The Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board of Education is expected to decide in the coming weeks whether to continue to have a finance committee made up of three board members, after several complaints were aired about problems with the group.
Board member Jay Kohner, who was also a member of the finance committee in 2012, raised concerns last week about the committee. Kohner said he had heard complaints from board members that the finance committee sometimes took on issues that should have been presented to the full board. From the perspective of a board member who has been both on and off the finance committee, Kohner said there are times when he looks at the finance committee's agenda, and is certain other board members would like to be privy to the conversation. "People get left out a little bit on what's going on," he said.
Board member Ben Baratto said he agreed with the concerns, and said that three board members on the committee is just one shy of a voting majority, or quorum. He proposed a possible scenario, which he said he was sure had never happened and probably wouldn't: "If Dan [Pyan, Fiscal Affairs Director] has a pet project and he convinces those three [board members], all he needs is one more board vote," said Baratto. "And I think important decisions should come before the board for a vote."
"They still do," interjected board member Steve Schild, who argued the committee should not be disbanded because of one issue.
Baratto reminded the board members they had been told in recent months having one or more board members on a committee could mean committee work was unfairly influenced by the board presence. Administrators did tell the board recently that budget-cutting discussions would be conducted by the administration without board input because of possible board bias. Baratto said it made him wonder why he was on committees in the first place, and said the arguments to uphold the three elected board members on the
finance committee contradicted what the board had just been told about potentially influencing committee work.
Schild said if having three board members on the finance committee was a concern, then it should be a concern for other committees that include three board members—such as the negotiations committee. "What it comes down to… gosh, I don't know how to say it, but at some point I think we're going to have to trust one another enough," he said.
Pyan told the board that if the finance committee's agenda items were taken up by the full board, regular board meetings would last for six hours. He also accused the school board of not listening to him and not remembering financial information he has provided. He also said financial factors were often not the only thing driving full board decisions. "A lot of stuff you do is based on what you think the public will think about it," he said, adding that some decisions are made by the board with political motivation.
Kohner said it would help if finance committee agendas were provided to the full board at least a week prior to the committee meeting so that those not on the committee would still be apprised of its work.
"It's not a big thing for me to end the committee," said Pyan, adding that other committees don't have to have agenda material ready in advance. He said the finance committee did not make decisions, adding that decisions were always brought to the full board for a vote.
However, in September 2011, the finance committee decided that the purchase of a fleet of district vehicles did not have to go to the full board. The new vehicles were to save money in mileage reimbursement to employees using their own vehicles for district business. During that meeting, when Pyan asked whether the issue should be taken up by the full board, or whether it was too "micro" a decision, Greg Fellman, who was a finance committee member and school board chair, said, "In my eyes? Too micro." Two sedans and one 10-passenger van were purchased within the last two weeks, superintendent Scott Hannon told the Winona Post. A change in district reimbursement policies that would encourage the use of district-owned vehicles over employee vehicles has not yet been completed.
By the end of the meeting last week, Pyan said he would like to disband the finance committee, although the board said it would discuss the matter later this month. New board chair Mohamed Elhindi said that if the board wanted to use committees, some structure was needed. He said there were models that worked, and that the board could adapt to those proven standards in the use of committees.