Ferndale superintendent retires early following outside consulting

By: Joshua Gordon | Woodward Talk | Published June 4, 2014

 Former Ferndale Schools Superintendent Gary Meier handed the Board of Education a retirement notice May 19, and his retirement was made official May 20 after it came to light he had been doing consulting for Schools for the Future Detroit.

Former Ferndale Schools Superintendent Gary Meier handed the Board of Education a retirement notice May 19, and his retirement was made official May 20 after it came to light he had been doing consulting for Schools for the Future Detroit.

File photo by Brian Sevald

FERNDALE — Ferndale Schools Superintendent Gary Meier officially retired from the school district May 20, almost 40 days earlier than scheduled, in the midst of a possible conflict of interest pertaining to his consulting with another school organization.

During a Schools for the Future Detroit meeting April 10, Meier and former Ferndale Schools Director of Community Relations and Pupil Services Stephanie Hall, representing Meier’s EQUITY Education Management Solutions, made a presentation to Schools for the Future Detroit officials about starting a charter school in Detroit, according to the meeting minutes.

Schools for the Future Detroit is a project of Michigan Future Schools, which aims to start small schools to prepare students to earn college degrees.

Meier and Hall were joined by John Carlson at the Schools for the Future Detroit meeting. Carlson is the Ferndale School District’s attorney and, according to the meeting minutes, was providing legal counsel to EQUITY.

After the Ferndale Schools Board of Education was made aware of Meier’s side consulting work with Schools for the Future Detroit, Meier handed in his retirement notice May 19, and the board accepted it during a special meeting May 20.

“Before the meeting, we became aware of him doing that work, and I wouldn’t say it was a conflict of interest — we didn’t make that determination as we accepted his retirement recognition, advancing it about six weeks,” Board President Jim O’Donnell said. “What we acted on was legal advice we received and our own judgment on what was best for students in the school district.”

Meier initially had voiced his intent to retire as superintendent in March, and he planned to stay through June 30, giving the board time to interview and hire a new superintendent. Meier had spent 14 years in Ferndale as superintendent.

In Meier’s absence, the board worked with Oakland Schools to bring in Dr. Wanda Cook-Robinson as interim superintendent through June 12, and then retired Holly superintendent Kent Barnes will come in and stay until a new person is hired and begins July 1.

Cook-Robinson was the superintendent in Southfield for nine years before taking a chief of staff position with Oakland Schools. In 2013, she was named the Michigan Superintendent of the Year and was a finalist for the American Association of School Administrators’ National Superintendent of the Year award.

“At Oakland Schools, it is our role to support all 28 local school districts and public school academies, and anytime there is a crisis in a district, we are there to help,” Cook-Robinson said. “When Mr. Meier decided to leave, Jim O’Donnell called and said they may need some help. Ferndale was a neighbor of mine in Southfield, and I am familiar with the district and here to bridge that gap.

“Ferndale is a fantastic district, and I am very pleased with what I came here to, with dedicated staff and teachers, and good things are happening for kids that I am just excited about.”

O’Donnell said there was no investigation into Meier’s consulting because of his retirement notice.

The larger problem for the board now is with Carlson and any conflicting interests. O’Donnell said he cannot say if Carlson still will provide legal counsel for the district, but the board will put out a request for bid for legal services.

“Our original concern was actually with the district general counsel having represented the school board and any of our contracts with the superintendent, and also representing the consulting committee and concerns about our conflicting business relationship,” O’Donnell said. “We developed a request for a bid for legal services and put that out in the normal way you bid for any service, and by our bylaws, we will review it during our regular July meeting. What is certain is our current general counsel isn’t going to have anything to do with our former superintendent’s contract or anything related to it.”

Meier’s outside consulting was brought to light to the public in 2012 when several members of the public spoke to the board on their concerns about his consulting company — Innovative Consulting in Education, which Meier founded in 2009 — interfering with what was best for the district.

“We have had letters and such, and other comments we have received as board members from the public, and we know the public had concern, but it did not affect our decision because, although we certainly knew it was a feeling, we had no certain feedback to act on,” O’Donnell said. “I had concerns initially going back, and many people in the community were concerned about the consulting, and this is essentially a continuation of the public’s concern. We had independent counsel brought in, and they advised us we had to take some action on his retirement date, so we accepted it.”

Moving forward, O’Donnell said the new superintendent search was on track with the posting set to close June 3, initial interviews set to take place June 4-5 and the board set to select a candidate June 12.

O’Donnell said Cook-Robinson and eventually Barnes would work with the district on the strategic plan for next year, which would include focus on enrollment, new programs and restructuring existing programs.

“We had a board meeting (May 27) and Dr. Cook-Robinson is just impressive with the way she commands the attention of the room, and she has worthwhile things to say,” he said. “The school district is in very capable hands and we continue to be dedicated to students, and there are so many good things happening in Ferndale Public Schools that we are in a good spot.”

Meier and Carlson could not be reached for comments by press time.