The Bibb County school system spent more than $68,000 on furniture and renovations at the central office in recent months.
School officials said the spending -- from March to December 2011 -- was part of efforts to improve the downtown facilities for the public.
New furniture is filling out an expanded board meeting room, newly created conference rooms and the offices of administrators and other employees, according to receipts obtained by The Telegraph and Ron Collier, the system’s chief financial officer.
During that period, office space has been converted into a conference room for school cabinet meetings next to Superintendent Romain Dallemand’s office. The conference room also has been soundproofed. The superintendent hosts weekly meetings with community members there, Collier said.
New furniture cost more than $45,000, and that total does not include the recent purchase of desks for a new in-house attorney and others. The soundproofing work cost $4,175, with the work performed by school maintenance workers, Collier said. The paint job for the central office totaled $18,926.
The system also expanded its board meeting room to accommodate visitors who in the past had to stand, something that school officials had previously discussed. Another conference room used for staff training has been created from two smaller rooms, and conference tables and chairs were needed for the new spaces, Collier said.
For those who might question the expenditures, Collier said the money was spent to better serve the public.
“When you talk about the boardroom, it is for our citizens so that they can come to board meetings and not have to stand up and not have to stand in the hallway,” he said. “Quite frankly, if you talk about the conference room, that’s where the superintendent meets with the public.”
Asked whether the change in school system leadership had prompted the spending, he said no.
“I think it’s more an opportunity to really do what we are in the business of doing, to serve the public better. That’s what these changes are,” Collier said. “The board of education, the offices in the building, they belong to the people, they belong to the citizens. It’s an opportunity to serve those citizens better.”
The system began a series of furniture purchases for the central office in March. Most of the pieces were bought between August and November, records show.
The most expensive single purchases came in August, with the system spending close to $10,000 on a conference table and bases, a lectern and a storage credenza. More than $4,000 of that total was for the conference table and bases alone.
Later that month, the system bought 28 executive, high-back chairs and 16 guest chairs totaling more than $11,000. Other purchases during the year ranged from $709.22 to $5,639.20 for desks, conference tables, chairs and a sofa.
In December, the system bought four more desks for employees who will help the Bibb school system administer a federal grant aimed at preparing middle school students for education beyond high school, as well as for an in-house attorney. Collier did not have figures on the cost of those items.
The school system hasn’t purchased new furniture for the superintendent’s office since the mid-1980s, one longtime central office worker said.
The district has gotten rid of obsolete furniture, including desks that had been propped up on bricks. In other cases, older but still usable furniture has been moved to other offices.
The furniture and renovations have been paid for out of the system’s contingency funds, which total about $1.4 million, Collier said.
School board members had differences of opinion about the timing and scope of the purchases.
Board President Tommy Barnes said the furniture purchases have accompanied other efforts that will help leaders bring about change in the school system.
“We want to effect change, (and) we didn’t have anywhere we could bring people together,” he said.
Board member Lynn Farmer, on the other hand, said she prefers a more conservative spending approach whenever possible, especially when it comes to the central office.
Farmer said she remembered strong public outcry when the school system moved to its current offices at 484 Mulberry St. in the 1990s. Many people criticized school leaders for moving into a new air-conditioned building, for example, when students in some schools didn’t have it, she said.
“I’ve always been sensitive to that. The feeling is people want money spent on children,” Farmer said. “If it’s something they really need, I understand. If it’s something they can get by without, I think we’re all in getting-by-without mode -- or we should be.”
Other school systems
Spot checks of similarly sized school systems around the state showed that spending on furniture for administrative offices in recent years has varied widely.
Spokesmen for the Richmond and Houston county school systems said their districts hadn’t made major furniture purchases for their central offices in recent years.
Houston County has bought a desk occasionally for a new employee, said Stephen Thublin, the assistant superintendent for finance and business operations. Also, the central office recently converted an office into a conference room. New furniture for it came in under $1,500, Thublin said.
Lou Svehla, the Richmond County school system’s public information coordinator, said there haven’t been any major furniture purchases at their central office in the four years he’s worked there. He said the system had made an occasional replacement purchase.
In Muscogee County, the school system made a one-time $1.5 million purchase of furniture for the system’s newly built Public Education Center in 2009. The building itself, which houses administrative offices and the board meeting room, cost around $20 million.
The building, as well as the furniture, was funded through a 2003 special purpose sales tax.
While The Telegraph received bid documents for most of the furniture purchases in Bibb, required for purchases of $201 or more, the school system could not find documentation for a $709 chair.
Collier said the chair was within the range required for a bid solicitation. However, bids apparently were not put out for the chair, according to the school system’s attorneys.
Collier said he thinks board policy should be amended to set a higher minimum amount needed for bids. Houston County’s bid minimum, by comparison, starts at $1,000.
To contact writer Andrea Castillo, call 744-4331.