UPDATE: After Lengthy Debate, Life Skills Center Gets Green Light
Board Member Alex Kochanowski. (City-Times photo)
By Brandi Makuski
The Stevens Point School Board on Monday approved the construction of the long-debated Life Skills Center.
The center will accommodate developmentally-delayed and disabled students who need extra help learning independent living skills in a home-like setting. District officials say the new center is being paid for at no expense to taxpayers after the district encountered unexpected funds from the state.
During a two- hour discussion that was loaded with contradiction, the board voted 5-3 to approve the construction bid of $857,911 from The Samuels Group, with Alex Kochanowski, Lisa Totten and Kim Shirek voting against the measure.
The board has debated every angle of the project for more than two years, delaying votes on multiple occasions in favor of seeking additional information and alternatives to the new building.
Board President Recuses Self After Objection
Before the discussion began Board Member Kim Shirek called on President Angel Faxon to recuse herself from the discussion.
“You have publicly stated during board meetings that your own children will benefit from this; due to our policy 165.1, it is a conflict of interest for you- will you recuse yourself?” Shirek asked.
Shirek was referring to a comment Faxon made early last year when she noted the excitement surrounding the idea of the project, also saying her own children could benefit from the services provided within the then-proposed Life Skills Center (LSC), but she did not say how at that time.
Faxon initially said she would not recuse herself because she didn’t consider it a conflict of interest, something several other board members supported.
“In the same way, I have a son involved in a basketball program in SPASH and the district provides maintenance- it provides no financial benefit,” said Board Member Meg Erler. “That’s the difference. Board members with children in the schools who are receiving an education from the schools aren’t required to recuse themselves.”
Shirek continued to protest, along with Board Member Lisa Totten.
“If I believed you had an open mind on this, I would have no problem,” Totten said. “But the fact that you have admitted in public, on tape, that essentially no matter what you will support this tells me you will not able to represent the best interest of the district.”
Faxon said to avoid the appearance of impropriety and further delays, she would recuse herself from the discussion and vote, asking Board Member Trish Baker to run the meeting while she stepped into the hallway, as School Board Vice President Jeff Presley was not present.
Moving Ahead on Construction…But Wait
Board Member Alex Kochanowski said he felt the board made a “horrible mistake rushing the $850,000 construction project without fully addressing the here and now.” Kochanowski said the district has many students who need immediate help and should not have to wait for the special needs education the center would provide.
“I was under the impression the $850,000 was designated for students with special needs to have the appropriate accommodations,” Kochanowski said. “The deeper I dug, I’m realizing we’re overlooking the need right now. Construction will require time, and we need to deal with this tonight.”
Kochanowski said not enough thought has been given to other options, including a community partnership with Harmony Assisted Living in Stevens Point, an assisted living facility for area senior citizens. Kochanowski said he even called the facility on behalf of the school board to ensure the center was able and willing to work with the district.
Kochanowski then quoted Superintendent Attila Weninger from a previous meeting, during which Weninger told the board how important the new center would be: “We are denying a group of kids who desperately need a deeper education in order to survive beyond these walls. With every year we do not do something, we’ve lost an opportunity.”
Kochanowski then moved the board begin looking for district-owned alternative sites immediately. The board completed a search of its facilities for such a space previously, prior to choosing the new site near SPASH, but Kochanowski was not serving on the board at that time.
But Lisa Totten should remember those talks well. Proposed locations for the Life Skills Center was a constant point of discussion in 2012-13, when Totten had been serving on the board and heard reports from various department heads on each location, all of which were turned down either for lead contamination, lack of space, structural deficiencies or accessibility issues.
But before the board could vote on Kochanowski’s motion, the board dissolved into debate for several minutes over whether the conversation was appropriate as it wasn’t noticed on the meeting agenda.
“What is publicly noticed on the agenda is ‘Like Skills Center bid results and recommendation’,” said Baker. “I acknowledge your motion is made from the heart, but I think that’s for another day. It’s just not on the agenda.”
Kochanowski and Totten argued the motion could be considered appropriate, as it was technically a “recommendation” relating to the Life Skills Center.
Totten then turned the conversation to the district’s lack of action on the part of creating the Life Skills Center.
“We’ve been talking about this Life Skills Center for ten years and nothing’s been done,” she said. “And we’ve had administration here for ten years and nothing’s been done. There’s absolutely no excuse for not having the facility they need now. So if we do not allow this recommendation to include Alex’s recommendation, these students will in fact go at least another month without having what they need to get the proper education.”
Baker, as acting chairwoman, said she’d welcome additional information in the future once it was properly noticed on the public meeting agenda, also turning down Kochanowski’s offer of a report on his findings at the assisted living facility.
“I’d like the report from them- I don’t want you to take this personally, I’m going to declare your motion out of order,” Baker said. “We’ve been very clear about this agenda item being about the bid result. We put it off for two weeks so we could get the additional information on that specific item. But I’ll also ask Angel (Faxon) to put this on the next agenda because I don’t want to downplay the importance of it.”
Shirek then said she thought the vote should be delayed one more time because she said the board wasn’t provided a copy of the contract with Samuels Group. “We have a contract for $500,000- not $857,911.”
But Business Services Director Tom Owens said the board has had the information for more than a month.
“You have it in front of you and you’ve had it for a month now,” Owens said. “You’ve had the actual breakout of every vendor who bid on the project, exactly what the costs are, what their labor costs are and everything else. I don’t know what else we can do for you- you’re going to have to stop play whack-a-mole and make a decision here.”
“You’re being very disrespectful,” Totten said to Owens. “We are the board: if we have a question we have a right to ask it.”
By then the discussion had become so far off track that Baker called the question- a method within parliamentary procedure designed to end debate when the discussion has continued beyond usefulness. The board voted 5-2 to call the question, with Kochanowski and Totten voting against, indicating they wanted further discussion.
The board then had to vote on Kochanowski’s motion to pursue alternatives by a measure of 3-4. Faxon was still out of the room and Presley had not yet arrived to the meeting.
Discussion continued for about 30 more minutes and included accusations of fiscal irresponsibility from Totten, Kochanowski and Shirek, with Totten also apologizing to parents for the lack of such a center, contradicting her previous statements of the evening and also blaming Weninger and his cabinet for not giving the board complete information.
“Our staff is doing an amazing job with the limitations they have- I find it disturbing we aren’t given all the truth at one time,” she said, adding she didn’t see the need for the Blue Light Cafe or a planned culinary kitchen for students inside the LSC, and including Threads of Kindness in the same building was not appropriate.
“It’s being brought to them (students), so they aren’t getting out in society- we need to build life skills, take them out, include them in society and include them in the regular classes. I sincerely hope we are a board who understands the importance of taking care of these children’s needs. We need to wait until the Consolidated Task Force comes forth before we make our decision whether or not we want to spend a million dollars on this facility.”
Costs and Reimbursements
The district has received one-time funds totalling $2.2 million thanks to Medicaid reimbursements from the past few years- money that, according to Owens, is currently sitting in the district’s general fund account waiting for dispersal on the project.
“We do not have to pay it back, but if we use it for the construction we are also aided by that,” said Owens. “So if we spent the $850,000 on this, we get $400,000 next year (in reimbursements), and that will go back into the fund balance.”
Last year the board earmarked $525,000 for the project, but the bid from The Samuels Group, the Wausau- based company chosen last year for the design-build contract, came in at $857,911, which includes contingency and labor costs. Some key subcontractors noted in the bid included Ron’s Refrigeration and Altmann Construction.
Totten reasserted her belief the proposed expenditure was “robbing Peter to pay Paul”.
“The federal government mandates a certain educational levels for certain students; they do their calculations and we are reimbursed at a certain level,” Totten said. “What doesn’t get reimbursed by the government comes out of our Fund 10 (the district’s general fund), so it comes from Peter to pay Paul. This money came back as an error- the money should go back to pay Paul. You need to understand while it’s acceptable to spend the funds here, it’s not required to spend the funds here. It can be used anywhere in the district.”
Director of Student Service Greg Nyen said the money did not come back to the district in error, but pointed out for several years the district was not getting the proper amount of aid reimbursement commensurate to its size.
“The district had been reimbursed to the tune of about $100,000 each year from the state Medicaid program,” said Nyen. “For a district our size, that seemed very shy of the dollars we should be recouping.”
Nyen said he and the cabinet worked on a plan- under Weininger’s predecessor, former Superintendent Bette Lang- to have the special education staff take on an additional workload so the district would bill additional expenses to Medicaid with parents’ permission.
“But frequently we would hear from parents, ‘How does this extra money benefit my child?’ We would hear it from staff members; ‘Is that money just going back into the general fund? How are my extra efforts benefitting special education?’ Those were difficult answers to provide,” Nyen said, adding the district spends millions of non-disabled students each year, but estimated about 13 percent of the students in district were consider disabled in some form.
Nyen said the LSC could not only accommodate all the district’s students who have been identified as having some form of disability, but also several hundred students who were not disabled, including some students from the alternative high school and those involved in various community partnership projects.
But three members of the board were unmoved by Nyen’s information, with Kochanowski, Totten and Shirek voting against approval of the construction bid.
“I’m voting no tonight because I want everyone to keep in mind that we’ve got 8 students right now who need it, and I’m putting it before the board that the opportunity is there for a partnership,” Kochanowski said, adding during an informal two- hour search he was able to locate suitable properties already for sale in Stevens Point for a much lower cost, and again pointing to the potential for a partnership with Harmony Living.
“That’s what I found by just barely exploring this,” he said. “Let the administration explore this further and know we can give this to our students this year. Not next year.”
Owens on Monday night said he did not know what date construction would begin, but did say part of the construction would likely take place before the ground freezes for the winter.