This newspaper had to file A Freedom of Information Act Request in order to get information from the Simpson County Board of Education following their decision to go into executive session at the June 29 board meeting.
The big news to come from the meeting had to do with property to be purchased or leased for a consolidated high school site. However, no representative of the school district is talking about their plans.
The board went into executive session on Tuesday, June 29, to discuss land options for their future plans for the Simpson County Schools.
At least three of the board members favor consolidating the county’s two high schools into one, but as far as going on the record no one is officially commenting. When we recently asked school board president Danny Cowart about the board’s intentions, he responded, “It is not the appropriate time to discuss this.”
Believing that plans for consolidation would be discussed at the meeting, the newspaper filed a request for public information. While the board can discuss real estate transactions in closed session, any vote to act is a matter of public record. But as with concerns about other transparency issues, the board does very little to let the community know what they are doing.
School board attorney Wesla Leech did respond to the request for information. She reported that the board authorized her to negotiate directly with Trustmark Bank on behalf of the board to purchase the former Pioneer Building in the industrial park in Magee, which the bank owns and which is now vacant and up for bids on an internet auction site.
The board established a price in excess of the $1.65 million bid for the property by another interested party. Leech was authorized to make a contingent bid of between $1.8 and $2 million on behalf of the district.
Board member Stan Bulger made the motion to approve the transaction, and it was seconded by Patrice Boykin. Cowart made the third vote favoring the deal. Members Stacey Herrin and Lillie Hardy exited the meeting before the vote was taken.
The building went on the auction block in early June. A reserve was in place, however, and no one is saying whether that reserve price was met. Opening bids started at $250,000, then went earlier that week to $300,000, and by Wednesday, June 30, it reached $1.65 million. The website indicates that a total of 28 bids were offered on the property.
The property was being sold with a warranty deed. Currently there are restrictive covenants on the property. The Simpson Development District sent a request to the State Attorney General’s Office to make a determination as to whether the property could be used for other purposes outside the covenants. County officials stated that the county has not received a response from state attorney general.
This determination could prevent the school district from using the property and could prevent Covington County Hospital, which had also indicated interest in the property, from offering patient care at that location. The school district checked into the cost of modifying the property to house a consolidated county high school. But at this point the district has not confirmed any information.
According to a spokesperson for Seven Hills Auction Company, which is handling the deal, an offer of $1.65 million has been submitted to Trustmark Bank and is awaiting approval. They said they could not identify the buyer until the deal is finalized.
The board has discussed using building funds from federal sources, though without specifics. The funds are referred to as ESSER Funding that have been made available to help entities deal with the pandemic. The district has found a way to finance the building of a new school through these federal funds. This in effect means that taxes would not have to be increased locally to fund a consolidated school project.
The board has discussed two other locations for the school, one on property adjacent to CoLin on Highway 49 and another property located near the Simpson County Technical Center, according to unofficial sources.
This request for public information on the property decision comes on the heels of requesting information from Dr. Robert Sanders, acting school superintendent. He said he is following advice of the board attorney and withholding public records. This matter arose when the human resources report was not made available prior to its being voted on by the board. Typically the board states, “Item number 3” and the board votes with no one knowing what is being discussed because the board will not provide public information prior to the board meeting. Other public bodies make the information available to the public before it is voted on.
Recent requests “to be transparent” from board members to the board have fallen on deaf ears. Board members Lillie Hardy and Stacey Herrin have made those pleas in the current board meetings as well as at previous board meetings.
In other business, an organizational chart as submitted by incoming Superintendent Dr. Toriano Holloway was tabled until Holloway was officially on staff as of July 1. A new position requested by Holloway, a public information position, was on the agenda but not discussed.
The board approved placement of several positions and supplements for coaching positions within the district. Dr. Sanders reported to the board that the majority of positions are filled. He said that no vacancies were created in regard to Covid-1.
A decision was made on behalf of Melanie Warren, physical therapist for the county schools. On the recommendation of Superintendent Paes, the board had decided that her salary should be tied to a teacher’s rate of pay for the same years of experience and not the market price of a physical therapist.
Dr. Robert Sanders, assistant superintendent for Human Resources, is trying to determine what the district considers to be a fair rate of pay based on teacher pay scales. Board member Lillie Hardy recently stated that there are exceptions for positions other than instructional and emphasized that pay should not be based on gender.
Though legally a physical therapist now has to have a doctorate degree to practice, this is not the case with grandfathered employees as in Warren’s case.
Warren stated in a follow up that she was displeased with the decision of the board and felt that the matter had been settled unfairly and that she was stopped from making comment via Zoom at that meeting.
A new issue has surfaced in regard to the school district’s finances. Retirement benefits have not been paid in the case of at least one employee. The board voted to pay the unpaid funds and move ahead. They were cautioned that this may have occurred in other circumstances where the district may not be aware of a problem.
The problem seem to be related to the financial issues associated with former school district financial officer, Duane Fewell. While they did not mention Fewell by name, the board indicated that once a complete picture is painted from an audit they intend to go after the individual’s bond to pay back funds and penalties the district has incurred.