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All posts for the month August, 2015

The school board needs their names on the side of a new building

Published August 28, 2015 by justicewg
Stevenson dedication plaque

Stevenson dedication plaque with full board members listed

It’s Our Turn Now

The May 2015 special board meeting, held in the morning with no visitor or press in attendance, was an unusual meeting. The 4 hour meeting, held with less than 24 hour notice, had a single line agenda (and the “anything else we feel like” agenda topic that they often use), which was not unusual, the board has taken to holding these extended sessions out of the public eye often in the last couple of years. What made it unusual was the meeting notes that they recorded and posted online. These notes are normally devoid of details that allow you to know what the board is up to, except in the most general sense. This May meeting contained the following in the notes –

“80-­‐90 years ago the people of Grandview invested in school buildings and infrastructure; it’s our turn now.”

“Feeling of MORAL IMPERATIVE to do something” (that capitalization is directly from the meeting notes)

Amid the gray jargon of the normal meeting minutes, this “our turn” line, the first record of the meeting, stands out like an emotional shout. I have never, in all my time reading minutes from board and council meetings, seen “MORAL IMPERATIVE” in all caps, used to comment on a public body’s feeling about an action they plan to take.

Genisis of the building project

Looking back over the past board meeting notes, it isn’t clear where the sudden urge to build came from. You can speculate that the board looked at the city, and saw big new projects going up, like the announced build of a new city pool. The board might have looked at those projects and said “it’s our turn now”.

The publicly discussed reason was a report the board had contracted from an outside group called K-12 Consulting, this report was titled “The Permanent Improvement Cost Assessment”. I have another post on the way that examines this report in detail (read this post on the report),but after a quick scan I see big red flags that indicate this was a predetermined report that was tailored to support the results the board wanted to see.

The K-12 report would have been useful if it broke out the expenses that are a result of keeping an old building running. Instead, they threw everything they could find into the cost bucket, including replacement costs for school vans, snow cleaning equipment, and more – the stuff that’s considered fixed costs, no matter what kind of building the school owns.

I found one item on the list of facility costs particularly red flagged. The school board went though a scandal back in 2006 over the cost of installing artificial turf on the football field, and used unethical shenanigans to justify spending school money on a project that was supposed to be completely funded by donations. Now 9 years later the field is nearly worn out and is scheduled for replacement in 2017. How is this for Chutzpah – that $365K cost for the replacement is being used to bulk up the facility costs, in a bid to scam the tax payers into building another expensive project!

When you throw in the cost of replacing the turf into the general facility costs, it is easy to make statements like the panic inducing TVN article, where board member Truett said the the school would be spending “$800,000 and $1.2 million a year for at least the next five or six years!”. He was not telling us that the $1.2 million (the report said $1,070K, I don’t know where the extra money came from) was only a single year cost boost from the turf replacement. I also don’t understand where that “five or six years” is anything but BS. The report said $500K the fifth year, and dropped down in subsequent years.

That same May 2015 special board meeting created a “Facilities Task Force”, which was supposed to be filled with construction and architectural experts, who were going to give an objective look at the need for a new building. I have another post in the tube that looks at these “experts”, but I can give this comment on the group – if you place the husband of a board member on a task force, how objective does anyone think they will be?

The urge to build is powerful

If you have never been in the position to be part of a group that builds and gets their names carved into the dedication plaque on the side of the building, you don’t know the draw that path holds. History is filled with people who built oversized palaces, sized for the ego of the builders more than the practical use of the building.

Suggested reading – the Wiki article on Terror Management Theory. It provides a comprehensive framework for the motivations of society, and symbolic immortality sought by providing the sense that one is part of something greater that will ultimately outlive the individual (a building with a plaque).

If you read through some of the past special board minutes, it is shocking how long this train has been on the tracks,  railroading the district into a new building. The meeting notes say they went on “Mariemont/Wyoming site visits” – the board was already visiting other schools and getting plans for the new building back in May 2015. It is hard to believe that the school board is committed to allowing the Task Force to give a yes or no answer on building, when they already are measuring the curtains for their new offices.

Do not underestimate what this board will do to push this new building to completion. They will spend school money freely, they will work in secrecy, they will fudge numbers and create implausible projections. They will try to intimidate anyone who speaks out against the building. “IT’S OUR TURN!” will be the board’s battle cry, and will be the overriding motivation of this school board for years to come. Unless Grandview is willing to remove this group from their board seats, expect to see all other functions of the board suffer as they focus on getting their building.

(Later)

The secrecy I mentioned above has started. I sent an email to board president Brannan asking when the Task Force group would be meeting, and requested to attend. Days later, I got an email back in response, that said there was a meeting going on that evening – somewhere. I asked for confirmation of the place of the meeting, and assurances that I would be allowed to attend the meeting (I know that there is no valid reason I could be blocked from attending, but I wanted confirmation in writing from the board president). Mrs. Brannan told me where the meeting was being held, and confirmed my permission to attend – at 7:30 PM, as the meeting was probably ending.

I asked when the next meeting would be held – she didn’t know, said they didn’t schedule yet. Why do I get this feeling that I will be receiving emails at 7:30 PM on the nights of future meetings? It’s such a childish little trick, yet it allows them to say “we notified him”.

Board bans public attendance

That didn’t take long, Brannan now says the public can not attend Facilities Task Force  meetings. Nothing helps inspire the public to have confidence in a public meeting like having the public banned from attending!

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The FieldTurf Loan (G.W)

Published August 20, 2015 by justicewg
This donation board was used during the failed attempt to help the Andersons pay for the Anderson Field.

This donation board was used during the failed attempt to help the Andersons pay for the Anderson Field.

A re-post from November 2006. The school board pushed though an expensive plan to dig up the grass football field and install a FieldTurf surface, after months of assuring everyone who spoke against this project that donations would cover all of the cost, they failed and had to take out a $175K loan. This incident was also notable because of the unique argument the board tried to push, they said the cell towers belonged to the board, therefore the money from rents on the towers belonged to the board, and they didn’t have to take public comments on the use of that money – it was their money to spend as they pleased.

The turf project was also a time-bomb, the board minimized the cost of the replacement of the turf after 10 years, but it was estimated to be a $250K project. Read on for this story, then see my postscript where I show what the board now estimates the replacement turf will cost in 2017 (hint, $250K was way low).

(From November 2006)

The Grandview school board has voted to take out the full $175K loan that they had previously approved for the construction of the FieldTurf project. Remember the claims by the board that no taxpayer money would be used? That the fund raising would find $175K, as they asked for with their inaccurate donation board? It now appears that the $50K in hand from donations will barely cover the cost overrun announced at the Nov. meeting.

It was bad enough when they decided to pre-approve the $175K loan before the fund raising project had even begun, thus insuring that the donations would be small. Who wants to help fund a project that has already been pre-paid? How do you tell people that they should help the Andersons fund the Anderson field?

The worst part of the affair is the duplicitous claim that “The loan will be paid with income from the cell towers, and this is not taxpayer money because the tower leases are not publicly owned”. The board members and the superintendent tried to come up with explanations for this theory, but they failed. The land that the towers occupy is owned by the public. The money from the leases has been going into the general fund, which is part of the publicly accounted and taxpayer owned school fund (and if anyone thinks that educational funds are not owned by the public, they have not been paying attention to DeRolph v. State since 1991).

If the board was honest, they would simply have said “Yes, we will be using taxpayer money for the FieldTurf, we judge this to be a good use of school funds.” Maybe the attempt made by board members Heydinger and Cameron to restore $80K worth of cuts to the activities at the school (in the Nov 22 TVN, no link to the TVN news website because it sucks) at the Nov. meeting is an admission that school funds were used on the FieldTurf? And that they now want to spread some non-existent extra money to other activities as a way to buy off criticism of the FieldTurf project?

Board president McLeod is quoted as saying “Any part of the $175K not used will help to pay off the loan, or be used as “seed money” for the replacement turf needed in 10 years”. I don’t expect our board members to have degrees in economics, but those two statements are so stupid I have to comment.

If you have loan money left over after a project, you have wasted money. It costs money to take out a loan, every dollar that is not used is costing interest that you didn’t need to pay. The correct way to do a project is to take out loans as they are needed.

You don’t take out a loan for “seed money” for a project 10 years in the future. The cash will be costing the district more money as it sits unused in the bank. Duh. The frightening thing with our school board is that they probably don’t have the economic intelligence to understand these simple concepts.

(End story from 2006)

I wonder if that money that McLeod was going to use as seed money for the replacement of the turf is still sitting in an account somewhere. The school will need every penny they can dig up – they now project the cost will be $365K, and be needed by 2017.

While reading through the school board meeting notes, I found that they were still paying off this loan for the turf as late as 2014. If you are wondering why the board has not set some money aside in preparation for the turf replacement, the answer is that they were still paying off the old loan.

Poor planning and deceptive actions

Why is this story about a failed plan by the board to raise money still of interest?

Suppose you had a friend who wanted to start a business, and showed you a business plan that assumed a lot of money would flow in to get the business off the ground. The friend then quit his job, and after the money didn’t show up, came to you with a sad story about how he was in big trouble and needed you to loan him a lot of money, fast. You would probably sit him down and explain that if his business plan was based on assumptions that were not true, he has let optimism overwhelm reality. He needs to get real.

A school board that assumes it will get a lot of donations and will be able to build a big new project, then charges ahead with the project before the donations are in the bank, is similar to the unfortunate friend with the failed business. What made this project even worse was that the board was so out of touch with reality that they couldn’t even acknowledge they had failed, and came up with a dumb story that the cell towers were free money.

When you have a school board that is insular, out of touch, actively tries to keep anyone from knowing what they are doing, and ignores all criticism – that is the kind of environment that produces boards that make big mistakes. It was true 10 years ago, and it is true today.

Jennifer Cook murder still unsolved, and lie detectors still don’t work

Published August 13, 2015 by justicewg

Jennifer CookeTwo years have passed since the murder of Jennifer Cook, a Grandview parent. My condolences to her family. There was a letter from Cook’s mother published in a Ch 10 story in which she tells us about the anguish she feels about her daughter’s death, and the disappointment she has with the police investigation.

This CH 10 story includes a repeat of the fact that Cook’s ex-husband, Dave Culbertson, has not taken a lie detector test offered by the police, as though that were a clue to solving the mystery of the murder. It tells us nothing except Culbertson has a good council who correctly told him that it is stupid to take police lie detector tests, even if you are innocent.

Lie detector machines are modern voodoo

The results of scientific studies are in, and they all say the same thing. Lie detector machines don’t work to indicate lies. What they show are stresses, and there is no way to differentiate the stress an innocent person will show when asked aggressive questions from the stress of a lie. A guilty person can easily learn to fake the responses of an innocent person when he is wired to the machine.

The police have good reason to make exaggerated stories up about the effectiveness of the test. In order to do a machine examination, the suspect must answer as many questions as the technician wants, often for hours. The more questions asked, the better the chance a mistake will be found, because we all have imperfect memories. Innocent mistakes can then be claimed to be lies, and the stress of being grilled on these mistakes allows the examiner to say “stress readings shows that this person was untruthful during the test”.

Some crimes have been solved when suspects believe that the machine works, and break down and confess during the examination. It doesn’t happen often, because even a cursory search of the net for the question “do lie detectors work” shows pages of stories that have proved the tests are bunk. There are also plenty of people who are selling “how to beat lie detector” courses. It mostly is instructions to fake stress during some questions, and relax during important questions.

If you have a competent lawyer, they will tell you to never take a police lie detector test, even if you are innocent. Passing the test will still allow the police to say “this person was intentionally trying to beat the machine”. Failing the test, which happens often to innocent people, will lead to further questioning and investigation by the police (wasting police resources that could have been used to find the real guilty party). Test results will not be allowed in most courtrooms.

The police need to stop using lie detection machines, and claiming they work. Police work should be based on science, and the science has spoken – the machines are garbage.

Ask the police to do their jobs

The letter from Cooke’s mother, Charlyn Marie, is heartbreaking. She is sick with grief, and wants justice for her daughter. You could read this letter as a request for justice outside of the police system, she says “No arrests have been made. There is no longer any progress or hope. I feel that this is such an intolerable, shameful injustice to my daughter Jennifer.”

We all feel bad for Charlyn Marie, I wish there was some way to give her peace. However, taking your own acts to provide justice outside of the legal system would be a dark path to go down. Even if you are convinced the police and prosecutor in Grandview are not up to the task, any action you take will be seen as “Making someone pay, even if we can’t prove they are guilty”. I don’t think that would be helpful to the image of our town.

What you can do is send an email or letter to the Chief of Police, and/or the Mayor of Grandview, and ask them to continue to investigate and bring charges against the murderer. As long as there are people pressing them, they have reason to continue the investigation. When nobody cares any more … why should they?

Staying off the path that leads nowhere

I should have guessed that there would be people who have strong opinions about the guilt or innocence of a suspect in the Cook murder. Some are convinced that there is plenty of circumstantial evidence, and we are failing to honor Jennifer if we don’t charge Culbertson. Others think Ch. 10 was using yellow journalism to try to rile up a gang mentality against a person who has not been charged, and should be assumed innocent.

If you have new evidence, and you think you can solve the case, talk to the police. I’m sure they will be happy to listen.

If you think Ch 10 was wrong in printing that story, send them a strongly worded letter.

I’m not going to allow this blog to be used as a fighting arena between the two viewpoints. Nobody has a special knowledge about this case that will allow them to win the fight. Unless you are the killer, in which case you can just go to the cops and let them know what a smart person you are, and how you got away with it. Until that happens, I’m not allowing comments that lead nowhere.

(Update Aug. 2016) The TVN printed a story about the Cook murder, but it had no new info. The Grandview police say they still working, but said nothing about a break in the case.

Tax relief or election pandering?

Published August 7, 2015 by justicewg

Finance committee Chairman Steve Gladman introduced legislation to the city council that would give income tax relief to the Grandview residents who work in Columbus. It sounds like an equity issue when you look at the numbers, but as other council members explained, taking up this issue at the same time the city asks for a property-tax levy renewal next year sounds like they are not really in need of the levy. The projections say the renewal will be needed.

And bringing this up just before the election smacks of pandering to voters.

Gladman defends his actions

I asked Mr. Galdman to explain why this was before the council, and which members were supporting it.

J.W. – What was the reason for creating this ordnance? Was there a call for it from city residents? Who asked for the tax relief?

Steve Gladman – The reason for the tax equity ordinance was to return to the previous income tax approach of providing all residents with a 100% credit that was altered in 2010 when voters were asked to approve a higher tax rate. The decision to not allow the full credit in 2010 was a business decision In 2010 Grandview Heights was faced with a difficult economic forecast and not providing a full 100% credit was viewed by Council as needed at that time. The granting of only a partial credit resulted in $250,000 of additional income.  Five years later Grandview Heights is in a financial postion to return to the previous  practice of providing a 100% Credit.

One one asked me to introduce this,I believe this is a good public policy and attempted to have this considered by Council earlier in the year but is was not placed on the Agenda. Since I believe policy matters should have public discussion introduced it from the floor. Open meeting law prohibits discussion outside of open meetings on pending legislation.  The concept was discussed at the July Finance Committee meeting.

J.W. – Which council members have been supportive of this tax-reduction? If you couldn’t get a majority vote to prevent the permanent tabling of the ordnance, why did you think it was appropriate to bring before the council?
S.G. – I can not speak for other members of Council, but I believe there is a majority that support the concept of tax equity. Based on the discussion at the last Council meeting there are various opinions about  when this ordinance, if passed should become effective.  The ordinance was not tabled and will have a second hearing at the next council meeting.

J.W. – Why should we not believe this was an action taken only to pander for votes in the fall election?
S.G. – I introduced this ordinance because I believe it is good public policy and a policy that I believe is supported by the majority of Grandview Heights residents.

I don’t doubt that if you asked the average voter on the street, they would say they want lower taxes. If there were a group of angry voters that brought this issue before the council, it would be a real concern that the city should address. The problem is that as Gladman admits, nobody asked for the tax relief.

The job of councilman is to do what is right for the city, and introducing this issue at the same time other members are trying to get support for a renewal levy smells of doing what is right for your own election this fall.

I guess that is politics. It doesn’t compare to the time former Mayor Sexton tried to convince the council to sell the city buildings to the banks so they could get a quick cash infusion (as now Mayor DeGraw said, that plan was like taking the city down to the hock shop). It didn’t work for Sexton, she wasn’t re-elected. We will see if this is OK with the voters in the fall.

(later) Apparently pandering trying to cut taxes is a valid way to get re-elected in Grandview, Mr Gladman was the only council member to hold on to his seat.