School Board Hires, Renews Contracts; County Resident Asks for Answers

By Sue Curry Jones
Questions of transparency were posed by a local resident Thursday evening during the regular business session of the Ava R-I School Board meeting. Addressing the board, Douglas County resident Wayne Cipriano asserted that taxpayers are entitled to answers regarding the firing of former Superintendent Dr. Nancy Lawler. Cipriano maintained that as a taxpayer, he is entitled to know what issues caused the separa-tion agreement and what the contract buyout actually cost when the board chose to terminate her contract with the school district.
Board members present for the session were Troy Tredway, Bart Ellison, Marsha Aborn, Randy Spurlock, Lowell Strong, Vernon Johnson, and student representative, Dwight Emerson, a sophomore at Ava R-I.
Ron Wallace was absent.
Also, please note Bart Ellison left mid-meeting to attend a second grade program being held at the performing arts center, as he had a student participating in the event. Ellison’s departure is apparent later in this article when voting tallies change as they are minus one vote.
During closed session, the board hired Carolyn Tate as a full-time paraprofessional in the elementary school. Presently serving as a substi-tute, Tate currently fills the position and has fulfilled the responsibility throughout this year. As a parapro-fessional, Tate is responsible for providing specialized concentrated assistance to a student, or several students in a classroom environment.
Other votes taken in closed session include the following employment contract renewals for 2017-18: Erin Swofford, special education director; assistant high school principal, Nathan Houk; elementary principal Clint Hall, extended two years; and high school principal Teresa Nash, extended two years. Dr. Jason Dial, superintendent, stated the votes were unanimous.
At the onset of the meeting, Wayne Cipriano, who had asked to be placed on the agenda, gave the following statement to the board of education:
“Several months ago I spoke here and asked two questions that I, and I am sure a great number of other Douglas County residents and tax-payers want answered.
“I asked why the previous school superintendent, Dr. Nancy Lawler, was fired and how much that firing cost our school district.
“When I asked those questions I was told that negotiations were proceeding and the answers to my two questions would have to be postponed, but, in the exact words of the school board president, Mr. Spurlock ‘all will be revealed in time.’
“Well, the negotiations are over and the deal is executed and now it is time for those revelations.
“So, my questions — why was the superintendent fired and how much money did that firing cost the district? Let’s start with the first one: Why was Dr. Lawler fired?
[After conferring with Dr. Jason Dial, school board president Randy Spurlock responded, “I can’t answer that, Wayne. It was in the separation agreement.”]
“And, my second question: How much money did that firing cost our district?”
[Spurlock responded: I’d have to look back at it. Board member Lowell Strong and Dr. Jason Dial interjected: It was in the newspaper.]
“As to the second question, the dollars that firing cost us, I have done some research. I am sure that the firing cost us $208,035.00 and to that we must add whatever legal fees we paid, and to that whatever it cost us to pay off Dr. Lawler’s retirement contract. No doubt there were other costs and fees I was unable to discover, such as her medical insurance benefits and other non-salary compensation. I am guessing that the entire episode cost our district upwards of $250,000.
“Now it’s true that our district throws away thousands and thou-sands of dollars on unnecessary things like city sidewalks that our students may or may not ever walk on. Arranging circumstances so as to pay $600,000 or $700,000 to unnecessarily buy out busing con-tracts; and supporting a completely unnecessary new high school merely, I believe, to get some names on a plaque in the hallway of that unnecessary building, a building that would have cost us well over $15 million dollars.
“So, compared to that, $250,000 may seem like chicken feed especially when it is not your money being spent. But it is our money, my money.
“As to my first question, why was the previous super fired, it seems to me to be deep cowardice and total evasion of your responsibility as elected office holders to arrange the separation agreement between the district and Dr. Lawler such that you can now say you’d like to tell us why you did but you can’t because the language you put in the agreement prevents you from doing so. How convenient! And so we are supposed to rely on gossip, rumor, and just plain foolishness because you are purposely hiding what you did.
“One final point. It is frequently a responsibility–dodge for entities like a school board to say they saved money by paying money to avoid legal action that would have cost much more.
“To that I say this: Anyone who believes or says they believe that refusing to spend $15,000 or $20,000 or $25,000 in legal fees so they can spend a quarter of a million dollars in settlement money shouldn’t be trusted with anything more than a dollar a week allowance.
“It may be true that whatever the previous super did was so terrible that she had to be fired. If so, she should have been fired without com-pensation, and evidence of that just-firing presented before a judge in open court if necessary, to save our district $250,000.
“If not, if there was no terrible, illegal, dastardly behavior but simply a clash of personalities or philoso-phies, our school board should not have extended Dr. Lawler’s contract two years, but, having done so should have toughed it out, with personal dislikes aside for two years and then not renewed her contract such as I believe is now happening to the assistant superintendent who seems like he is doing a good job in spite of all this nonsense.
“I am not standing here tonight in hopes that anything I say will change your behavior or motivate your resignations. I don’t think that can happen. But I don’t want you to think that what you did, or what it cost us, has been forgotten.
“I supported and voted for every single member of this school board. That support and those votes are now deeply embarrassing to me.”
Cipriano’s message and video of the entire meeting may be viewed on the Douglas County Herald website.
As in previous board meetings, Superintendent Dr. Jason Dial gave additional information on the status of state funding for school districts. Dial advised the cuts in transporta-tion funding this year have been minimal with the district losing about $2,000 to $3,000, but cuts slated for the fall term are more impactful, as Ava R-I stands to lose $36,000.
Dial explained, in 2018, Greiten’s preliminary budget removes all state revenue money from the transpor-tation budget and that action will impact Ava, as it poses questions for meeting next year’s funding. It is also in contrast to funding for this school year, as Ava’s state revenue is up $117,000, even though Classroom Trust monies fell short last month. Nonetheless, on the positive side, Ava’s enrollment numbers have increased with six additional students and free-and-reduced lunch numbers are up as well.
Dial noted several items are pre-sently posing threats to the public education system: 1) Greiten supports the Education Savings Account program; 2) Greiten gives priority to course access for all students and supports prospects for virtual classrooms; 3) charter schools and voucher programs appear to have approval; and 4) it is uncertain as to direction the federal government envisions for public education.
Dial explained charter schools are private schools funded with public money, and the schools are affiliated with a university. He said the State Board of Education has no power over charter schools.
Dial said Ava has been a member of the Greater Ozarks Cooperating School Districts (GOCSD) for approximately one year, and one of the goals of the group is to create a virtual classroom system for the State of Missouri, specifically to eliminate out-of-state competitors taking state dollars. He noted Missouri pays for class-room instruction whether it is virtual or seated. Dial, who serves as president of the group, advised it is important to keep tax dollars from leaving the state.
The GOCSD is comprised of 38 school districts, representing a total of 98,000 students. The group was formed several years ago to support the public school system through lobbying efforts and professional development opportunities.
In the superintendent’s report, Dial reported the school is recommending parents follow-up on student vaccin-ations, specifically the mumps. He said no cases have been reported in the district, but it would be wise for parents to make certain their student is vaccinated.
Dial also said options for providing support to the teaching staff, as well as mentoring new teachers, are being reviewed. One idea under considera-tion is hiring a full-time support person for the staff, an individual who would be an in-house resource. Dial advised the notion is being considered for fall.
The 2017-18 school calendar was approved as presented. Dial said the calendar mimics the same format as the present school term. Motions to approve were by Lowell Strong and Troy Tredway, and the vote was 5-0.
Rewording a clause in the contract agreement with student transporta-tion bus owners was approved in a split vote of the board. The clause specifically applied to the culpability of bus owners if something happened to the system the school plans to install in each bus. According to board member Lowell Strong, the original clause stated bus owners were responsible for costs if the unit was stolen or damaged and the bus owner was deemed to have taken part in the act. However, in a 4-1 vote, the clause was amended to read, “Drivers will not be responsible for bus radios installed in their buses. The school is responsible for upkeep and mainten-ance.”
The proposed radio system is currently undergoing tests to verify units will work in remote areas of the county. The board moved forward with changing the clause to insure the new equipment could be installed as soon as possible, assuming the radios pass the test and will work as needed.
Board members voting in favor of the revision were Lowell Strong, Randy Spurlock, Marsha Aborn and Troy Tredway.
Vernon Johnson voted against the change.
VFW Russell T. Scott Post 5993, and the local Ladies’ Auxiliary, were recognized by the board for their many contributions to the school and students. The Post was honored for assisting students throughout the year, and sponsoring programs, such as Voices of Democracy, Patriots Pen, and volunteering to lunch with seventh and eighth-grade students. The Ladies Auxiliary Post 5993 was represented by their president, Robin Reinartz, and the VFW was repre-sented by Post Commander Scott Huffman.
The school board also recognized Marathon Kids, a school-sponsored initiative with 170 kids participating in the ‘get fit’ program. The group has logged 3,000 miles, with 47 students having completed their first marathon, three students finishing two marathons, and the group’s top runner, A. J. Ray, who has finished three marathons.
Both groups were acknowledged with a certificate from the board.
In unanimous votes, the board also approved the Library Media program review, the Vocational Program review, MSBA Policy Updates, and the school calendar for 2017-18. The calendar may be found in this issue of the Douglas County Herald.
In a 5-0 vote, the board selected Houk’s Lawn Service as the vendor to maintain and mow the grounds at the athletic field facility. Houk’s bid was the lowest of the two bids received, at $12,000; Mick Swofford had also submitted a bid for $15,500. The mowing job starts in March and runs through October.
Motions to accept the lowest bid were by Tredway and Johnson.
Monthly bills totaling $292,109.43 were approved for payment. Motions to pay were by board members Bart Ellison and Lowell Strong, and the vote was 6-0 in approval.
The next open business meeting is slated for Thursday, March 16, at 6:30 p.m. Meetings take place in the Board of Education room located on the north side of the Decker Library building. Meetings are open to the public.