Superintendent opts not to cancel $500K contract

By: Jeremy Selweski | Woodward Talk | Published January 23, 2013

FERNDALE — Gary Meier, superintendent of Ferndale Public Schools, recently decided not to terminate the controversial agreement between the school district and his independent consulting firm just two days before it was set to come to an end.

The contract, which was approved by the Ferndale Board of Education in June 2011, will bring in nearly $500,000 to the district throughout a three-year period. On Oct. 1, Meier gave district officials written notification that he would be canceling the contract in 90 days, or on Jan. 1. However, according to School Board President Jim O’Donnell, former President Keith Warnick received and accepted a letter from Meier Dec. 30 to rescind the cancelation.

When contacted via email about why he chose to terminate the agreement between Innovative Consulting in Education (ICE) and Ferndale Public Schools, Meier had no comment.

But as O’Donnell stated, “The reason given was that the money this contract brings in outweighs all the public questioning of it. He didn’t want the district to lose that revenue.”

Through ICE, a consulting firm that he founded in 2009, Meier partners with college-preparatory high schools to advise them before they open their doors. The superintendent’s work with ICE largely stems from his experience in establishing Ferndale’s University High School in 2005.

But for the last several months, members of the local political action committee Community Leadership Excellence Accountability Responsiveness (CLEAR) have questioned Meier’s second job. They have argued that the superintendent should be focusing his attention on improving Ferndale Schools, and that if the school district is negotiating contracts with an outside company owned by its own superintendent, it could create future conflicts of interest.

In an email sent to members of the media Nov. 6, Warnick blamed CLEAR and the four newly elected school board members that the group supported — O’Donnell, Amy Butters, Raylon Leaks-May and Kevin Deegan-Krause — for Meier’s previous decision to terminate the contract.

O’Donnell stressed that he favors complete transparency with regard to the agreement between Ferndale Schools and ICE.

“I certainly have a different approach than the previous school board president,” he said. “Documentation and disclosure of that contract are key while we’re trying to rebuild trust with the community. I feel like (CLEAR’s) concerns are perfectly valid. The more information we share, the more the public trusts what’s going on; the less information they have, the more they try to fill in the gaps on their own.”

Meier’s current three-year consulting contract, which runs from July 1, 2011, through June 30, 2014, will result in $498,130 of additional revenue for the district’s general fund. When combined with a previous two-year contract, the extra revenue totals $948,730.

The superintendent’s employment contract has always included a provision allowing him to consult beyond his work in Ferndale Schools, as long as he discloses that information to the school board. The agreement with ICE results in money gained for the district because Meier’s company reimburses Ferndale Schools for services it provides, including employee salary offsets, technology access and support, office supplies, clerical and human resources work, and Web support, as well as the use of district phones, email and photocopies.

Meier previously estimated that he spends an average of eight hours per week doing consulting work with ICE, while district employees also spend time assisting him, as needed. However, he emphasized that this work does not take away from his regular duties with the district.

Ferndale City Councilman Scott Galloway, a member of CLEAR and an attorney with nearly 20 years of experience, said that the group is concerned about whether Meier followed the proper legal process with his contract.

“CLEAR’s objective is to find out what really happened here,” he explained. “Was the decision (to cancel the contract) made on time? It appears that the notice was either emailed to hand-delivered to one or two board members, not formally given to the entire board. That seems like an unusual way to go about this process, especially for a document of such significance. I would think that (Meier) would have had to renegotiate the contract and get approval from the full board before revoking the termination.”

Galloway insisted that there are still a lot of questions that need to be answered about the contract by both the superintendent and school administration. He believes there needs to be a formal review of the agreement so that the school board can weigh in on whether it’s worth keeping.

“Was this contract ever good for the school district in the first place?” he asked. “We still don’t know what the value is of the services that the district is providing to ICE. If this is such a positive thing for the district, then why hasn’t the school administration provided any more details about it? That doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t a positive thing, but it does raise some doubts.”

O’Donnell said that the school board, which has its next regular meeting Jan. 28, will be formally discussing the contract in the near future. While he still has questions of his own, he stressed that his working relationship with Meier and the school administration since getting elected has been nothing but open, informative and helpful.

“As a board, we will have to sit down and talk about ‘if this contract stays, what effect will it have on the district?’” he said. “Then we will be able to say more about it. … Our own school district should be the superintendent’s primary focus, and I think it certainly will be — that’s always the impression that I’ve gotten from him. As a district, we’re focused on closing achievement gaps and increasing student retention. If we’re doing well on improving those measures in the long run, then I think that will show people that (Meier) and the board are doing our jobs.”