumstances, while you may be able to generally describe it as that, it certainly is not exclusive because it's a separate school district and so it wouldn't fall clearly into that category, so I'm saying that this is certainly a bit of a different animal, and I'm not saying that you're not raising legitimate issues for the board to consider, but it doesn't fit squarely and neatly within all of those those established parameters. I think everybody acknowledges that, even PDE, Pennsylvania Department of Education."
Hartman: "In that definition, I consider this position is rendering service to Columbia Borough School District through the third party vendor of Garden Spot. In my mind that violates the conflict of interest. You have to have the ethics, if ethics aren't there we don't belong in business. This is the last thing I want to say pretty much to the whole board is you basically gave up control of your school district for $8,000. I just disagree with how we went about this, great idea, but I disagree with $8,000, It should have been a lot more. Somehow it should have been negotiated a little more, in my opinion."