Superintendent to terminate $500,000 contract with district

By: Jeremy Selweski | Woodward Talk | Published November 20, 2012

FERNDALE — Gary Meier, superintendent of Ferndale Public Schools, will soon be canceling a controversial contract between the school district and his independent consulting firm that would have brought in nearly $500,000 to the district throughout a three-year period.

According to Ferndale Board of Education President Keith Warnick, Meier gave district officials written notification Oct. 1 that he would be terminating the contract in 90 days. It will officially come to an end Jan. 1, a year and a half after it was approved by the school board. When contacted about why he chose to cancel the agreement, Meier opted not to comment on the issue.

Through Innovative Consulting in Education (ICE), a company 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.

Warnick was disappointed to see the contract come to an end.

“I didn’t see any issues with this contract when I voted to approve it in June of 2011, and I don’t see any issues with it now,” he said. “It was certainly a great benefit to the district to have $500,000 of additional revenue coming in, especially at a time when school districts are having to find creative new ways to increase their funding. Ferndale Schools has always been a leader in that area.”

For the last several months, members of the local political action committee Community Leadership Excellence Accountability Responsiveness (CLEAR) have questioned Meier’s consulting work through ICE. They have argued that the superintendent should be focusing his attention on improving Ferndale Public 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 — Amy Butters, Jim O’Donnell, Raylon Leaks-May and Kevin Deegan-Krause — for Meier’s decision to terminate the contract.

But CLEAR members insisted that this was never their motivation.

“It really boils down to responsiveness and transparency — that has always been one of our main goals as CLEAR,” said Carissa Gaden, a representative for the group. “We just wanted more information about this contract, and we weren’t getting much. We came at this from the perspective of finding answers to our questions; we never had any intentions of dismantling this contract.”

Like Warnick, Meier in the past has contended that his agreement with Ferndale Public Schools provides a helpful boost to the district during a time of great financial uncertainty. His current three-year consulting contract — which was approved by the school board last year and was supposed to run from July 1, 2011, through June 30, 2014 — would have resulted in $498,130 of additional revenue for the district’s general fund. When combined with a previous two-year contract, the extra revenue would have totaled $948,730.

Meier’s employment contract has always included a provision allowing him to consult beyond his work in Ferndale, as long as he discloses that information to the school board. The agreement with ICE results in money for the district because Meier’s company reimburses Ferndale Public Schools for services provided, 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 stressed that this work does not take away from his regular duties with the district.

For Gaden, the ironic thing about Meier’s decision to end the current contract is that it does not eliminate the issues identified by CLEAR. In fact, she argued that the $500,000 gain for Ferndale Schools may be the only positive aspect of the agreement.

“We don’t have anything against bringing in more revenue for the district, but is this really the best way to do that?” she asked. “The district needs to focus on getting more students enrolled in Ferndale schools. We were questioning the superintendent’s consulting work in general, so those concerns will still remain, even without this contract in place. Hopefully, now we can make up for that revenue loss by getting back the district resources that we were losing.” 

While removing $500,000 from the general fund throughout a three-year period is not a catastrophic loss — the district’s 2012-13 general fund budget, for instance, came in around $39.6 million — Warnick believes that it will make a noticeable difference. He defended Meier’s approach to school financing and praised the work that he has done since coming to Ferndale in 2000.

“We have added money to our fund balance every year for the past decade,” Warnick said. “Since Gary Meier became our superintendent, we have increased our fund balance from $176,000 to $4.6 million. Under his leadership, we have done a better job of balancing our budget than the vast majority of other school districts.”

The contract between ICE and Ferndale Public Schools is one small piece of that budget. Although it will soon be terminated, Gaden could not definitively state whether she believes the district will be better off without it.

“That’s really hard to say — it could be a benefit to our district, or it could be a detriment,” she said. “I think that remains to be seen.”