Florida Keys News
Wednesday, April 9, 2014
School board discusses policies
Contract OK'd after a very long debate

The Monroe County School board on Tuesday evening voted to approve a hastily arranged, no-bid contract to repair bleachers at the Key West High School football stadium, but without the unanimous consent that has characterized most of its votes of late.

Meeting in Tavernier, the board held a lengthy debate before the tally on the subject. Ed Davidson, who has numerous concerns with the issue, cast the sole dissenting "no" vote.

Neither Davidson, who represents District 3, nor District 4's John Dick were pleased with what they saw as the last-minute nature of the decision by Superintendent Mark Porter to go ahead with the project without board approval.

The rickety bleachers date back to the 1950s, and have required annual maintenance for years. Safety concerns were voiced last June as the KWHS Class of 2013 prepared for its graduation ceremony. Stop-gap repair measures were implemented in time for the event.

On March 1, Porter informed board members that due to ever-increasing safety concerns, action would need to be taken, without recourse to board procedures and policies. Structural engineer Allen Perez, who visited the site on Jan. 27, made his recommendation to Porter on Feb. 25 that significant repairs would have to be made to the bleachers before Tommy Roberts Memorial Stadium could accommodate any more events, including the diploma walk of the Class of 2014, scheduled for June.

Given this background, most board members polled this week questioned the sudden urgency of the matter, a fact not lost on the superintendent.

"We've gone back and identified perhaps where we could have shared additional information," Porter admitted during the debate. "It's certainly not the way we want to do business."

However, the superintendent insisted that the time had come to act.

"We did reach a point where we were no longer able to respond" with routine maintenance, he said.

A crew from Ratclciff Welding and Fabricaton has been on-site for more than a week now, trying to work with metals that likely should never have been used together in the first place -- aluminum and steel. The contract will cost the district $220,000.

Dick asked Porter directly about the sudden need to bypass the board.

"We have a building inspector on our payroll for a large salary," Dick noted. "Didn't he look into this?"

"Yes," Porter replied. "Len Rhodis has annually looked at this building ... a building inspector does not have the same expertise as an engineer."

Rhodis advised the superintendent to bring Perez in to inspect the structure, Porter added.

Davidson, who is on record as referring to himself as an expert welder, then listed his own concerns -- the lack of supporting documents accompanying the agenda item.

"I'd like some more information ... certified sign-offs by professional people," the District 3 board member said, referring to potential liability issues surrounding the project.

"I have the same questions as Mr. Dick," Davidson said. "This is a much bigger question than some rusty beams. How did we go from a once-a-year inspection to an emergency" requiring an end-run around district policy? he asked.

Referring to the mixing of the two metals, Davidson added, "Somebody really screwed [the initial construction] up." He added that there were "certainly more than one operation in the Keys who could have looked at that project."

Pat Lefere, executive director of Operations and Planning, whose department has been overseeing the project, responded that the "project doesn't really require [schematic diagrams.] It's a repair, not a construction," with the contractor working from a plan prepared by Perez.

Davidson was unmoved, however.

"I'm sorry," he said. "But I think this is not entirely acceptable. I don't understand how we come from routine annual inspection to an emergency. Somebody should be counseled at the very least."

Staff shuffle

The other workshop item which generated a little heat Tuesday involved Porter's proposal to shuffle staff at a number of schools.

The plan, which would actually see some existing positions axed, would also increase administrative presence at a number of schools, and cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $3.5 million.

"A year ago ... the best we could really do was say that we could maintain the status quo," Porter said, in introducing his plan. "We did come back later and add a few additions to that allocation. We continue to be extremely cautious as to what we can do."

Pointing out that the district has an additional $4 million in revenues to work with this year, Porter said he was setting aside 2 percent of that money for the expected inflation-dictated increases in the cost of doing business next year.

The remainder, he said, would go to staff, with 87 percent going to the individual schools themselves so that they can begin planning next year's staffing, especially the traditional high schools, which are all planning seven-period days for 2014-15.

Porter's trial balloon wasn't particularly popular with most board members, though Chairman Ron Martin was quick to point out that the plan wasn't actually being voted on that day. More than one member used the word "rich" to describe Porter's initiative, especially the superintendent's proposal to add seven "dean of students" employees who might double as assistant principals when school principals are forced to take leave for extended periods.

Porter also proposed a "12-month year" for existing principals, which could end up increasing their pay, leading Davidson to refer to it as the "Mike Henriquez bonus plan," a comment that brought a verbal rebuke from Chair Ron Martin. The suggestion was made in part, Porter said, because Florida summer breaks are shorter than many other jurisdictions.

Porter also floated once again his idea of hiring a public information officer, though this time he suggested combining the position with a keeper of records, an area which the superintendent has agreed "needs improvement" at the district level.

Davidson suggested any new revenues be used to increase safety in schools, and offer a more balanced curriculum to students that includes art and music

Dick cautioned against gifting items to schools that might have to be taken away some time in the future.

"The minute you do something, the school can't do without it," he said. "Just like death and taxes, there will [have to] be reductions again."

Dick added, "It's almost like the money is burning a hole in our pockets and we have to spend it."

District 1 member Robin Smith-Martin was one of those describing Porter's plans as "rich"; however, Chairman Martin, a former Coral Shores High School principal, and former Board Chair Andy Griffiths, who usually supports Porter, were more receptive. Martin said that he was "glad to see" school buildings getting more administrative help.

"[School principals] are just working themselves to death, and they do worry when they have to leave the campus," he added. "I definitely support that."

As Davidson pounced on the PIO idea, which he has blasted in the past, Griffiths and Porter both reminded him of the purpose of the workshop.

"I'm not the educational expert here," Griffiths said. "That's why we hired [Porter.] This is what he says he needs. It's paid for with a balanced budget. That's the bottom line."

The superintendent observed that he was there, in part, to find out what the board wants him to do."

"We've tried to look at it in a conservative manner," Porter said. The administration "needs to hear where it is that the consensus of the board lies."

The board also had a spirited discussion of proposed policy updates, and heard a presentation from Lefere on available options to upgrade its payroll processing system, in part to alleviate concerns raised each year by the Florida Auditor General.

The board meets next on April 22 in Marathon.

tschmida@keysnews.com

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