Board split over business contract

Published 10:10 pm Friday, June 11, 2010

A normally unanimous Suffolk School Board was split over a decision to award contracts to a local business at its Thursday board meeting.

The board voted 3-2, with two abstaining, to award Jostens a contract to provide yearbooks, class rings, graduation apparel and accessories.

Board members Thelma Hinton and Enoch Copeland cast negative votes and Hinton voiced concern on Friday that a school board member, Dr. Michael Debranski, is associated with Jostens, the business that was awarded with the contract.

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“It’s the appearance that does more damage than the contract itself,” Hinton said on Friday. “I just wanted to air out the situation. We all want to save money. I’m not saying the school system should spend more money by taking another contract. My mind changed after Leo gave his presentation, but I’m still concerned about appearances.”

The schools’ purchasing agent, Leo Gibbs, gave a presentation before the vote was cast and explained his recommendation for the contract. Of the three companies in the running, Jostens offered the lowest bid on materials and provided free robes for teachers, free diploma covers, free medals and a higher rebate on class rings — among other reasons, Gibbs said. The runner-up for the contract was Herff Jones.

“I would be crazy to say Jostens should step back,” Hinton said. “It’s a business. But it’s the appearance that bothers me.”

For more than 10 years, Debranski has owned Jostens of Suffolk, a franchise of the Minneapolis-based provider of class rings, graduation products and other school-related items.

His franchise won its first five-year contract with the Suffolk Public School System five years ago, before he was even on the School Board, Debranski said Friday.

After being elected to the board four years ago, Debranski said he ran the contract by the School Board attorney to ensure there was no conflict of interest.

The bid that was entered this year, however, was not Debranski’s.

Debranski sold his business back to Jostens, which in turn sold it to an owner who owns franchises in Virginia Beach. Debranski’s last day with Jostens of Suffolk is June 30.

“I sold my business to Todd Owen, the rep at the beach,” Debranski said. “I’m still associated with Jostens, but he’s the one who submitted it and won it. I think Jostens won the bid legally. It was a competitive bid, and there’s no doubt of best product and pricing.”

While Debranski’s branch has handled the school system’s yearbooks and graduation apparel for the past five years, the company has a lengthy reputation of providing services.

“My high school ring was done by Jostens,” School Board Chairwoman Lorraine Skeeter said.

Although Debranski is not handling the contract because of his association with the company, he recused himself from the vote and an impromptu closed meeting during the session.

Skeeter also abstained from the vote. She said on Friday that after Gibbs’ presentation she had some unanswered questions, which she declined to share.

“It wasn’t anything of great significance that would have changed the process, but I can’t vote ‘yes’ on something unless all my questions are answered,” Skeeter said.

Skeeter and Debranski are both up for re-election in November.