Although the current tempest over the Clarke County Schools Superintendent’s employment contract is now on-track toward an amicable resolution the fight may simply be shifting to a new battleground.
On Monday night the Clarke County School Board once again met in closed session to discuss matters related to a disagreement between School Board member Robina Bouffault (White Post) and Superintendent Dr. Michael Murphy over Murphy’s employment contract.
Bouffault and Murphy negotiated the agreement prior to Murphy accepting the Clarke County top school administrator position when Bouffault was chairperson of the Clarke County School Board. The dispute focuses on a difference over the number of work days required under Murphy’s employment contract.
Although Bouffault has been vocal about her dissatisfaction with Murphy’s interpretation of his employment contract’s annual work day requirement there has been little support from other school board members to press the issue. Rather, several school board members have expressed embarrassment over the public bickering and have sought to move the school board agenda on to other issues as soon as possible.
Indication from Monday night’s closed session meeting is that the issue will be soon laid to rest.
“I participated [in the closed session] and the Superintendent’s leave question will be discussed in closed session at our September meeting as the chairwoman will be proposing a change to his current contract” School Board member Emily Rhodes (Buckmarsh). “The School Board must receive 30 days notice before any contract changes can be discussed.”
Prior to the beginning of Monday night’s regular school board meeting Rhodes formally raised the question of whether the series of closed session meetings convened by the School Board regarding Murphy’s contract should even have been conducted given the Freedom of Information Act guidelines.
“The superintendent’s contract is FOIA-able so nothing that we’re discussing in the closed sessions is new information,” Rhodes said. “I think that these discussions should be conducted in public so that we stop the rumors and incorrect information that is circulating.”
School officials say that the proposed contract changes to be presented to the School Board during its September meeting will modify the contract to reflect the School Board’s current expectations regarding Murphy’s annual work-day requirement.
But as the Superintendent’s contract dispute dissipates, a new public disagreement appears headed to fill the void.
At last week’s Board of Supervisors meeting School Board Chairperson Barbara Lee (Millwood) appeared to be caught off guard by questioning from the Supervisors over the status of renovation planning for the school division’s existing buildings as the new high school nears completion.
During the Supervisors’s questioning School Board member Bouffault told the Supervisors that Superintendent Murphy had not moved forward with renovation planning. School Board Chairman Lee confirmed that no one was currently in charge of the renovation effort.
The renovation issue arose again at Monday night’s School Board meeting when Superintendent Murphy told Bouffault that he was meeting with school staff to define a renovation plan that will best meet the needs of school children and that there had been no agreement to move forward with architectural suggestion provided by Crabtree Rohrbaugh and Associates (CRA), the current architects of the new high school.
On July 19, 2010 the School Board approved a $14K expenditure from CRA to establish detailed cost estimates for the existing high school, D.G. Cooley Elementary, Berryville Primary and an 8-classroom addition to the new high school classroom wing. CRA later estimated that the cost estimate for renovating all three buildings to be between $6.5M to $8.8M. (Discussions to add the additional eight classrooms was shelved due to declining student enrollment.)
Subsequent to last week’s Board of Supervisors inquiries, Bouffault raised the issue with Murphy at Monday’s School Board meeting only to learn that Murphy did not agree that sufficient planning had been done to allow the renovation process to move forward.
“We paid a lot of money for architects and our project manager to define the renovations for each building and an approximate cost,” Bouffault said. “What happened to that?”
“We have a difference in philosophies about the renovations,” Murphy replied. “CRA gave us an estimate of $8M because we had a $7.2M budget on the table. I spoke with CRA and they said that if we had had a $10M budget they would have given us an $11M estimate.”
But despite Murphy’s assertion that more planning needed to be done prior to moving forward with renovations Bouffault persisted in her questioning;
“You agreed on what needed to be done,” Bouffault said.
“There wasn’t agreement,” Murphy countered. “I would be remiss to say today that we should begin to replace doors and windows next summer before we fully understand the requirements of the little people who will be using the space. My number one responsibility is to ensure that we have design plans that are appropriate for young people.”
Bouffault, apparently not satisfied with Murphy’s response, said in an email message widely distributed to the Clarke County Board of Supervisors and the media on Tuesday;
“At last night’s School Board regular meeting, there was a discussion concerning the status and costs of school renovations, and as it appears that some memories may be fuzzy in this regard, I am outlining the timeline of events below concerning School Board decisions that relate to them.”
“There was a formal walk-thru of the three schools by our school staff, CRA engineers Keith Karper and Sean Gray, CRA mechanical engineer Rob Henning from Gatter & Diehl, Bobby Levi, and Mike Castelli, to discuss and agree upon the renovations needed, to allow CRA to establish the detailed cost estimates after a thorough inspection of each school.”
Bouffault’s email message continued that on September 7, 2010 the School Board discussed the prioritization of the four different renovation items, and agreed, along with Dr. Murphy, to prioritize renovation of the current High School followed by D.G. Cooley, and Berryville Primary.
Bouffault said in her email that she later met with Clarke County maintenance manager Bobby Levi to discuss the renovation possibilities. Bouffault said that her meeting with Levi determined that while it was preferable to wait until the high school students have permanently vacated the current high school, to avoid potential vandalism issues, doing the remaining items still outstanding in D.G. Cooley could be easily undertaken over the summer and finalized prior to the new FY12 school year. Bobby Levi was to revert with a schedule of planned items for D.G. Cooley.
“It is my understanding that a hold was subsequently put on this initiative by the Superintendent, which was confirmed last night,” Bouffault said in the email.
“As the Board of Supervisors has queried the status of the school renovations at both their June 21st and July 14th board meetings, it is important to note that although I am the AOR (authorized owner’s representative) for the new high school project, I am not the AOR for the other schools’ renovations. There is no AOR authorized by the School Board for the renovations at the present time,” said Bouffault.
While the economic downturn of the economy has caused severe difficulties for many people, one positive impact for Clarke County taxpayers is that final construction costs for the new high school were significantly lower than expected resulting in a $7.2 million dollar funding surplus currently slated to renovate the county’s other school structures. Some county and school officials have voiced support for obligating the funds as quickly as possible in order to take advantage of aggressive price estimates from contractors in the soft construction market. The current renovation debate appears to stem from the tension between school officials wanting thorough design planning versus elected officials hoping to maximize budget effectiveness before the construction industry begins to heat up as the economy recovers.
“These are conservative estimates, and the low estimate is well underneath the current $7,000,000 available for the renovations – if they are started within a reasonable period of time,” Bouffault said. “The $7,000,000 is part of the already-appropriated bond funds, so is available on an immediate basis for those renovations.”