By Harold C. Ford
“Our buildings are not worthy of the children that enter them…There are lots of people who have been paid to do lots of things that have not done the things they were paid to do.” …Derrick Lopez, Superintendent, Flint Community Schools
Administrative shakeups and the approval of ten service contracts highlighted the end of the 2018-2019 school year for Flint Community Schools. After robust debate, the district’s maintenance contract with Commercial Sanitation Management Services was finally approved on a third vote by the district’s Board of Education.
New HR director hired at special meeting
After debating terms of employment at its meetings May 8 and 15. the board hired Cassandra Wilson as the district’s executive director of human resources at a special meeting on May 21. She replaced Michael Hall whose employment was terminated by the board, effective June 15.
Disagreement over Wilson’s compensation package prevented her hire at the board’s regular meeting on May 15. According to the May 21 special board meeting agenda posted at the district’s website, Wilson was provided a salary of $120,000. Casey Lester, the board’s assistant secretary/treasurer, had earlier estimated that a typical benefits package would increase Wilson’s total compensation package to nearly $200,000.
Wilson was introduced to the board at its Committee of the Whole meeting June 12.
Building administrative changes approved a month after the fact:
According to the district’s website, a new team of administrators was put in place at four buildings in the district, “beginning Monday, April 15, 2019.” According to the website post by Superintendent Derrick Lopez, the rationale for the changes with two months remaining in the 2018-2019 school year was “to ensure continuity of educational programming.”
The four building administrative changes all involved persons moving into “acting” positions and included the following:
- Christopher Ochodnicky moved from the principalship of Neithercut Elementary to acting principal at Southwestern Academy.
- Connie Portice-Brown moved from assistant principal at Holmes STEM Academy to acting principal at Neithercut Elementary.
- Kelly Fields moved from a special administrative assignment to acting principal at Accelerated Learning Academy.
- Robb Whitman moved from a special administrative assignment to acting principal at Scott Middle School.
Whitman’s move was approved by the board April 17, two days after the announced assumption of his new role. The moves by Ochodnicky, Portice-Brown, and Fields were all approved on May 15, a month after their announced assumption of new roles.
Ten service contracts approved, not without controversy:
Ten service contracts for the 2019-2020 school year were approved by the board of education at its meetings on June 12 and 19. They included eight contracts that passed with little controversy and included services to the district for audit, food, waste removal, telephone, vending machines, lawn maintenance, central kitchen, and repairs at Doyle/Ryder Elementary.
However, two other service contracts—for custodial and maintenance services—generated robust debate that dominated the two June meetings of the board. The maintenance contract was passed only after a third vote by the board that rescinded the first two votes.
Unhappiness with custodial services schedule triggered by balanced calendar
Ken Andrews, director of maintenance and custodial services, unleashed a torrent of criticism by board members when he explained that a shortened summer vacation would necessitate a staged “deep cleaning” by custodial staff during intersession breaks in the newly adopted balanced calendar.
“So we’re not going to (deep) clean the schools before school starts,” Andrews told the board. “We’re going to wait until we have (eight) intersessions.”
“I do not support anything that does not start every student off with a freshly cleaned building,” said Diana Wright, board president. “One thing that parents look for at the beginning of the school year is that their kids walk into waxed, clean schools.”
“The issue is how to manage the cleaning cycle,” Lopez responded. “There’s only six weeks in the summer” with a balanced calendar and shorter summer vacation.
“Each building will have its own pattern of cleaning,” Andrews added. “You have to remember that when you opted into this balanced calendar you changed a procedure.”
‘We’ve heard for eight years ‘We’re going to do a great job of cleaning your schools,’ ” charged Blake Strozier, board vice president. “When I walk inside a Grand Blanc, a Davison, a Flushing [school]and I compare it to what we have here…it bothers me that those companies don’t look at us the same as they see those schools.”
“I just want confirmation that our children have the best come Aug. 7 [the first day of school],” Strozier continued. “I don’t want to come to Southwestern and there’s trash in the hallway and the company (employees) are standing out there and talking in front of the door and not doing anything.”
Lopez explained that lack of monitoring has contributed to unsatisfactory custodial service. “People do what you inspect, not what you expect, and part of the problem is that when you don’t pay attention, people do what they’re used to doing unless there’s a level of expectation.”
“We have seen a marked improvement in that (inspection and expectation) since Ken Andrews has come on board,” added Lopez.
Lopez also cited privatization as a challenge in providing satisfactory school services. “Districts have had to go to companies that are for-profit and don’t necessarily have the pride that was once in our buildings…community members who served in our buildings also had children in the buildings and they took pride in what they did,” he said. “We’re in a different era.”
Ultimately, the contract with Southfield-based VHM Enterprises, Inc. was approved by a 5-1 vote at the June 19 regular meeting of the board.
Maintenance contract approved on third vote:
The district contract for maintenance services with Commercial Sanitation Management Services was flatly rejected by a unanimous 0-7 vote at the board’s committee of the whole meeting on June 12. It also failed on a 3-3 tie vote at the board’s regular meeting one week later on June 19. During the June meetings, all seven board members excoriated the work done for Flint schools by CSM.
“I cannot support moving forward with this [contract] until I see there has been an improvement,” Wright said. “We met with CSM leadership because of the poor quality of their work.” She produced some 90 photos for CSM to document their employees’ poor work.
Lester pointed to three maintenance issues in the very room where board meetings are held at Southwestern: a hole in one wall; missing paint on another wall; and a nonfunctioning wall clock.
“It’s a breach of contract when you don’t fulfill your obligations,” Carol McIntosh, board trustee, chided.
“There are lots of people who have been paid to do lots of things that have not done the things they were paid to do,” Lopez agreed. “We’ve been peeling back the onion of lots of things,” he added. He told board members that his administration discovered a vendor that had been paid $280 monthly since 2016 “that has not been doing a thing.”
Lopez told board members the broken maintenance situation in the district had improved during his ten-month tenure as superintendent. “When I came on board in August, I had an emergency (maintenance) situation nearly every week,” he said. “That has stopped.”
“That doesn’t satisfy me,” board member Vera Perry responded. “If their work was not up to par we should not be going into another contract [with CSM].”
CSM is headquartered in Hudsonville, 120 miles from Flint in southwestern Michigan. CSM’s website states “the industry needed a group with better client communication and service…When we say ‘stay in touch,’ we mean it. Three phone calls to three different extensions at CSM June 19 by this writer for further information were unanswered, as were the messages left on answering machines.
Following two board votes to reject the CSM contract, Lopez told board members: “We will have zero maintenance workers come July 1st in this district. We will have no way of actually getting our buildings ready for the fall. People will leave.”
Lopez pledged continued improvements and updates/scorecards every two months starting in July. Instructional staff now directly communicate their maintenance needs to CSM employees using SchoolDude, a cloud-based work order process.
He informed board members, “We do have a 60-day termination clause in the contract.” And, Lopez sighed, “There is no Plan B.”
Finally, Perry, the most vocal of the CSM contract opponents, began the rescission process by signaling her willingness to reconsider her vote. “I’m going to be a thorn in your tail,” she warned. “I’m sick of it. It’s time for some doggone action.”
With that, the board accepted the 2019-2020 CSM contract by a 6-0 vote on its third attempt.
EVM Staff Writer Harold C. Ford can be reached at email@example.com.