(C. Proxmire, Nov. 3, 2012)
Ferndale Schools are often praised for their excellence in music, their creative ways of bringing in revenue, and the diversity the community embraces to educate not only district children but those who come from other cities to study here. But something less publicized is the unique way that Ferndale Schools handles administrative contracting and the emphasis on education as a way to bring in profit.
The subject has long been a buzz among families in Ferndale, especially those that send their children to school elsewhere. However it’s gotten much more intense since an out-of-town-based publication began a series of flip-floppy articles and opinion pieces (good luck telling which is which) about the subject. The Ferndale Review has since ceased publication, but the confusion it’s left in its wake requires some explaining.
Ferndale has the highest paid superintendent in Oakland County per pupil. (Updated from an earlier report which was not clear on this). A comparison of all districts transparency in reporting shows that Superintendent Gary Meier has a Medicare Taxable Wage of approximately $225,000, and a total benefits package worth over $290,000 according to the District’s website.
Every school district in Michigan is required to provide this information on their website. A comparison of all Oakland County School Districts reports (not including Pontiac which is not up to date) shows that Meier’s wages trump those of the Troy Superintendent, listed at $215,093 for 11,873 students and the Farmington Superintendent, listed at $211,730 for 11,437 students.
Ferndale has approximately 4,000 students, approximately 3,000 of which are enrolled in the core K-12 programs.
On top of the high compensation, Meier also has a contract that is unique among Michigan superintendents, which allows him an unlimited amount of outside consulting. Meier owns his own consulting firm called ICE (Innovative Consulting Education), which he started in 2009. Meier did not answer Ferndale 115 questions about the amount of income he brings in from ICE. However School Board Candidates from both sides of the current political debate have reported seeing the contract and do not dispute that ICE receives $370,000 a year from a contract with a group called Michigan Future, which helps develop charter schools and alternative education programs.
It is unknown how much Meier brings in through other ICE on top of the $370,000 although AOL-owned Patch.com reported “Meier’s consulting work has included teaching college classes, speaking engagements and working with public and private schools on school culture and teaching and learning through Innovative Consulting Education (ICE)” in their June 23, 2011 article on his contract renewal.
Michigan Future was involved in the planning of University High School, and for a time was renting facility space from the School District, along with paying them for some administrative services. In 2011 they no longer needed the space. They ended their direct relationship with Ferndale Schools and began contracting with ICE, Meier’s company, to provide the administrative services.
Meier could have taken this contract and found others to the work for him. Instead he created a contractual agreement with the School District that allows him to use school district employees to perform these duties, and for Ferndale Schools to provide business supplies for ICE.
The duties listed in the contract that Ferndale Schools must provide to ICE, according to the contract, are: technology access and support, telephone and cell phone access and support, photocopies and supplies, office supplies, staff access and support, email account services, website development and maintenance, graphic design/communications services, clerical services, bookkeeping and accounting, vendor payment, payroll and auditing services, human resource services, access to administrative support personnel, and other similar services to be agreed upon by the parties.
Additionally, when Meier’s contract was renewed, other top administrators also had their contracts renewed and altered to allow them to do outside consulting work, and to keep any money that work brings in.
It is unclear how much time, supplies, and other resources are used to complete this work, because none of the contracts have any method of accountability required. There are no timecards. There are no inventory reports. The work that is done by school administrators for Gary Meier and ICE is permissible during the school day, and no one has any record of it.
Members of the CLEAR Political Action Committee have voiced concerns about the potential conflicts of interest in having a Superintendent juggling so many projects without a clear trail of how district resources are being used to fund his consulting business. In a school district that faces lackluster test scores and regular crime and violence in its alternative education program, some suggest that the efforts of the administration might be better off focused on concern for the students and the community rather than on the profits being made on side jobs. Additionally CLEAR members have noted that Ferndale teachers are among the lowest paid, while top administrators are among the highest.
Members of Citizens for Better Education, including their thee incumbent candidates and their one newcomer, say that the relationships help serve Ferndale Schools. They applaud the unique business models and contracts, and say that because the work for ICE helps other educational institutions that it keeps Meier in the know about trending school-related issues, and helps to serve the educational needs of young people. Additionally the profits brought in create financial stability for the district at a time when other districts are struggling to deal with state budget cuts.
The issue of these contracts being a conflict of interest has been a debate, particularly in this election season. The Michigan Department of Education has clear guidelines in their model conflict of interest policy, which can be found here. Included in this is “ISD board members and administrators shall perform their duties in a manner free from conflict of interest to assure the proper performance of school business as well as to earn and keep public confidence. No ISD board member or administrator shall engage in or have financial interest in any activity that conflicts or raises a reasonable question of conflict with his or her duties and responsibilities.”
In addition to comparing the financial data from all districts, The Ferndale 115 contacted over 20 other Michigan superintendents to compare their contracting provisions. Apart from some occasional teaching or speaking, none of the thirteen who responded reported contractual relationships such as this.
Meier declined the opportunity to answer questions about his contract, and simply referred us to his contract and the ICE Contract with Ferndale Schools. Meier’s supporters also note that he has never received a bad review from the school board. However, it should also be noted that Meier has donated to the same PAC supporting the board members who do the evaluating according to another Ferndale Review piece.
Meier has been with Ferndale Schools for 12 years. Prior to that he was the Superintendent of Springboro Schools in Ohio, where his contract was bought out in the midst of school district controversy.
The issue of Meier’s contract has been debated in the candidate forums, and in candidate profiles, which can be found in The Ferndale 115 News Voter Information section.
We also gave each School Board member the opportunity to answer questions on the matter. Their responses are compiled into this downloadable PDF.
For more information about Ferndale Public Schools go to http://www.ferndaleschools.org.