City DopeNews

BOE Member Blasts $11 Million Real Estate Deal

The Clarke County Board of Education put off a vote on buying property near Five Points for a new school district headquarters last week, at a called meeting at which board member John Knox gave a fiery speech questioning how purchasing such a pricey piece of property helps students or furthers equity.

The 38,000-square-foot building on a little over 2 acres at 394 S. Milledge Ave. would cost $6.7 million, with another $4.3 million required for renovations, including breaking down walls to create a large room for board meetings, according to Superintendent Demond Means.

In his speech calling the deal a “boondoggle”—his full comments are quoted below—Knox said the building is about half the size and almost twice as expensive as the parameters Means had previously laid out. Means had said the district is looking for 65,000–70,000 square feet and looking to spend about $6.5 million.

Knox also revealed that the real estate agent who brokered the deal is former BOE vice president Sarah Ellis, who was on the board when Means was hired in 2017 and also sold Means his house. Knox said the relationship is a conflict of interest and called for the district to open up bidding to be CCSD’s real estate agent to the entire community.

Means called Knox’s remarks “deplorable” and “political grandstanding,” and said Ellis “did nothing to deserve the type of statements made this evening.”

Current vice president Linda Davis also defended Ellis, saying that the board had discussed the situation in executive session. “There hasn’t been anything illegal or unethical about those transactions,” she said.

Ellis told Flapole that the board agreed she and another board member at the time who is also a real estate agent, Carol Williams, should help Means find a house, since he didn’t know anyone else in town. “It was 100% transparent,” Ellis said. She called Knox’s remarks an attack on her professional integrity stemming from his “personal vendetta” against Means.

Ellis estimated she’s spent 350 hours working on the central office, and noted that she won’t be paid until closing. Yet she said she’s fine with the board voting down the deal if members feel the property isn’t right.

Several other board members, including Greg Davis, Patricia Yager, Frances Berry, Kara Dyckman and Tawana Mattox, also questioned the deal. Means said the South Milledge property meets all the criteria for a new administrative office: It is centrally located, on a bus line and has sufficient parking, with over 100 spaces. It will have 118 offices after renovation, which is 10 more than the district needs, he said. 

CCSD officials have been looking for a new central office since selling the Mitchell Bridge Road building in 2016. Administrators are currently split between H.T. Edwards and the Whitehead Road Elementary School annex, but Means wants to move out of H.T. Edwards to make room for the growing Career Academy.

$2 million in funding would come from the sale of Mitchell Bridge and $9 million from ESPLOST V. Means has said he is postponing planned renovations to Clarke Middle School to free up money for other projects, including the headquarters, new athletic fields and tracks at Cedar Shoals and Clarke Central, additions to Gaines and Chase Street elementaries, and the West Broad early learning center.

After an hour and a half of discussion, Means said administrators would consider reversing their recommendation to buy the property. The board will discuss the purchase again at its Oct. 3 work session and vote Oct. 10.

UPDATE: According to documents released Wednesday, Oct. 2, Means is recommending terminating the contract to purchase 394 S. Milledge Ave. Instead, he is now recommending building a new 40,000 square foot structure for $8 million to $9 million at the old Gaines School site, which board member Greg Davis had suggested at the Sept. 26 meeting.

In addition, Means has also agreed to recommend outside counsel to represent the entire district—not just the school board—in formulating a response to a complaint filed with accreditation agency AdvancED in August alleging micromanagement by board members.

At the Aug. 29 board meeting, Means refused to recommend an attorney for the board after the board passed a resolution to hire one, out of concern that Means and CCSD’s usual attorney, Michael Pruett, couldn’t be objective. Means later included the resolution in his formal response to AdvancED supporting the allegations, saying it usurped his authority. Flagpole then discovered that Means has been using taxpayer funds to retain his own attorney for the past two years.

The board passed a revised resolution 8–1, with Charles Worthy opposed, requesting that Means recommend an attorney within 14 days. Means and board president LaKeisha Gantt said Means had agreed to do so after discussions between the two. 

The board will not wait for an attorney to start formulating its own response to the AdvancED inquiry, voting 6–2 to begin that process, with Worthy and Linda Davis opposed (Berry had left). But will it be a response to AdvancED or a response to Means’ response? “I don’t think there’s anything positive that can come from responding to [my] response,” Means said.

Knox’s Statement:

The Board is being asked tonight to spend a total of up to $11 million on district office space: $6.7 million on the 394 S. Milledge property, and an additional $4.3 million on renovations to this 1973 property.

The cost for district office space has skyrocketed 54% in less than a year. The Board was told in a Q&A document from the Superintendent to the Board on the morning of November 15, 2018 that the cost for district offices would be $6.5 million ($2.5 million for property, $4 million in renovation).

In that same November 15, 2018 document, the Superintendent informed the Board regarding district offices that, and I quote, “The district is seeking a minimum of 65,000 sq. ft. to 70,000 sq. ft.  All staff located at the H.T. Edwards and Whitehead Annex would move into the new Board Office facility.” On December 18, 2018, a Board Communication from the Superintendent to the Board of Education indicated the needs were “65,000 to 75,000 square feet.” The Superintendent indicated to the Board that he had discussed these dimensions, the 65,000-75,000 square foot target, with County Manager Blaine Williams.

The 394 S. Milledge Ave. property is not 65,000 to 70,000 square feet. It is under 38,000 square feet.  

The size of the 394 S. Milledge Ave. property is, at best, less than 60% of the district’s needs as expressed on multiple documented occasions in late 2018. At worst, the S. Milledge property is only half of what we need for district offices, at a total cost of $11 million.

The Board and the Realtor representing our district have been told stories about how the S. Milledge property is enough for our needs. However, no numbers have been provided to buttress this assertion, despite four separate requests for this information from me to the Superintendent.  

As a scientist, I stick to numbers. The numbers that are available indicate that, if we approve this property purchase tonight, we will be spending over 50% too much for a property that is also 40-50% too small.

This is a boondoggle. The definition of “boondoggle” according to Wikipedia is, “is a project that is considered a waste of both time and money, yet is often continued due to extraneous policy or political motivations.” The 394 S. Milledge Ave. proposal fits the definition of a “boondoggle” to a T.  As such, I will be voting “NO” on the property proposal.

I could stop there, but more needs to be said to place my “NO” vote in the proper context and perspective of CCSD, the Board, and Clarke County as a whole. As Ecclesiastes 3:7 says, and as Martin Luther King quoted it a year before his murder, there is a time to break silence.

To follow up on the definition of “boondoogle”: Why on Earth would this school district spend a whopping $11 million on a too-small property in expensive Five Points? How does this relate to student achievement and equity work? Let’s follow the money and the “extraneous… motivations.”

The Realtor representing the district on the S. Milledge property is a former Vice President of this very school board.  While on the Board in 2017, this Realtor participated in the sale of a house to the Superintendent, which to anyone on the outside would seem to be a textbook violation of Board Policy BHA, Board Member Conflict of Interest, points 1 and 4, regarding making money off of proprietary information.  (It is perhaps relevant that at last Friday night’s training meeting of the Board, that we learned that this Board has been in violation of another part of Policy BHA, point (2) at the bottom, for most of this decade! This Board has much work to do to catch up to other districts around the state in terms of ethics, we learned from our GSBA experts Friday night.)

This Realtor, no longer on the Board, has represented the district in at least two separate property situations relating to district offices, and perhaps more. Information about the Realtor’s activities has been sketchy, at least to me as an individual Board member, because the relationship is said to be under the $80,000 threshold of Superintendent actions that require Board approval that our revised Policy states. (However, Board Policy BBAB, point 7, requires that the Board be notified of expenditures under $80,000.)  

Current Board members have expressed concern about this relationship, and have asked for a Request For Proposals, or RFP. Why an RFP? So that the entire community, and not just one former Board member, could be considered for the job of representing the district in property negotiations, and could reap the profits of commissions on the sale of multi-million-dollar properties. These concerns are equity work, and I applaud Dr. Tawana Mattox for leading the charge on this request for equity in our work with Realtors.  

However, despite Dr. Mattox’s four-month-plus quest to open up the selection of a Realtor from the wider Athens-Clarke County community, the district has stuck with the current Realtor.  

The estimated commission from the sale of 394 S. Milledge is roughly a quarter-million dollars. An RFP process would at least offer the potential to “spread the wealth” of taxpayer monies, and not concentrate it in the hands of one Realtor who is a former Board officer.

But that’s not all. Keep following the big money. A commission of a quarter-million dollars is chump change compared to the property sale price of $6.7 million. Where is all that taxpayer money proposed to go?  

The sellers of 394 S. Milledge represent interests whose ancestors have been in Athens for at least a century, and through some branches of the family tree all the way back to the Lyndon family, of Lyndon House fame, of antebellum Athens fame. I am assured by one of the amateur historians/raconteurs of Athens that the main owner of the 394 S. Milledge property comes from “generous, kind-hearted people.” And I don’t doubt it. I even know one of his siblings. They are very nice, very generous, very wealthy and very white. Yes, I just “went there” and said it: They are very nice, very generous, very wealthy and very white.

That’s the business as usual of Athens, and it is the opposite of equity work. SPLOST is a regressive sales tax.  Even if Notre Dame fans get hit with the tax, so do we Athenians—and that includes poor people, that includes people of color. Spending $6.7 million of taxpayers’ money on a pricey property for district offices, with that money ending up in the hands of Pretty Old Athens property owners—that’s not equity work. That’s Business As Usual. That’s a transfer of money from poor people of color to rich white people, the way it’s been done in Athens and elsewhere around our nation for centuries. That’s what has to STOP, now, if we are going to do the real, hard work of equity.  

We are going to have to stop relying on generosity to fix inequality. Generosity is table scraps.  Generosity takes, at most, a little bit of the edge off of inequality. Generosity doesn’t change inequality. You could argue that generosity reinforces inequality, by giving a little away in exchange for not questioning the overall system of inequity.

We are going to have to stop dealing with just our friends the Realtors, and open the job up to anyone and everyone. There’s got to be at least one African-American Realtor in this town; I know, because he’s been giving me grief on social media all week! There’s got to be more than one law firm in this town to represent us, not just the firm that’s represented us for a half-century or more. I know there’s at least one African-American lawyer in Athens, because he’s been giving me grief on social media too! But without RFP processes, it’s just the same ol’ same ol’.  Business As Usual.

We are going to have to stop spending top-dollar for district offices that don’t directly impact student achievement, and redirect those dollars so that they can help, however legally possible, the students and teachers in the classrooms. It’s not the school district’s job to jack up property values in Five Points, and to take expensive property off the tax rolls to boot. That’s not what our school district should be doing.

And when we do spend money on district offices, we need to be frugal, and not reinforce and redouble the inequities that already exist in Athens-Clarke County.  

Give me a proposal that truly addresses equity, and I’ll vote for it in a heartbeat. There’s no equity in this proposal.

So, that’s why I am voting NO: this proposal is a boondoggle that doesn’t do equity work at all. This proposal is a reverse Robin Hood, taking from the poor and giving to the wealthy. It’s wrong financially, it’s wrong morally, it’s just plain wrong. Those who support this proposal, and who also claim to also be invested in equity work for the children of Athens-Clarke County, are contradicting themselves. There’s no equity here. Those who support this proposal and want real change and real equity in Athens have been bamboozled about this boondoggle. And they need to wake up and see the light.