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Unanswered Questions in the ICE Contract Controversy

Unanswered Questions in the ICE Contract Controversy

(Crystal Proxmire, Dec. 31. 2012)

One of the key issues of the November Ferndale School Board Election was the unusual contractual arrangements between the Superintendent, his own private consulting firm, and the Ferndale School District. The controversy grew stronger when it was announced the night before the Nov. 6, 2012 election that Gary Meier, who is both the Superintendent and the owner of ICE (Innovative Consulting in Education), that due to the public and media inquiries he was cancelling the contract.

On top of the cancellation, The Ferndale 115 News and other media outlets received a short email from Board President Keith Warnick on the morning of Nov. 6, Election Day, stating “CLEAR candidates cost district half million in revenue.  Superintendent cancelled ICE FPS consulting agreement.  Will sell services elsewhere.”

This was surprising since throughout the month of October, Warnick and other Board Members campaigned on the benefits of the contract, touting the revenue it brings into the district.

What was even more surprising was when Meier and Warnick, at the November 5 policy committee meeting, said that the contract would end on January 1, in accordance with giving 90 days notice of cancellation.  They stated that Meier had provided notice to Warnick through email on October 1st.

Due to apparent inconsistencies, The Ferndale 115 News decided to look further into the claim of the cancellation happening on October 1st.  To begin with, Meier cited The November 3rd article as “the final straw.”  Secondly, Warnick campaigned throughout the month of October on the benefits of the contract, and never once mentioned the cancellation at the Policy meeting or Board meetings that took place in October.

The FOIA Challenge and the Email Gap

In order to confirm the October 1st email date, The Ferndale 115 News sent a FOIA request on November 9th asking for all emails relevant to the ICE contract.  The district first asked for an extension on the request, and then they set the price to just over $50, which is the cut-off point for requiring payment upfront.  Because of the cost, we had to turn to our readers to help pay for this request.  Finally, on Dec. 20 we received the requested documents.

Except that according to Jackie Stoker (Office Manager for the Superintendent’s Office, the person in charge of handling FOIA requests, and an employee who is free to do outside consulting with ICE), there were absolutely no emails with Warnick or fellow School Board Member (and former President) Chuck Moeser from Sept. 14th through November 9th  that mentioned the contract at all.  There were some before, and some after.  Just none during the time when the rest of the community was talking about it most.

The emails received do shed some light on the situation (discussed in more detail below).  But it was mainly the October 1st email, mentioned at the meeting, that was needed.  Since it wasn’t there, The Ferndale 115 News requested that Stoker re-visit the FOIA and send us any emails that may have been missed.

School District Attorney John A. Carlson responded quickly, stating in an email “You seem to be assuming that all communication between these individuals was done by email, and there is no basis for that assumption.  You did not receive emails between them pertaining to the ICE contract which were exchanged in October of 2012 because there were none. …Had there been such an email falling within the parameters of your request…you would have received a copy of it.

“You do indicate that you received the letter you were looking for, but want an email which would verify when it was sent.  It was not sent by email, it was hand-delivered.  To save unnecessary back and forth, I am attaching an acknowledgement of receipt subsequently signed by Board President Keith Warnick and Board Vice President Charles Moeser, both of whom were present when the letter was hand delivered.”

That affidavit was attached and signed by both Warnick and Moeser attesting that the letter was delivered in person.  The document was signed on Nov. 13, 2012, four days after The Ferndale 115 News requested the emails.

Attorney Carlson’s assertion that there were no emails in that time frame could be correct.  Other emails that were released show that much of the dealings around the ICE contract took place in meetings between Moeser, Warnick and Meier that were not public, and that Meier was reluctant from the start to have his ICE activities, and even his employment contract with the School District, part of public or Board discussion.

2011 Contract Implementation

Back in June of 2011, Meier and several top administrators had their contracts renewed, with the stipulation that they could do outside work in addition to their jobs as Ferndale Schools Administrators.  Meier, as owner of ICE, also made a contract with Ferndale Schools that allows him to use School District employees to also do work for ICE as part of their normal business day, and for Ferndale Schools to provide business supplies for ICE.

The duties listed in the contract that Ferndale Schools must provide to ICE, 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.

For providing the above services, ICE paid Ferndale Schools $180,000.  ICE in turn provided services to Michigan Future for a fee of $370,000, meaning that ICE still received over half of the income for the contract, while District employees did the work.    On top of it, there are no systems in place (such as time sheets or inventorying) to monitor how much Ferndale Schools resources were being used to support Meier’s ICE business.

On June 6, 2011, prior to the meeting where the contracts were approved, Meier wrote to then Board President Moeser.  “I will be sending the Board later this week a Superintendent’s Notes that updates them on, among other things, the Innovative Consulting/Ferndale contract we talked about tonight.  I want them to know about the discussion since it was held in open session with an audience.  Not sure how you want to handle my employment contract.  I don’t feel comfortable providing it to the Board.  Perhaps you would want to alert them to the contract in advance of the meeting.  As we discussed, I had hoped we could discuss the contract in closed session, but John [Carlson, Attorney] said it had to be discussed in open session.  Not sure if Henry [Gold, who is both Assistant Superintendent for Ferndale Schools and Legal Council for ICE] mentioned it, but Karen [Twomey] questioned the original agenda with the administrator contracts listed under “closed session.” I don’t want the Board to be surprised about the contract of the ICE agreement.  Let me know what you think.”

At the June 18 School Board Meeting, School Board Member Nan Kerr-Mueller motioned to have the vote on Meier’s contracts tabled for further discussion.  Twomey  agreed, but they were out-voted 2-4.  (Treasurer Jim Pflegar was absent from that meeting).  The contract was then approved 5-1, with Twomey passing the only dissenting vote.  Twomey said she was concerned over the length of Meier’s contract.

2012 Emails about the Contract

From 2011 to Sept. 2012 there was not much email communication about the contract, and nothing at all to indicate any oversight on the part of the Board Presidents former or current.  When the CLEAR committee formed, they brought up many points of discussion about the school district, including the contract.  As the Nov. 2012 election drew closer, it again became a topic.

On Sept. 8, 2012, Meier wrote to Warnick and Moeser “I am not inclined to review or discuss the ICE/Michigan Future agreement at a public meeting.  I am concerned the agreement will become a matter of public record.  I do not keep the agreement at the office, but will bring it from home when someone wants to review it.  I prefer the review be done separately and independently from the district/Board.  Your thoughts?”

Moeser’s response was “I would agree but I would have legal council present on this one since so many comments have been spoken and written.”  This response was also cc’d to Henry Gold, who is both the Deputy Superintendent of Ferndale Schools, and legal Counsel for Meier’s consulting firm ICE.

On Sept. 10, 2012, Meier wrote to School Board Member Karen Twomey “I was disappointed to see a post on the Pleasant Ridge Facebook page about our meeting Tuesday.  Not sure I want to get in the middle of a social media event.  Let’s do the review at another time when we can have a less public conversation.  Thanks.”

At the Sept. 11, 2012 Policy Committee Meeting Twomey was questioned about speaking to the media, and warned by Warnick that only the Board President is to speak for the Board.  The draft minutes, which were included in the FOIA request, also indicate that Twomey tried to speak to the School Board’s legal counsel, but was denied access by Warnick, who claimed that only the Board President could speak to council “to reduce redundancies.”

The notes from that meeting also reveal two other relevant points.  At that meeting Moeser stated “The Board does receive periodic reports about what goes into the charge to ICE for the approx. $180,000 per year reimbursement.” However there is nothing in the email conversations regarding these “periodic reports.”

Secondly, at this meeting Moeser shared an assertion that was also commonly given during the campaigns, that Meier’s performance reviews never indicated any dissatisfaction with his job performance.  The Sept. 11, 2012 notes state “Karen noted that there were comments presented.  Chuck [Moeser] cut Karen off and noted that because of the subjective nature of the comments, they have not been included in any forma evaluation of the Superintendent since the previous Superintendent was employed by the district per legal recommendation.  These comments were given to the Superintendent for his self-review and discussion with those Board members as he deems appropriate.”

On Sept. 12, 2012 Twomey requested to review the ICE contract. In response, Warnick wrote to only Meier, stating “I’m not so certain I would do this without some sort of Non-Disclosure agreement with her.  My trust level for her has rapidly diminished recently.”

Meier responded in a Sept. 13, 2012 email stating “Thanks Keith…the dilemma is I didn’t ask Rob [Brokham] or Brad [Parks, who was a School Board candidate at the time] for non-disclosure agreement.”

On Nov. 3, 2012, someone using the name “Keith Warnick” discussed the ICE contract in present tense on the AOL-owned Ferndale Patch website.

On Nov. 10, 2012 Board Member Twomey questioned, via email, why Warnick would make comments as late as Nov. 3rd about a contract that he knew had been cancelled.  Warnick responded via email “I have made no public post on the Patch.”

Twomey’s Nov. 10, 2012 email had similar questions to those that The Ferndale 115 News has asked.  In it she wrote “You made public comments at the forum about the contract in present active tense, and even a response to Jodi Berger on the Patch as recent as November 3… Still why was I on the Policy [Committee] not notified until Monday [Nov. 5], and the board not until that weekend in a letter?  Please forward the original time stamped email to me.  We have a severe information flow issue if you are notifying the board and public in the Patch comments before at the table or through our other communication channels.   Over a month to communicate something that big cannot be considered acceptable.”

Warnick’s response only addressed the Patch remarks, which he claimed he did not make.  There are no emails to indicate that he addressed Twomey’s concern over the Oct. 1st date.  Nor has he explained it to The Ferndale 115.

On Nov. 12, 2012 Meier wrote to Warnick, stating “can you stop by some time tomorrow to talk about Karen’s email regarding the ICE contract notice of termination?  I have talked to John and I have some thoughts about a response.” They set a time for a 9am private meeting on Nov. 13, 2012.  This is the date that is shown on the affidavit signed by Warnick and Moeser, stating they received the letter in person.

On Nov. 20, 2012 Warnick wrote to Meier, stating “Gary, I can’t seem to find the e-mail I sent to the Board regarding the ICE contract cancellation; legal opinion and signed affidavidt.  I don’t see any return receipt either.  (I mark each e-mail for delivery receipt).  Also, my scanner now keeps giving me an error message so I will have to find another way to get a copy of the Oct. 1 letter to the Board.”

This was the most recent email included in the FOIA request.

Moving Forward

The Ferndale 115 has again sent questions to Warnick, asking him to explain the circumstances of the Oct. 1st cancellation, why he failed to bring up the cancellation to other Board members or the public, and why he continued to campaign as if the contract still existed through the month of October.

We have also responded to Attorney John Carlson, asking him to clarify when it was he received the notice of cancellation.  The contract requires that the Board and the Legal Counsel of the Board receive notification.

Warnick lost his bid for re-election.  Incumbents Jim Pfleger and Katrina Collins also lost their seats.  In January all four of the CLEAR-supported candidates (Amy Butters, Jim O’Donnell, Kevin Deegan-Krause and Raylon Leaks-May) will be sworn in.  Moeser remains on the Board.

While the School District will no longer have the ICE contract revenue, or the obligations attached to it, Meier and the top administrators are free to continue doing the ICE/Michigan Future work on their own time.

Here are the articles which give further background:

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