School Board Haggles Over Superintendent’s Purchasing Authority
Left, School District Business Manager Tom Owens addresses the School Board- and ultimately provided a compromise School Board Members could agree to. (City-Times photo)
“It’s not realistic to expect a special meeting to approve each one. I think that’s taking it a little too far.” -Chris Scott
By Donnelly Clare
During this week’s 4 1/2 hour meeting, members of the Stevens Point School Board opted to limit the purchasing authority of Superintendent Attila Weninger.
Weninger currently has the authority to approve up to $20,000 in non-budgeted funds “per occurrence” for various contracts within the district without prior approval from the board, though he is required to inform the board of those decisions within 20 days. Some Board Members said they were uncomfortable with not only the level of that spending cap, but also the length of time the board could be tied to some of those contracts without first having a chance to consider them.
“If you have a contract that’s $5,000 a year and it’s a 4- year contract, the superintendent can approve it without board approval because it’s below the $20,000 limit,” said Board Member Lisa Totten. “There’s nothing in here that says the board has authority over duration of contracts. Anything over one year the board needs to look at even if it falls in the superintendent’s purview of $20,000.”
Totten said the language in current board policy is too complicated and questioned an exception clause, which reads in part, “exceptions to the procedure required under this policy shall be approved in advance by the superintendent or his or her designee.”
“What possible exceptions would there be that this would apply to? I’m very black and white, and when there’s a rule, there’s a rule. I’m not real big on exceptions- our rules should cover the exceptions otherwise its left wide open,” Totten said.
Business District Manager Tom Owens said one example of an exception includes a contract with Rasmussen Plumbing, with whom he said the district has a long-running relationship because of the superintendent’s current flexibility to approve contracts quickly.
“We’ve used them for years and they provide free training to our staff,” Owens said. “Because of our unique relationship with them we get fast response and preferential treatment and we’d want to see that go on. It doesn’t make sense, in our experience, to bid out many of the things we use them for to other plumbers. That would destroy a business relationship we’ve had for many years- that would be foolish.”
Owens added the exception clause has been a part of board policy for “many years” and it wasn’t intended to abandon the superintendent’s purchasing policy, saying the clause was included to underline the policy itself.
Totten said regardless of the intent, the language should reflect specific businesses with which the district has such a long-term relationship, giving Weninger the additional leeway with only pre-approved companies.
She also added the $20,000 cap was too high and suggested the board lower that to $5,000 per occurrence each year. Board Member Kim Shirek agreed, pointing to the recent contract Weninger signed with Carlson Dettmann, a Madison-based consulting firm which was hired to perform the district’s compensation study.
“In the case of Carlson Dettmann, we have three projects at about $20,000 each but they equal $60,000- that was approved before it ever came to the board,” Shirek said.
“I’d rather see the board included in those decisions,” said Board Member Jeff Presley. “Why wouldn’t this board want to be included in this decision? It’s a huge decision. Overall it’s a small amount of money compared to our budget but it’s a huge impact on our district.”
Totten argued all expenditures should go through the district’s budget approval process and all exceptions to the current policy should be eliminated.
“If you do proper planning, proper budgeting, I think we can plan for that,” Totten said. “I mean, we meet every two weeks; if something comes up it should just come before the board. $20,000 is just way too much. The finances are our responsibility and it needs to come into the budget process.”
Board Member Chris Scott pointed out Owens has been on the job for nearly 40 years and the board should heed his advice.
“It doesn’t sound realistic to say there won’t be an exception,” Scott said. “I know there are things that come up in your own household budget you don’t plan for. It’s not realistic to expect a special meeting to approve each one. I think that’s taking it a little too far. It just doesn’t seem practical, every time an amount is spent. In a budget like ours it just doesn’t seem preferable to me.”
Board Member Bob Larson argued there’s no evidence of spending abuse from the superintendent’s office so the policy should remain unchanged.
“We need to give him the flexibility to address things that aren’t foreseen,” Larson said. “I haven’t seen any abuse with the $20,000 threshold, and that threshold has been around for quite a few years. If it’s been working fine why change something? I wouldn’t support this change.”
Presley said Weninger’s ability to approve multi-year contracts without board permission should be a more pressing concern for all the board members.
“I guess $20,000 per occurrence is okay, but with limit of a one- year contract,” Presley said. “Anything beyond that must be brought to board even if it falls below that $20,000 limit for non-budgeted expenditures. If we entered into a contract that was $2,000 for ten years for a program and the board had no input on that, I would have real issue with that.”
Presley added the board has dealt with extended contracts in the past, something he said happened prior to Weninger coming to the district, but did not elaborate.
Weninger said the policy change would limit his office’s ability to do business efficiently, which he said requires a certain amount of flexibility.
“So you’re saying if there was a vendor for three years with a $20,000 total you wouldn’t grant the superintendent the latitude to do that?” Weninger asked.
“No because it’s a three- year contract you tied the board into,” Presley replied. “You can just bring it before the board.”
“We meet every two weeks, so I don’t understand the issue,” Totten said.
“The issue is trust,” Larson said. “If we can’t trust the superintendent, who we’ve got running the whole district with a $1oo million budget, and we want to tie his hands and micromanage it? You guys sit here and you talk about not micromanaging- what would you call this? I’d like to ask you how many contracts you’ve written. You’ve got people up here with expertise that have been doing this forty years. They’re not trying to do something underhanded. They’re doing something they recommend will work, to give him the flexibility to run the district.”
Owens made a suggestion which brought a quick end to the board debate.
“I think one word could solve all your problems- ‘annual’,” Owens said. “If you just include the word ‘annual’ in there that would take care of it I would think.”
The board eventually agreed to allow Weninger to continue approving $20,000 of non-budgeted expenditures but amended the spending policy to allow for annual contracts only. Longer contracts would need board approval.
The next public board meeting is February 24 at 6:30 PM.