Responses (March 2021)

I sent a follow-up email to school board members. I received a response from Alan Karpick, School Board President. The questions I emailed to the school board members are given in bold, the responses are in italics, and my thoughts are in regular text.

1. At the December and January school board meetings, there was discussion about a pending deal for the WL Library to lease Happy Hollow. Are those negotiations still ongoing?

No agreement has been reached at this time.

This is unfortunate because our school district needs the money. The city was paying the school district $500,000/year to lease Happy Hollow to use it as a temporary city hall. I’m sure the money from the Library would not have been nearly this much, but anything would help. 

At the March 2021 meeting, the school board approved using the remaining money they borrowed ($95 million over the past 4 years) in excess of the construction costs ($84 million) and other costs to help pay this year’s debt payment. As I’ve said before, it doesn’t seem responsible to borrow money in order to make debt payments.

The school board also approved transferring money from the referendum fund to the debt service fund in order to make this year’s debt payment. The way it works is the school district moves the effects of the property tax caps (the circuit breaker)** from the debt service fund to the operations fund, which is effectively a transfer from operations to paying for the construction debt. There is no excess money in the operations fund, so to finance this, the school corporation transfers money from the education and referendum funds (the money used to pay teachers) to the operations fund which enables them to transfer money to the debt service fund to pay for the construction. In 2019, the school district transferred $2.8 million from the education and referendum funds into the operation funds (documentation here).

2. February’s Personnel Report shows that Shelby Johnson was hired as Assistant to the Superintendent and Steve Ohlhaut was hired as Full-Time Assistant CFO. Were there open searches for these school district administrative positions and if so, how many internal and external applications were received?

There is no requirement to have an open search of position. It is the expectation of the Board that the administration is always looking to the future should an important position have need filled.  WLCSC seeks to look for internal candidates who have an understanding of education and possess the specific skill sets necessary for any position that we internally or externally fill.  Also, as stated on the personnel report, one position is temporary and was added to assist the superintendent’s office in the second semester due to Dr. Killion’s medical situation.  Also, by using internal candidates it saves the school district money since we did not hire additional outside staff.

Our school corporation is going through some financial difficulties (some self-imposed, some because of external factors) and in this environment I think it is shocking that the school board created these two new district-level positions and then filled them both without posting the positions and doing an external search. To be clear, I think both Steve Ohlhaut and Shelby Johnson are wonderful and I am grateful we have them in our school district. However, if these new positions are really needed, why not do a full search? Karpick’s response that it saves money to hire internal candidates seems to be short sighted. That’s only true if we are not planning to hire a new French teacher and a new Assistant Principal/Special Education Director.

I am worried that hiring our high school French teacher to be the next school district CFO is not a wise decision, especially because of the poor financial decisions the school district recently made. Our current interim CFO, *Ross Sloat has a Masters in Learning Design and Technology from Purdue and is the former superintendent of Benton Community School Corp. If our school district had a CFO with formal training in accounting or finance, perhaps we would not have borrowed so much more than our debt service fund can handle? Again, I admire Steve Ohlhaut and am grateful that he is in our school district; I’m just questioning if being interested in school finances is enough of a qualification to manage the district’s finances. The CFOs in other school districts like TSC, Carmel Clay, and Zionsville all have backgrounds in accounting or finance. 

My view is that the school board should have asked the administration a lot of questions before voting to create these new administrative positions: Why are financial experience and formal training not job requirements for our next CFO? Why are we creating another district-level administrative position at a time when our financial situation is poor? What will be the total increase in cost after replacing our French teacher and Special Education Director? Why did we not do a wide and inclusive search for these two new administrative positions? Is the reason that our administrative hires primarily come from within the school district because we don’t attract applications when we post positions (no one wants to work here) or do we not trust that people hired from the outside will do things the west side way? These are all questions that the school board should be asking the administrators in school board meetings.

One more thing to note is that the creation of additional administrative positions is a frustrating topic for many teachers. In the spring of 2019, Killion asked the school board to approve a reduction in force (RIF) process for first-year teachers at WLES and WLIS and at the same time he asked the school board to create a new administrative position at the high school (Jane Schott as Assistant Athletic Director). Increasing class sizes in order to have more administrators is just another way that our teachers feel undervalued.

3. I have two questions related to Indiana’s Open Door Law: 

a. Is it correct that 3 or more school board members cannot discuss school topics, except in a public setting? In the March school board meeting, Alan Karpick said that school board members had already discussed the proposed Jr/Sr HS schedule at a zoom meeting. Are there conditions that allow private meetings of school board members to discuss school topics? If so, what were the special conditions in this case and who attended this online meeting?

The Zoom meetings were held to inform school board members, with no more than three members involved during each meeting. Under Indiana’s Open Door Laws, meetings are publicly posted when a majority of members are expected to attend.

The Jr/Sr HS schedule change (shortening lunch and closing the school at lunch) is a topic that students and parents are passionate about. My view is the community would have appreciated hearing the school board ask their questions during the work session that was scheduled to cover this topic. Hearing the Jr/Sr HS leaders respond to questions is what the community expected. I am disappointed that once again these conversations are happening behind closed doors. 

b. Is it correct that all school board committee meetings, with the exception of collective bargaining, are open to the public? What are the special conditions that allow the school board to exclude the public from attending its Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) committee meetings? Why has the school board required DEI committee members to sign non-disclosure agreements? 

The DEI committee is an administration committee, not a School Board committee. Administrative committees are not subject to open door law. 

I was very disappointed with this response. This just feels like another example of the school board trying to control what information is made public. Claiming that the DEI committee is an administration committee is a pretty indefensible position. Karpick, Witt, and Springer lead the diversity task force and said that they talked by phone about the creation of the DEI committee every week over several months. Karpick recommended to the full school board that they approve appointing Dr. Carolyn Johnson as facilitator for the DEI committee and they voted to do so at the December 2020 meeting. He also announced that Margaret Psarros and Laura Falk would be the co-chairs of the DEI committee. Then at the January 2020 meeting, the school board motioned to approve the creation of the DEI committee.

I’ve served on administrative committees in the past. They were organized by the superintendent, not by three members of the school board. Administrative committees are not created by a vote of the school board. I’m surprised that the school board thinks that they can now retroactively claim that the DEI committee is an administrative committee.

4. At the February meeting, the school board declared an emergency in order to replace the boiler system at Happy Hollow without needing to advertise for bids (IC 36-1-12-9). My understanding is that the school board meeting minutes (recently posted to the website) are required to list the names of those invited to bid or provide the quotes, but I could not find this information in the minutes. Who will be doing the boiler replacement work?

The board authorized the obtaining of quotes (not  bids) for the boiler project. To my knowledge the quotes have yet to be received.

The school board declared an emergency in February in order to get around the legally-required process of advertising for bids so they could more quickly replace the Happy Hollow boilers. Now, a month and a half later, they don’t have a quote? Why was this an emergency? Karpick didn’t answer my question about who was invited to provide a quote and my understanding is that they are required to list this in the official minutes, but did not.

5.  Finally, to follow up on my earlier question – are the ribbon cutting ceremonies for the James R. Guy Education Wing and the Bob Kelly Performing Arts Center still scheduled for this summer? Has the school district set the budget for these events yet?

The Board is not involved with the fundraising and event planning for construction project grand openings.  It is my understanding that specific donors are providing funds to assist with events.

I still haven’t received an answer about the $65,000 donation received by the school corporation in January that Sloat said the school district would use to pay for these event costs. In his response to my question about this in January, Karpick said that the donation would be used for construction and for the event. I’m just wondering what school district funds will be used to pay for these events? If no school district funds are used, I suspect that they will pay for these events using funds raised through the foundation. The school board does not control how the foundation chooses to spend the money it has raised.

If you need further clarification, please contact the superintendent’s office at 765/269-4002. If you have concerns about Board processes or legal issues, I also encourage you to say so in a public meeting.

Our school leaders would prefer that individuals call the superintendent office rather than ask questions by email so that everything stays off the record. I will continue to email questions and post the responses publicly because there are many people in our community who want to be informed. More than anything else, I’m trying to increase transparency in the way our schools are governed.

Each month, I submit an APRA request to receive the accounts payable report that the school board voted to approve. The February report was approved at the March meeting. The reports for prior months are available here.

*Ross Sloat approached me after the April School Board meeting and expressed that he felt that I misrepresented his educational background in my March questions write-up. What I wrote about him not having a finance or accounting degree was correct, but he told me that he has relevant job training and experience. He previously worked at a bank as a manager and as a commercial/ag/retail loan officer and was an assistant superintendent for business before serving as the superintendent of Benton Community School Corp.

**For those interested in the details of how the property tax circuit breaker works: my understanding is that the state of Indiana limits the amount of property tax that homeowners pay to no more than 1% of the gross assessed value of your home. Your property tax bill reports the maximum tax that may be imposed on your home which is 1% of the value of your home + the additional school district referendum tax. The various local government entities that impose property taxes on residents (county, township, school district, city, library, and special districts) together have passed tax levies that exceed this limit. So the Department of Local Government Finance (DLGF) decides how much each entity gets (they all get less than they wanted). This results in a circuit breaker credit on your property tax bill. The resolution passed at the March 2021 school board meeting increases the property tax money going into the debt service fund and decreases the money going into the operations fund; it doesn’t change how much total property tax revenue the school district receives. In that sense, it is just a transfer from the operations fund to the debt service fund.

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