East Liverpool puts the cart before the tractor

EAST LIVERPOOL – The city school board this week denied the purchase of a tractor for the vocational agriculture program, but the move came a tad bit late: The tractor was already purchased and put into use in November.

The purchase approval was listed under treasurer’s recommendations on Monday’s agenda, stating that state vocation education funds “are being used” for the purchase.

However, when the board moved to that recommendation, Treasurer Todd Puster said, “I will withdraw (that item).”

As he continued on to the next item, however, board President Janice Martin spoke up, saying, “I’m not sure we’re in agreement with you removing that,” and called for a motion.

Board member Larry Walton moved to consider the motion, with member Scott Dieringer offering a second, but in the voting, all but Walton voted against it.

After the meeting, Martin said the board had learned the tractor, loader and backhoe had already been purchased in November for $17,744, with no board approval. State vocational educational funds were used for the purchase, which was made through the state cooperative purchasing program.

A public entity is now permitted to purchase items up to $50,000 without going through the bidding process, and the state cooperative program also provides for purchases without bidding.

Martin said, however, board policy requires any purchase over $10,000 to get three quotes and anything over $25,000 requires sealed bids.

“If we get a better price (through the state purchasing program), it still doesn’t mean they can by-step board policy. We got equipment we knew nothing about, and it’s paid for,” Martin said.

She added that no one on the board was aware the tractor had been purchased, nor that an existing, smaller tractor had been traded in on it, until one board member happened to see the new tractor in use and asked about it about a day before the agenda came out with the recommendation to purchase on it.

“I don’t know how they waited so long to pay for this,” Martin complained, and asked to whom she was referring as “they,” she said it was her understanding Superintendent James Herring and Puster had signed the paperwork to purchase the new tractor.

“We can’t even say we’re not paying for it. It’s already paid for,” she pointed out.

Martin was asked if the board will consider placing the item back on a future agenda to approve the purchase retroactively, and she pointed out the vote was 4-1 not to approve the purchase but said, “Someone is going to pay for this tractor. Somebody had to make this decision and all I have is two names on a piece of paper. If someone hadn’t seen that tractor (in use), we’d have voted to buy a tractor that was bought and paid for four months before.”

Martin said she intends to speak with the board’s legal counsel to see what options it has, and asked whether this could result in a finding for recovery against the board in the next audit, said that is something she hopes to find out.

The finance committee, composed of Robert Estell and Brian Allen, will most likely be asked to review the issue once a legal opinion is obtained, she said.

Martin likened this to other situations in the district, including the board not learning that a zero-turn radius mower had been purchased until it was reported stolen. In that case, the board approved the purchase after the fact, she said.

Contacted after the meeting, Puster said the tractor purchase “simply went through the normal purchasing process,” but admitted, “It should have been presented to the board in a more timely manner.”

Asked what happens in such a case, when the board refuses to approve the purchase after the fact, Puster said the matter will proceed through whatever steps the board is advised by legal counsel.