Youngstown school board fails in challenging state oversight panel

By Harold Gwin

Anthony Catale, president of the Youngstown board, said the issue isn’t dead yet.

YOUNGSTOWN — The state fiscal oversight commission controlling city school-district finances says the school board can’t hire legal counsel to challenge the commission’s authority.

The board passed a resolution Tuesday objecting to the commission’s proposal to amend the district’s financial recovery plan to take control over an issue with a transportation-support services contract.

The panel then hired the Cleveland law firm of Johnson, Miller & Schmitz to represent the board as it challenges the commission’s effort to increase its authority over district operations.

On Thursday, the commission struck back, amending the recovery plan despite the board’s objection and including a provision in that amendment that gives the commission the authority to approve all district purchase orders and all contracts for legal services before implementation.

The commission then passed a resolution denying “the retention of special legal counsel to represent the Youngstown Board of Education for the purpose of challenging the authority” of the commission in executing that additional control.

The school board isn’t letting the dispute end there, however.

“To me, this is not a dead issue,” said Anthony Catale, board president. The board will research the case law cited by a commission member as legal precedent for the commission’s actions, he said.

The board also will take up the issue with state legislators, he said. The board believes the commission may be exceeding its authority, he said.

Gary Johnson, senior partner with Johnson, Miller & Schmitz, addressed the commission shortly before its vote, telling commission members the board believes the commission’s actions to extend control over district operations are “extremely onerous.”

Roger Nehls, commission chairman, said the commission can rely on the state attorney general’s office to determine if it is acting within the scope of its authority.

Youngstown was placed in fiscal emergency by the state in November 2006, resulting in the appointment of a commission to oversee its financial recovery.

It is the commission’s responsibility to see that the district not revert to fiscal emergency again, Nehls said.

At issue is a board request for proposals for a transportation services contract that requested bids for providing digital video recorders/global positioning system units for 60 buses, computer software for bus routing and maintenance as well as transportation employee payroll and general consulting services.

The board said only one company, Community Bus Services Inc. of Youngstown, met the bidding specifications.

The commission, however, found the request for proposals flawed, with Nehls calling it, “shoddy,” “one-sided” and of “poor quality.”

The commission felt the request for proposals lacked specificity, didn’t allow adequate time for multiple bidders to respond and was generally a poor business practice.

The board said several companies did respond, but only CBS met the specifications.

The CBS proposal guarantees the school district a $500,000 annual savings on its $5 million annual student transportation bill, provided that CBS be granted a five-year extension on the special-needs student transportation contract it now has with Youngstown.

CBS is in the second year of that three-year pact that paid it $1.6 million in the first year with 3.8 percent annual increases built into the agreement.

The commission informed the district that it felt the request for proposals was flawed, but the school board put it out anyway, resulting in the commission’s taking action to exert control over the transportation issue.

The amendment to the financial-recovery plan it approved Thursday gives the commission authority to approve all district requests for proposals and bidding documents on contracts for all transportation services and equipment.

Further, it directs the district to analyze the cost and capability of doing its own special-needs busing, update its bus-routing computer software and train district staff how to use it and to acquire software and train staff to manage both building and fleet maintenance work.

Catale said that’s directing the board to spend savings it hopes to garner from reduced school bus routes this year, money Youngstown doesn’t even know yet if it will have.

“We have done absolutely nothing to hinder the financial recovery of this district,” he said, adding that the district has done everything the commission has asked and the commission’s action is inappropriate.

“Today was a loss for the taxpayers of Youngstown,” he said.

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