Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Wha' happened??

In my last note, I shared a little information on the newly formed Swanton Recreation Program that was created to replace the former Park & Rec joint venture between the school district and the village. Although I mentioned the people who had been involved in committee meetings to discuss the options before us, I really didn't say very much about the details.

Apparently I should have.

Therefore, I will now share with you some of those details.

In early November 2008, our Superintendent Paulette Baz set up a meeting with Mike Wiederman and myself from the school district, and Pam Moore and Mike Rochelle from the Village. The stated purpose of this committee was to forge a plan for continuing the recreation programs for the kids in our community without a tax levy to fund those programs.

(A short history: Under the old Park & Rec system, the Village responsibililty was for the physical "half" of the partnership: the parks, the concession stand buildings, etc. (The Village has a tax levy on village residents for the physical upkeep of the parks). The old Park & Rec half under the school district had the responsibility of the sports programs, plus did the concessions at the games and also performed minor maintenance in the parks related to the sports programs. This is how the joint Park & Rec had operated since 1986. In addition, for some reason a tax levy had been instituted for the sports programs of Park & Rec through the school district, and therefore had taxed residents in the entire district. I still cannot answer how this came to be, when no other recreation district in the state has a tax on its residents for sports programs. . . but, regardless, this School Board unanimously decided to stop this tax and, instead, structure the program as our peer groups locally and other groups in Ohio had structured theirs.)

The meetings of this Superintendent's Committee were serious attempts by those present to see, first of all, if the existing Park & Rec program could somehow be 'fixed', and if not, then to investigate what other avenues were open to us. Attorneys looked over our documents, and those of other sports/rec programs in the state and offered suggestions. Information from other local rec programs (Anthony Wayne, Sylvania, etc.) was obtained and studied. Our varsity coaches were asked for their input. No stone was left unturned.

The overriding goals by all involved were to keep these sports/rec programs going for our kids and community; to keep the cost to participants as close to the former rates as possible; and to have all programs be self-funded. In addition, the Village would continue their responsibility for the physical parks and buildings and the school district would continue responsibility for the programs along with its long standing agreement with the Village on minor field maintenance, etc.

It quickly became obvious that the former Park & Rec had to go. No amount of effort would be able to "fix" it.

We then looked at three options that were suggested by the attorney. There were pros and cons to each one. (anyone interested in seeing exactly what those options were may ask Paulette for a copy of them) Hours were spent by each of us in research. More hours were then spent together in our meetings, as we shared information. Each option was discussed and debated, with the former stated goals in mind.

At the end of that meeting December 3rd, I was elated! All of us in that room - Mike Rochelle and Pam Moore from Village Council, Mike Wiederman, Paulette, and myself - had hammered out a plan, and it was a good one. The decision had been made to dissolve the existing Park & Rec at a joint meeting of Council and School Board, and we would then immediately create a new entity: the Swanton Rec Program. A new board would be put together (with members of the existing board welcome to apply, if interested). The Village would continue to do as they had in the past and Paulette would get our varsity coaches directly involved (on a volunteer basis). The new board would need to be formed quickly, as Spring sports were almost upon us and we wanted the transition to be seamless, if possible. Mike and Pam were going to share with the other Village Council members and their Administrator what we had agreed upon so that a joint meeting could be scheduled quickly. The plan was to hold this joint meeting ASAP - hopefully before Christmas, so that the new board could be in place and actively working on Spring programs immediately.

I can honestly say that the mood at this meeting was positive all around. These Committee members had come together - hashed out every detail and option possible - and had jointly decided on a course of action. There was no arm twisting by anyone. This was truly a cooperative venture in all respects. I went home that night and told my husband how GREAT it had all been! I was almost giddy, I was so encouraged by the shared vision in that room! The next day, I wrote an email to the other BOE members to summarize that meeting. Here is what it said:


As you know, last night was a meeting with Mike, myself, Paulette, Pam Moore and Mike Rochelle. Our purpose was to take a look at the options available that would allow a recreation system to exist in Swanton but would NOT be a continuance of the same old mess we've had for the past 20+ years. Along with that, we all wanted a workable solution that would be agreeable to both the Village and the School District - even though we all recognize that any change will have some detractors.

Paulette had received some written guidance from our athletics guru from Ennis Roberts Fisher about the various legal options and their ramifications. She had also been busy delegating some investigative work to Tim Zieroff and others, so that we could make an informed decision.

All things considered, it appears our best choice will be to dissolve the existing Park & Rec and create a new Swanton Recreation Program.

. . . The thought last night was to have Pam and Mike R report back to Village Council members . . . and for us to do the same to you. Then, any questions could be fielded by Paulette over the next week or so. She is also going to speak with Jon Gochenour about it, as Mike R indicated Jon would support this IF he was informed early in the game.

Village Council will have their next meeting and discuss it in a bit more depth in executive session (as it relates to employee/employment issues). Our (regular) meeting for December would include a time set aside for a joint session with Village Council to dissolve the existing P&R and immediately create the new entity, with no gap of time elapsed. We could have an early executive session that evening as well, to talk among ourselves prior to the joint meeting.

It is clear that we need a transition plan for the next couple of months, given that parents have already signed kids up for a few things that will be occurring shortly. Paulette and Cheryl will work on that transition plan, including the finance end of things.

One thing was made clear last night: the new entity will be fee based for operations. Various specifics were mentioned on how to save costs to keep fees reasonable. We all agreed that a huge amount of waste has been happening for many years and that must STOP. Once we're able to work a bit more in depth with the numbers, we'll be in a better position to see just what those fees might be.

There are several local districts that are operating successful recreation programs, and Tim Zieroff has been speaking with them about specifics in their systems. . . . .

Another thing that will need to be done is to advertise for 5 people to sit on the new board that will be established. Three will be required to live in the Village - two will be required to be residents of our school district. All current board members will be encouraged to re-apply for a position, if interested. Village Council will choose 3 board members, and we will choose 2.

In addition, it was determined that a clerk/treasurer would be required to handle ALL paperwork and financial issues of the new program, with Cheryl providing only some guidance when necessary. Paulette is uncomfortable having only a volunteer handle all that money - she prefers the position be paid in some fashion. Mike W and I were very clear that if it was decided to pay someone to do this job, it would have to be on a sub-contractor basis of some type, as we were NOT going to place someone on the school district payroll. Paulette is going to check into how exactly we would handle this question legally - whether with 1099s or whatever.

There were many other aspects touched on last night, and if you have questions please give Paulette a call. All in all, it was a pretty productive meeting. Everyone agreed that we must all be on the same page for this to succeed, as it will be different from what folks have been used to doing and change always makes people nervous. Yet, the potential here is awesome!

I am excited to see the Village coming together with us on this, and it was also gratifying to see them grasp the magnitude of the financial mess the current system has been. While they are slightly more hesitant to immediately give up the idea of taxes somehow subsidizing the participant fees, they are willing to do everything possible to make it work as a fee-based system. How the remaining $40K+ in the P&R coffers will be handled remains to be determined - but we'll figure it out, or rather CHERYL will figure it out !! :-)

So give any of us a call if you have any other questions!

I received an email on Dec. 17th from Paulette, who was trying to coordinate a meeting with Mike Rochelle and Pam Moore to over the proposed documents for the new program before Christmas, and also schedule our joint meeting. I gave her my availability, but told her not to hold up the works if I was not able to attend but to go ahead as soon as she could get things together with the others.

Time passed. I began to get antsy. What was the holdup?? Well, the holidays can make it difficult to schedule such mundane things as meetings, so the next plan was to schedule as quickly as possible after New Year's.

Yet - on January 15 I was sending an email to Paulette asking what was going on? Why did we still not have a meeting scheduled with the Village? Village Administrator Jon Gochenour was involved and had been refusing to schedule anything. However, Paulette's email reply to me stated that a Jan. 27th meeting had been scheduled to go over program budgets and Spring sports programs. This was clearly far beyond the timing discussed at our Dec. 3rd joint meeting, and had the potential of adversely affecting the Spring programs under a new entity.

And then Mr. Gochenour deigned to attend the meeting.

Mr. Gochenour, Mike Rochelle, and Pam Moore attended, as did Mike Wiederman and Paulette. (I was unable to be there) Suddenly - the consensus between us had evaporated. Gochenour insisted that our carefully forged, joint plan of action was not in the best interest of anyone (translation: the Village). He demanded that a different approach be taken: that a new joint entity be created that would - again - levy taxes based on school district boundaries. He referred to the Sylvania model as an example; however, he was - shall we say - a bit disingenuous to give the impression that the Sylvania tax was for programs. (It isn't. It is for physical fields and maintenance of those fields outside of the town proper)

More amazing and distressing to me was that Mike Rochelle and Pam Moore now were at odds with the very plan they had helped to create! What had happened??

The School Board then scheduled a special meeting for Feb. 5, and the sole agenda item was to discuss the recreation program. Although it was advertised as per the O.R.C., no one from Village Council, the current Park & Rec board, nor any member of the public came. The full Board was brought up to speed with the details of what had happened at the most recent meeting of the Superintendent's Committee, and the current status of the Spring sports programs. Paulette provided a press release to Drew Stambaugh for the Swanton Enterprise. He printed it in its entirety - and also included comments on the subject that were apparently made anonymously, as he "neglected" to give the name(s) of whoever made those comments.

A special email invitation was then sent to members of the existing Park & Rec board, as well as Mike Rochelle and Pam Moore to attend our regularly scheduled Board meeting on Feb. 17th. This email indicated that Park & Rec was on our agenda for that evening. No one from Village Council came to that Board meeting.

I have already written about what happened at that February Board meeting. In short, the Board decided to move ahead with what had originally been agreed upon by Village Council representatives and Board representatives on the Superintendent's Committee. Our involvement with the existing Park & Rec was dissolved, which effectively ended that program. We then created the Swanton Recreation Program to serve our kids and community.

So - why am I sharing all of this historical detail with you now? Because Mr. Gochenour is not finished with us yet.

Last Wednesday, April 15th, a proposed lease from the Village was delivered by Mr. Gochenour to the Board office. That same afternoon, Marcy Zaner went to get the keys from the Village to the concession stand so that the Boosters could access the facilities for the scheduled event that evening. Mr. Gochenour refused to give her the keys - he stated he would not give the keys to anyone until the lease was signed and returned to him.

The lease prepared by Mr. Gochenour was obviously not reviewed by the Village attorney of record, as several items contained therein make it unsign-able by anyone. Here is a link to a pdf copy of this proposed lease, so that you may see it for yourselves.

As Paulette was out of town, Cheryl Swisher placed a call to Mike Rochelle to try and understand what was happening. She told him that certain stipulations in the proposed lease had the potential to have a terribly detrimental effect on the Rec programs - to which Mr. Rochelle replied that "the Board should have thought of that before (they voted to dissolve Park & Rec)."

Say, what??

In addition, Mr. Rochelle said that the Village required control of all concessions (which is mentioned in the proposed lease). He said that Council felt a non-profit group should handle concessions (hmmmm . . . ya suppose he was talking about Deacon's baby, the SACC, which is running through its grant money a bit too quickly these days??).

So Mr. Gochenour's statement to Ms. Zaner was false. The signing of the proposed lease would NOT release keys to the Booster clubs to run concessions. (After the exchange with Mr. Gochenour, the Booster Club returned all of the food items they had purchased for concessions.)

You will see that the proposed lease includes a clause for a 50% discount to be given on participant fees to Village residents. Where did that come from? As Mr. Rochelle and Ms. Moore know from our meetings together, the Rec program can be self-sufficient at the same fee levels as last year. Cutting a group of participants' required fees in half would require hiking the fees on everyone else - which would obviously jeopardize the entire program. Besides that - does the Village have any such agreement with any other group that uses their fields? No - so why propose to do that to the Swanton Rec program??

But wait - there's more. Someone at the Village found and dusted off an ancient ordinance that states concession sales may not begin prior to May 15th. Now obviously that ordinance has been waived for decades, without any adverse affects to anyone. Why pull it out now?

In addition, the school district has several items of equipment etc. used for Rec programs stored in Village buildings. The locks on these buildings have been changed - we are being denied access to our stuff at this time. Why is that?

Please note: Nothing has been done by the school district or Board to adversely affect the Village. We were planning to continue our field maintenance for our sports programs as we have done for over 20 years. We were planning to have our various booster clubs handle concessions. We planned on an amicable and mutually beneficial relationship with the Village. We worked very closely with two members of Village Council to put together a joint plan for the good of our kids and community.

I am absolutely flabbergasted as to why the Village is now setting road blocks before us. However, Paulette is trying to set up a meeting with Mr. Rochelle and Ms. Moore for this coming Saturday morning, so that we may again try to reach an agreement in the best interest of our community. Mr. Gochenour has also been invited to attend.

If you are a village resident, perhaps you could call a Council member to ask about these curious events.

It is a puzzler.