Is The Traverse City School District Ignoring A Gift, Or Is That 'Gift' Completely Valueless?
What does the largest government body North of Clare do when it sees a case of vendor provided payoff to an employee?
It blesses the transaction. <– yes, that is the punchline
As yet another example of misplaced priorities, and a misunderstanding of the roles they play, the Traverse City Area public School board trustees have approved a ‘settlement’ which involves a payment from the soon-to-retire superintendent Stephen Cousins, and a gift from one of the school’s vendors to make up the difference between the $25,000 owed to the school district by the superintendent and his $14,800 cash reimbursement component.
First a recap of the facts as we know them.
- In October 2012, Cousins approved, and the school district sent a mailer that did not receive legal review, and asked voters to approve a bond millage sought at that time.
- At that time I filed a complaint with the bureau of elections at the Secretary of State, stipulating the part 57 violation.
- The District under the direction of the superintendent issued a stop order of the mailers and spent over $800 to shred them. (note: the shredding cost is somehow not included in the settlement)
- The district, using taxpayer resources hired the Thrun law firm to defend the mailer as appropriate. The superintendent claimed there was nothing wrong with the mailers and fought the complaint.
- In early 2013, the complaint was decided, and the mailers were deemed illegal under part 57. The complaint was successful.
- Subsequently, the superintendent sent an email to parents of the district accepting the decision and further said he was fully responsible for the mailers being approved.
- The Secretary of State deliberated on the disposition of the penalties and had the district provide an accounting for the costs associated with the mailers.
- In March of this year, it was ordered that the district be reimbursed $25,656 for the money spent illegally on the mailers. It was not specified where the money should come from, but that NO taxpayer funds would be used.
- This last week, Stephen Cousins provided a settlement, and the school board approved $14,800 coming from Cousins in four parts, and the remainder as a goodwill donation of campaign finance training services to the district to make up approximately $10,000 remaining.
First, given the fact that the secretary of state has provided campaign finance training at no cost, it seems a bit much is attributed to the value of such services. In fact, I have been told the Thrun firm itself has previously provided seminars on this topic to client districts at no charge.
Its like assigning a value to the air you can hold in your hand.
But for the sake of argument, lets assume there is a real service, and value for that service being provided by Thrun under this agreement. Lets further assume that it would not be available for no cost otherwise, and that the training value to the district is indeed $10,000. Does this not then violate an ethical component of employer and employee relations?
Consider that Stephen Cousins has said he is responsible. In that we must concur. He certainly approved the mailers, and did not utilize legal review before sending them out. Its his issue to deal with. And as the local paper reports him saying:
“I said from the beginning of this that the responsibility of the use of the word ‘support’ in our literature was my responsibility, and therefore it seems right that I would take responsibility for the district,” Cousins said.”
Its pretty clear cut.
Then we must examine the ‘valuable’ services being provided by the Thrun Law firm. Who does this service truly benefit?
Absent the campaign finance violations, would the district be hiring this firm for such training? Who actually requires the training? The school district administration or the departing superintendent? And since the absence of the training component of the settlement would necessitate Cousins paying the remaining owed to the district out of his own pocket, does it not directly benefit the man who has in the last four years recieved nearly a $million in compensation from taxpayers?
And frankly, I have seen people fired from their jobs for accepting TVs from vendors with whom those persons negotiate with.
Thrun law firm is a vendor for the school district, yet takes direction from the superintendent. A valuable personal advantage to the contractor of its goods should certainly raise eyebrows if not directly violate ethical parameters of employee/vendor relationships.
Cousins benefiting from the training value by itself is a conflict of interest as an employee receiving a gift .
And if the training has no value, then it HAS NO VALUE.