After Dave Maul resigned from the New Albany-Plain Local financial review and reporting committee (FRRC) last week, two of the remaining four residents on the committee talked to their school board representatives June 22 about establishing better communication and then agreed to expand their roles.

After Dave Maul resigned from the New Albany-Plain Local financial review and reporting committee (FRRC) last week, two of the remaining four residents on the committee talked to their school board representatives June 22 about establishing better communication and then agreed to expand their roles.

Maul submitted his letter of resignation June 20, citing an inability to help the district with reviewing its finances, which was the mission of the FRRC when the school board formed it in 2010.

Laura Kohler, the school board vice president and one of two board members serving on the FRRC, said she was sorry Maul resigned just as the board was ready to have committee members increase their responsibilities and share their expertise in different ways.

"I think we've been underutilizing the individual expertise of the committee members and it's time to make a positive change," Kohler said.

Phil Derrow and Parag Patel, the community members on the FRRC who attended the June 22 meeting, said they, like Maul, often felt as though they were not contributing all they could to help the district. The other community members, Chris Luffler and Dave Demers, were absent.

After hearing a description of the FRRC duties, Patel said, he felt his strength was in identifying problems and solving them.

"I don't know that I've helped," he said. "If you say I've helped, I don't see it."

Kohler said the committee was asked initially to make recommendations on policy, more than crunching individual numbers. She said the FRRC has greatly influenced the board's decisions.

"You've been helpful with big-picture issues and changed the conversation in the district, as well," Kohler said.

Cheri Lehmann, the other school board member on the FRRC, also said the community members "made a big impact on the decisions I've made."

Patel said discussions on lowering the average cost of educating one student, for example, could be frustrating. The FRRC discussed that issue for the last two months in relation to the five-year forecast.

"I'm not sure I feel like we have contributed to furthering your agenda," he said. "I've seen where a lot of work has been done, but I'm not sure where my input is needed or has helped.

"We often are given a financial analysis, like when trying to lower the cost per student. But, if you give me the data, I can look at it and say, 'Here's where we are spending and why.'"

Patel said those conversations also help the FRRC members understand how they can help the district.

"Once we know the rules, we know how to operate and what level of review you do want," he said.

Derrow said he is more of a "strategy person than a detail man," which is why working on policy suits him. But he, too, said he understood the more detail-oriented committee members' remarks. He said more details would raise questions the administration may not have thought about and that process drives strategy decisions.

Lehmann said the committee members' roles would expand if they were willing to put in more time. The committee members agreed to the following projects: Patel will work on operational efficiency with superintendent April Domine; Derrow will work with Domine and Ken Stark, director of operations, on health-care improvements; Demers will work with Domine and Stark on a review of the McCoy center contract; and Luffler will work with Domine on budget review for fiscal year 2012.

In his resignation letter, Maul said that he and Luffler had repeatedly asked the administration to allow them to go over the budget line by line.

"The (school board) essentially road-blocked the FRRC from having any significant involvement by taking the position that it was not the job of the FRRC to look into any of the details but instead to provide policy oversight only," Maul wrote.

Kohler said the timing of Maul's resignation was unfortunate because she and Lehmann already had decided to expand the committee members' roles to delve into those details.

"We need your help and your ideas to help us get better," Kohler said.

She then reminded the FRRC "the five of us (school board members) were elected to make decisions and work in partnership with the administration we have hired and trust to do their jobs well. Ultimately, the buck stops with us."

Kohler said one of the reasons she was concerned about increasing the role of the committee is because it requires more time from the administration to do in-depth reviews and provide detailed explanations of how the district can operate.

"There is a difference between what we do and what manufacturers do," Kohler said. "I would just remind you that our goal always is centered on students and what's best for the children."

The committee members also raised another question, one Maul also wrote about in his resignation letter, regarding the negotiations with the Plain Local Education Association (PLEA) on the new teachers' contract.

Derrow said there is some disagreement on what can and can't be shared with people during negotiations. Since the FRRC was formed to make recommendations on financial issues and salaries and benefits make up 80 percent of the district's $50-million budget, he said, it would have been better if the board had told the FRRC it was entering negotiations with PLEA instead of inviting the committee members to a school board workshop to tell them what already had been negotiated.

"It was a surprise, and nobody likes surprises," Derrow said.

He also said community members did not understand negotiations were happening, either. Derrow said the school board always states the reasons for having a private executive session, but no one specifically said the session was related to contract negotiations.

According to recent school board meeting agendas and minutes, preparation for negotiations or bargaining sessions with employees was listed as a reason for the board to go into executive session at least eight times since March 21. "Preparation for conduct or review of negotiations or bargaining sessions with public employees" was listed on the agendas and read publicly before each executive session March 21, April 11, April 18, April 25, May 9, May 23, June 13 and June 22, in compliance with Ohio's open-meeting laws.

As for the negotiation process, the district's attorney, Dane Gashen of Bricker and Eckler, said state law passed in 1984 made the negotiations private to "allow for free-flowing dialogue."

"The (Ohio) Supreme Court upheld that to prevent the fear of outside influence," he said.

Derrow said they understood "the negotiations have to be private, but to say, 'There is the existence of negotiations' may not have to be private."

Lehmann defended the board's actions.

"We did the best we thought we could be doing at the time," she said. "We thought we were being open by announcing (the executive sessions) at the meetings."

In the future, Kohler said, the board would be more direct with the FRRC.

At its June 22 meeting, the school board announced an executive session for "consideration of the evaluation of a public employee and for preparations for negotiations or bargaining sessions with employees." When ThisWeek asked if contract negotiations could be included, school board president Mark Ryan said yes, because the district has contracts in place with other employees.

Mike Ford, vice president of the Ohio Association of Public School Employees (OAPSE), said OAPSE has a contract in place that expires in June 2012. He could not confirm that negotiations had started but said the union currently is talking about beginning negotiations.

The PLEA's contract was set to expire in June 2012, as well, but union leaders requested early negotiations due to the pending loss of revenue projected for the district.