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Spurlock, Strong, Aborn, Tredway Respond to Etheridge’s Questions; Board Okays District Bus Purchases

By Sue Curry Jones

Ava R-I School District adopted the state minimum millage rate of 2.75 on Thursday, August 18.  The action occurred in a 6-0 vote of the board, as Ron Wallace was absent for the tax rate hearing.

Motions to maintain the current millage rate were by Marsha Aborn and Vernon Johnson.

Revenue figures delineating tax income from Ozark, Douglas, Wright and Christian counties for the current and past year was presented to the board by Dr. Nancy Lawler.  The tax information is on Page B-11 of this issue; it is also on the Douglas County Herald website, with this report.

After concluding the tax hearing, board members reconvened for a monthly business meeting, wherein four board members –– Marsha Aborn, Randy Spurlock, Lowell Strong and Troy Tredway took the opportunity to respond to questions previously posed by Bryan Etheridge during the August 8 meeting.

Aborn, Spurlock, Strong and Tredway provided their answers in a letter format which Marsha read to the crowd.   The letter in its entirety follows, with answers from the four board members marked Reply, and Etheridge’s questions in italics.

The letter starts with the following statement:

Since the questions posed by Bryan Etheridge at the August 8 board meeting were addressed to the four board members, the following is our reply and we are not representing the entire board. The opinions are our own.

Why did you not accept the advice of seasoned school attorneys as well as MSBA attorneys?

Reply:  Advice given by these attorneys was given in closed session and is not privy to the general public.  If you have information about advice that was given, then someone has broken the confidentiality of the closed session.

Why do bus drivers, who are contracted service-providers have so much negotiation power while teachers and employees do not?

Reply: The bus drivers do not have any more negotiation power than any other group of school staff.  If another group of employees were treated as unfairly as the bus drivers, rest assured that we would actively support them just as vigorously as we have supported the bus drivers.  All personnel are needed, whether it be the superintendent or the cafeteria workers, to allow a school to run effectively and efficiently in order to facilitate a learning environment for our students. We have the best group of bus drivers who truly care about our students, their safety and welfare while being transported to and from school. Without these bus drivers, there would be no need to have all the other employees that are hired by the school.

What did the study of area bus wages show?

Reply:  We are not aware of such a study about bus drivers wages.

Why did we increase the bus driver mileage reimbursement when gas is cheaper currently than it has been in years?

Reply:  The mileage reimburse-ment was increased because reim-bursement not only includes cost for fuel, but also for maintenance, insurance, and replacement of equipment.  It should be noted that when a driver must borrow a bus owned by the school, he must pay a $100 a day fee to the school.  Also, if the bus driver must ever hire a substitute driver because he/she is unable to drive, the bus driver must compensate the substitute.  Even though gas is cheaper, other costs have skyrocketed.

How do you justify giving the bus drivers a larger raise than other school faculty and staff?

Reply:  This is a misconception. The bus drivers did NOT receive a larger raise than other school faculty and staff.  We as a board specifically asked the superintendent to add to the base rate the SAME amount that other staff received.  Bus drivers did not receive any increase for two years even though other staff received increases.  Even the Opaa! Contract has an automatic 2% yearly increase.  This safeguard was not added into the bus driver’s contract.

Why has there so frequently been such a difference in contracted miles turned in by some drivers versus actual miles driven?

Reply:  There are several reasons as to why there has been a difference.  When reimbursement for transporta-tion at the State level was much higher than it is today, drivers were encouraged to turn in all the miles that the route encompassed by former superintendents.  As the reimburse-ment rate decreased, drivers were then asked to turn in only miles driven.  Most complied; some did not.  The administration had all the tools needed to enforce the policy but chose not to do so.  The present Board decided to add GPS to all the buses in order to track mileage and as a safety factor. When there are large discrepancies, adjustments will be made. Routes have changed over the years as ridership has changed.

Why does the school not have the first option to operate a route when a bus driver gives up a route?

Reply:  The bus driver does not give up a route. The bus driver “(Contractor) may assign, transfer, or sell their Right to Contract, to another, subject to prior Board approval.”  It was stated by Dr. Lawler that she could operate the three routes that do not presently have contractors at no additional cost in the August 8 meeting.  Apparently this is not true because the Board was asked to give verbal approval to the purchase of two newer buses on August 11 to supplement the fleet. Purchase price was over $60,000 each. The District is not able to operate buses efficiently as our present contractors.

How will this additional expen-diture of money benefit our district or our children?  What was the board’s justification for not accepting the proposed Options 1, 2, or 3 when so much money would have been saved and how does that additional expenditure benefit our district and our children?

Reply:  We did   not accept any of the proposed options because they were all flawed and not based on sound fiscal practices.  If the administration had only wanted to purchase the two or possibly three routes that needed to be consolidated as had been done in the past, costs would have been considerably less.  The former drivers knew that there was an overlap in the routes and were willing to accept an equitable settlement had one been offered. We had a good system in place which needed only minor adjustments for necessary improvement. We did not need to throw the baby out with the bath water.

In conclusion, this entire fiasco needs to be put to rest as we move forward.  And we must move forward.  We believe our community wants this issue to be resolved.  The Board has made decisions based on a majority vote.  We are a democracy and the majority rules. We feel it is unfair to call our actions on the Board “irresponsible” and “unethical.”  We are still voting the way that we have always voted.  We are voting for what is best for the children.  Not having a reliable transportation sys-tem with experienced, caring drivers is not best for the children.   (End of letter)

Superintendent Dr. Nancy Lawler reported additional lightning damage was recently detected at the school; consequently, additional items are being checked before filing a final claim with the insurance company.  Most of the other damage issues have been repaired.

Lawler advised the year-end audit went smoothly and deficit spending totals came in just under $200,000. Originally, the 2015-16 budget was set to sustain deficit spending of just under $1 million; but, even with the bus settlement, final numbers were better than expected.    She also noted student enrollment has increased, and kindergarten numbers are up with 22 students in each classroom.

Bears Den afterschool programs will continue this year with several changes, as federal grant money has not been awarded.  The program will serve students in pre-kindergarten through 6th grade, with no bus service offered.  The program concludes at 5:30 p.m., and the fees, which have increased, must be paid weekly.  Middle school and high school students will be offered tutoring at a later date.  It was noted 92 students participated in Bears Den on the first day of school, August 18.

Lawler asked for authorization to pursue options for purchasing three buses for the district.  The buses will serve as activity buses, as several district buses are old and need to be updated.  Lawler said three suitable buses are currently for sale – they are a 2014 model for $67,900, a 2014 model for $67,500, and a 2003 for $9,900.  The buses do not have air conditioning, and have air brakes rather than hydraulic brakes. Board members approved the search, and designated a maximum spending amount of $70,000 for each 2014 bus and $10,000 for an older model.  The vote was 7-0.

Lowell Strong suggested selling the older buses rather than salvaging the vehicles.  He noted this would allow the district to recoup some of their initial investment.   Lawler said insurance restrictions may prohibit the suggestion, but she would pursue the idea.

In a 7-0 vote, the board adopted policy updates as recommended by Missouri School Board Association.  Lawler noted most of the revisions were due to changes in legislation, and others were for compliance with federal guidelines as established by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Uniform Guidance.

Board members also adopted the Annual Secretary of the Board (ASBR) report as presented, in a 7-0 vote.  However, Lowell Strong posed several questions from the document, asking Lawler about column entries associated with the lease purchase agreement.  Strong inquired about the term length of 14 years, and also why no payments were documented in the column.  Lawler said she needed additional documents to correctly answer Strong’s questions, and those papers were in her office.

Tuition for the 2016-17 term was approved for a rate of $6,855.78 per student. Motions were by Aborn and Troy Tredway, and the vote was 7-0. Last year, tuition was $6,900.02.

Transportation costs for the 2016-17 term were also approved, for a per student rate of $895.49. The vote was 7-0.

The annual contract with the Missouri School Board Association (MSBA) was renewed for a fee of $3,393.  In this agreement, the Ava R-I board is provided with legislative updates on state and federal laws, administrative policy recommenda-tions, and student handbooks are assessed for procedural and legal purposes.

Motions were by Johnson and Aborn.  The vote was 7-0.

The Conflict of Interest Ordinance, and Special Education Compliance Plan, as written by the Department of Education and Secondary Education, were approved and adopted in a 7-0 vote.

A list of substitute bus drivers was approved for the 2016-17 term, and those individuals are as follows, with the asterisk noting driver of a route:  *Butch Sisco, Don Nash, Terry Wilson, Cody Riley, Clint Marler, Phillip McFarlin, Karen Vinson, *Walt Walters, *Barbara Sanders, *Cathy Marriott and Mick Swofford.

During the meeting, the board recognized the School-Wide Positive Behavior Support program in high school for recently receiving a bronze award from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Educa-tion.

Taylor Haltom, son of Nathan and Trish Haltom, was recognized for outstanding success in golf.  Haltom, who posted his third-consecutive all-state finish last spring, won district by eight strokes, placed fifth at sectionals, and placed first in seven tournaments during the 2016 spring season.  Jacob Luebbering, son of Jana Lumb, was honored for showing unyielding determination to be a part of the cross country team during his fight against Lupus.  In the face of illness, Luebbering continued to practice faithfully with the team, and even after chemo treatments, he came back last fall to compete for Ava.  Prior to his junior season, Luebbering was a two-time state qualifier for Ava’s cross country team.

Both young men were recognized in July at the O-Zone Sports Banquet.  Haltom received the Ozone 1 Award in golf, and Luebbering received the Ozone 1 Award for Most Inspira-tional Athlete.

Town & Country Bank was recognized for providing school staff with a “welcome back to school” breakfast.  Sheldon Shaver, vice president / branch manager, accepted the acknowledgement on behalf of the bank and employees.

According to Dr. Lawler, “there was not any reportable action in closed session.”

Board members present for the business session were Troy Tredway, Bart Ellison, Marsha Aborn, Randy Spurlock, Ron Wallace, Lowell Strong, Vernon Johnson, and student representative Logan Little.  Board President Randy Spurlock explained Little was absent from several board meetings because he was serving as a representative for Ava High School and attending a conference in Las Vegas on substance abuse.

The next business meeting is slated for Thursday, Sept. 15, at 6:30 p.m.  Meetings are open to the public.