Sat, Feb. 22

Commentary: Mingus offer on shared services fails ‘The Godfather’ test

As Mingus Union Board President Anita Glazar likes to emphasize, Mingus has always supported sharing services with other school districts in the Verde Valley.

So much so that last week Mingus made Cottonwood-Oak Creek an offer they …

If we were to steal a line from The Godfather, that sentence would finish with “can’t refuse.”

‘Mingus currently has $13.9 million outstanding for two different bond issues and an additional $600,000 for a 10-percent maintenance and operations override. Cottonwood-Oak Creek has $13.54 million in pending debt on a $15 million 2015 bond, and an additional $1.021 million on a 10-percent maintenance and operation override’

This offer was just the opposite. It was one Cottonwood-Oak Creek could not fathom accepting.

It went like this. Mingus Union and Cottonwood-Oak Creek would share C-OC’s highly respected business manager David Snyder following the resignation of Mingus’ equally respected Kirk Waddle.

The proposal presented by new Mingus Superintendent Dr. Penny Hargrove would have had Snyder working for Mingus three days a week and the remaining two for his primary employer, Cottonwood-Oak Creek.

In an email to C-OC boss Steve King, Hargrove said, “I spoke with Mrs. Glazar, our Board President. She is confident the board would support the following proposal.

“Mingus Union High School District is proposing an IGA to share David Snyder as Director of Finance.  Mingus is requesting Mr. Snyder’s services for, at minimum, three days per work week.  In exchange, Mingus will reimburse the Cottonwood Oak Creek Elementary District three-fifths of David’s $85,000 salary for the remaining 10 months of this contract or $42,500.  In addition, Mingus Union High School District will reimburse Cottonwood Oak Creek Elementary District three-fifths the cost of David’s benefits for 10 months. This IGA would be in effect from September 4, 2017 through the remainder of 2017-2018 school year ending June 30th, 2018.”

Hmm … let’s wrap our brains around this. Mingus wants Snyder to work three days a week, at minimum, for a school district that has just one school. The other two days a week, at maximum, would be spent at a school district that has five schools.

It’s hardly a credible attempt at sharing personnel or services. As Mingus Board Member Anthony Lozano observed, “How can we expect that kind of imbalance. It does not seem to have any fairness.”

King predictably said no thanks to the Mingus offer. Instead, he pitched the idea of a true shared services model instead of having the two districts share one employee.

“By contracting with COCSD for Business Services,” King explained, “MUHS would be able to have the advantage of access to all the COCSD Business Services staff.  Rather than one person dividing their time between the Districts, COCSD personnel could be assigned the various tasks in the Business Office giving the Director the flexibility to prioritize his time to essential work, whether it is at COCSD or MUHS.”

King continued, “The business director position at both districts is a full time position.  It would be a disservice to both districts to try to split the time of one person.  However, to contract with the entire COCSD Business Office staff would be a workable solution short term as a bridge to the unification of the two districts.”

Further, King said the history of sharing personnel – as opposed to a true shared services model – has not fared well for the two districts. “Shared personnel has been attempted to be implemented three times recently, twice with MUHS and once with Sedona.  All attempts have resulted in either the person involved resigning the shared position or resignation with one of the districts involved.  Trying to serve the needs of two boards and two superintendents creates difficulties that would not be present in a unified district.” 

In the end, the Mingus School Board took advantage of an offer they definitely could not refuse. Another highly respected school business manager, Lynn Leonard from Sedona-Red Rock, considered the Mingus grass greener and has assumed Waddle’s former office.

And, the concept of sharing personnel is not dead. Dr. Hargrove and Sedona Superintendent David Lykins have agreed to a transition agreement in which Leonard will spend at least one day at Sedona-Oak Creek to keep their finances in order.

School district consolidation was one of the major talking points Tuesday during the Mingus Union School Board retreat. Monday, Mingus Board Member Jim Ledbetter explained that one of the primary issues that needs clarity involves the boundaries for a consolidated Mingus-C-OC district and the resulting property tax impact.

Most available information on the subject leans to Mingus being consolidated into the existing Cottonwood-Oak Creek boundaries with neither district overlapping the boundaries of the Clarkdale-Jerome School District.

The 10,000-pound elephant in that room involves the Salt River Materials Group Phoenix Cement plant. In a consolidated district, Mingus would lose that assessed valuation. How that would impact property taxes is anyone’s guess.

What’s important to keep in mind is that Cottonwood-Oak Creek has managed to operate five schools just fine without the secondary property tax bounty that Phoenix Cement provides.

Further, in a consolidated district, property owners will be taxed by just one jurisdiction instead of two. Consider this, Mingus currently has $13.9 million outstanding for two different bond issues and an additional $600,000 for a 10-percent maintenance and operations override. Cottonwood-Oak Creek has $13.54 million in pending debt on a $15 million 2015 bond, and an additional $1.021 million on a 10-percent maintenance and operation override. That’s a $29 million debt on the tax bills of Mingus and Cottonwood-Oak Creek property owners.

With a consolidated Mingus-Cottonwood-Oak Creek school district, the multiple layers of secondary bond debt the two districts collectively have will be reduced over time. Only one district – not two – will be hitting taxpayers up for override and bond issue support.

It’s often said that the best government agencies not only dodge the bullet of impropriety, but they also go above and beyond in avoiding any appearance of impropriety.

That being said, Mingus needs to take a hard look at its protocol for email use by member of the school board.

If you go to the Mingus Union web site to find out how best to communicate MUHS business with your elected school board members, you will be directed to personal or private business email addresses.

In other words, school board members use private email to communicate public business.

Such a practice is ripe for abuse, according to one of Arizona’s foremost public records and open meeting law experts, Phoenix attorney Dan Barr.

“It does not take a genius to see how people can abuse the public records law and open meeting law with texting and private emails,” said Barr. Further, he said all government bodies are required by law to maintain and store all public records. Having elected officials using private email, or texting on personal phones, and then having an honor system by which the elected officials turn over their private correspondences to the government custodian of records is suspect, and makes it “far more difficult for the public body to perform its public duty of maintaining public records,” said Barr.

It fails the appearance of impropriety.

A comparison throughout the Verde Valley shows the Mingus practice to be the exception and certainly not the rule.

The Camp Verde Unified, Cottonwood-Oak Creek and Sedona-Oak Creek web sites all direct constituent communication with board members to official school district email addresses. In addition, Cottonwood-Oak Creek makes available a generic email address as does the Clarkdale-Jerome District.

As a point of further comparison, Cottonwood Mayor Tim Elinski said he exclusively uses official City of Cottonwood email for all of his electronic communication. “Everything I do as mayor must be subject to OML and open to public. The only way to ensure that is by using my city email account so there is a public record,” said Elinski.

City Council Members Kyla Allen and Tosca Henry echoed Mayor Elinski’s sentiment. Both said they occasionally will forward a city email correspondence to a private or private business email account, but only because an attachment or embedded link will not open. Said Henry, “As a general rule, I do not write or respond to members of the public from any account other than the city email.”

No appearance of impropriety there.

And as a final exclamation point to professional use of electronic communication by elected officials, Council Member Allen’s emails always conclude with the following message:

“NOTE: to ensure compliance with the Open Meeting Law, Council members should not forward or reply to this message or discuss its subject matter with other Council members outside of a properly noticed public meeting.”

Moral of story: The public’s business must be conducted in public, personally and electronically.

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