Schools task force disbanded

Published 9:26 pm Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The surprise disbandment of a joint task force that was formed to address matters of school funding has left at least some of its members scratching their heads.

School Board member David Mitnick, who has served as the chairman of the City School Advisory Committee on Collaborative Fiscal Concerns, said he was notified by an email sent after 5 p.m. Friday that the committee had been shut down.

“It was a surprise to me,” Mitnick said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “We had items on the agenda that were still open.”

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The task force was created in May 2014 “to evaluate the results of the schools classification and compensation study and prioritize school funding,” according to a letter sent to School Board Chairman Michael Debranski by Mayor Linda Johnson at the time.

“Once these priorities have been established, means of funding could be identified,” the letter continued. “Additional funding could be developed through internal savings, efficiencies, modification of business practices, as well as the streamlining of appropriate operations, shared services and partnership initiatives with the City.”

Prior to its disbandment, the task force had been scheduled for a regular meeting on Monday.

The task force had included two members from the School Board — Mitnick and Judith Brooks-Buck were the most recent appointees — and two from the City Council, Mike Duman and Tim Johnson.

Mitnick said he had already prepared an agenda for the meeting he had expected to take place on Monday. That agenda included getting an update on the energy performance contract the body has been considering — and for which, Mitnick said, $260,000 worth of consulting had already been invested.

Members also would have heard an update on a joint operations center that had been proposed for the Mt. Zion Elementary School site and would have discussed the contentious 2017-2018 budget cycle, which resulted in raises for all school employees after protests by teachers and bus drivers were featured in newspapers and on television broadcasts all around Hampton Roads.

Notwithstanding those agenda items, in her June 2 letter informing Mitnick that the task force was being shut down, Mayor Johnson stated that the body had fulfilled its purpose.

“You may recall that the overarching purpose of this task force was to evaluate the result of the school’s compensation and classification study and develop a strategic plan for funding its implementation,” she wrote in the letter. “I have spoken with Dr. Debranski, and we concur that the primary mission of the task force has been achieved, and the remainder of the work can be handled by the associated bodies.”

“A task force has a specific task,” she said in a phone interview on Monday, suggesting that the specific task in this instance was to fund the recommendations from the school system’s compensation study.

With the raises that were funded in the latest budget, she said, that task is now complete.

“I’m disappointed, but not surprised,” Councilman Mike Duman said of the disbandment.

“I believe there have been some very relevant topics discussed,” he added, pointing to discussions about the school system’s health and risk management costs, as well as the potential for cost savings by combining resources or pursuing an energy performance contracting process.

The energy performance contract is a program under which government entities contract with any of several state-approved contractors to make energy-saving upgrades to items such as HVAC systems, lighting and water appliances. The company would guarantee that energy savings would pay for the debt service on the upgrades; if the savings were insufficient, the company would write a check for the difference.

In a special March joint meeting of the School Board and City Council, members of the two bodies learned that the cost of even half the necessary new equipment could potentially jeopardize the city’s coveted AAA bond rating.

City Manager Patrick Roberts and School Superintendent Deran Whitney were said to be working together to determine the next steps.

Failure to come to a disposition on the energy performance contract was a disappointment for both Duman — who had been a vocal proponent of pursuing such potential savings opportunities — and for Mitnick.

“There’s no closure to the energy performance contract as far as whether the city is going to assist the School Board with a loan,” Mitnick said Tuesday. “I hope we’ll at least get an update. A lot of time and energy has been put into that contract. There needs to be some closure on that.”

Whether or not the task force had done what it set out to do, the praise for its work was muted, at best.

“I think it could have been a lot more productive and successful if there had been a true spirit of cooperation,” Duman said, noting that controversies on the task force started with the very name by which it would be called. “Some members thought ‘task force’ implied there was something wrong.”

“Other than the progress made on the energy performance contract … I didn’t see any success,” Mitnick said, noting that the extra funding for salary increases came as part of the budget process and not as a result of any discussions within the task force.

Even Johnson was careful in her assessment of the group’s work.

“I’m not sure at the current time that it was beneficial,” she said Monday in regards to whether the task force had succeeded in improving cooperation and communication between the two bodies. “I do think we’re trying to get on the same planes.”

Johnson has called for the reestablishment of a General Education Committee that would include two City Council members — she said she has appointed Duman and Lue Ward — and two School Board members, the chairman and vice chairman of that body.