Tuesday, September 13, 2005

School board must not be just puppets

Published by news-press.com on September 13, 2005

Bob Chilmonik

There was a recent media article about an important memo that I had sent to the other school board members and the superintendent. Since almost no one saw the subsequent meeting, I want to spell out the important points contained in the memo.

The school board's basic function is to set sound policy and represent the public's interest in the Lee school system. The superintendent's role is to implement those policies and to manage the overall academic and business operations of the system. The separation of elected and administrative power is the prime directive and must be closely adhered to by both entities.

Dr. James Browder's elevation from a high school principal to running a billion-dollar "business" has been challenging and demands that he surround himself with strong, professional business expertise. Since I have been a board member, we have discussed the necessity of total transparency regarding actions and policy so that the public is totally aware of district activities and the absolute need for high quality business professionals within the administration to achieve our prime objective, i.e., a world-class education for all students.

There have been ongoing negative media articles, the latest of which deal with our building program and land acquisitions which indicate deficiencies in the administration which must alert us to the need for genuine, professional business talent to assist the superintendent and, indirectly, the board. It is urgent that we protect the taxpayers' interests as we are embarking on a $3 billion building program, and we cannot afford the weak internal-quality controls that allowed the extensive rework needed on schools like Caloosa and Trafalgar.

The second point in my memo was the necessity for intra- and inter-communications involving both board and superintendent involving every major policy decision. The case in point was the Bonita Springs parcel to be used for an elementary school which was stopped by the superintendent without input from all board members. Policy decisions of this magnitude are the sole responsibility of the elected board and cannot be made "quietly" by the superintendent.

Some of my fellow board members are making groundless charges that I am grandstanding to further my political career. But if they will examine the facts and time sequences of those facts they will see that the board itself is threatened by unauthorized actions by the superintendent. We must not relegate ourselves as mere puppets while the superintendent makes important but unauthorized decisions. And I would not be faithful to my oath of office if I did not bring these matters to the board and the public.

— Robert Chilmonik is Lee County School Board member for District 1.

Compromise in sight on Browder spending cap

Compromise in sight on Browder spending cap

Published by news-press.com on September 13, 2005

Lee Schools Superintendent James Browder still may ask school board members to double his spending limit, and the lone dissenter challenging that proposal may agree to an alternative.

Last month, Browder asked Lee County School Board members to consider raising his spending limit from $25,000 to $50,000. He would still have to solicit written bids for contracts within that range, but wouldn't have to bring them before the board in a public meeting. Browder didn't ask for a board vote after floating that plan since members weren't in agreement.

"I didn't have anybody on the same sheet of music at that point," Browder said.

Dissenting board member Bob Chilmonik wanted to head the other direction, possibly anything over $10,000 needing board approval. But on Thursday, he wrote a memo saying he'll agree to support a $50,000 cutoff with two caveats: a designated board member must sign each purchase between $10,000 and $50,000, and Browder must provide each board member with a monthly list of all purchases.

"It would provide small checks and balances between the board and superintendent," Chilmonik said. "It will build strong public confidence in what we're doing."

Browder says the higher limit would help avoid lag time in bringing smaller purchases before the school board while cutting down staff time preparing agenda items. By comparison, the mark is $25,000 in Collier and Pinellas counties, but $150,000 in Broward. Lee's school chief said Monday he's willing to hear all options.

"Every board member has a different way of looking at things," he said.

Chilmonik said he's most concerned about accountability and transparency, citing two controversial expenditures in the past year that drew ire from taxpayers — a $24,988 sales tax consultant's fee and a $24,999 deposit to buy The Golf Club in Cape Coral.

Those same issues make Norbert Smith of Fort Myers wonder why the board would raise Browder's limit.

"He hasn't done anything to merit it," Smith said. "From what I've seen, they should take it away."