CHATHAM CO., GA (WTOC) - Earlier this year, the Superintendent of Savannah-Chatham County Public School System along with your elected school board asked for and received a property tax increase adding millions of dollars to the operations of a system that can really use the help.
So, as the tax payer who allows that board to have and to spend, you would hope they were spending all those millions wisely. Many are convinced the opposite is true.
My investigation into a single business deal with the school system may have thrown $4 million in the trash. The superintendent considers that trash talk. But, you get to decide how valuable your student's garbage really is.
Clevon Cooper was emptying dumpsters from one end of Savannah to the other before most of us have even hit deep sleep. Hundreds of tons a week from local businesses, apartments and schools.
His boss, Ben Wall and his family have operated Atlantic Waste Services in Savannah for more than 25 years, and this family knows trash. They also know how to bid for new business. Like when the Savannah Chatham School Board opened the bid for garbage pickup this year. Thirty-three different businesses could have submitted their plans. Only three stepped forward.
Wall quickly figured out why. The superintendent specifically asked for companies that could provide trash compactors instead of dumpsters, and not just any compactors, but those with specifications matching the ones made by a company out of North Georgia, Stribling Systems. The same company that's had the school district contract for the last 10 years.
Wall and his Atlantic Waste bid anyway, using dumpsters not compactors. His plan would actually save taxpayers $4 million.
He, and the third bidder, another local Savannah company, lost the bid in July to Stribling.
"We both have people here all the time, full-time staff," says Wall. "We have buildings. We have maintenance facilities. We have everything to service this contract when another company doesn't own a piece of property here and has to sub out all that work."
Wall filed a formal protest after discovering Dr. Lockamy had withheld a written explanation of the Atlantic plan and the $4 million savings it offered the taxpayer. The school board's rules allowed letters like this.
Yet that letter was never allowed to be seen by the board. An open records request of the emails between Dr. Lockamy and the board president shows he apologized, "if the matter was not handled properly".
Too late! The vote was taken with only one member wanting to reconsider the money that could be saved.
"I just feel that we would be better served as a district if we could save enough money to put back into classroom activities rather than putting this money into trash disposal," protested Board President, Jolene Byrne at the July 1st meeting. "It's a difference of about $300,000 a year. That's money that I think we could put towards like the twilight program that's been cut recently. There are better ways in my mind to spend this money than on trash."
But was all this just sour grades for the losing bidders?
"Am I upset that I didn't get it? Yes, I am upset because I felt like we had a good presentation," Wall said. "We could have done a good job. But as a taxpayer, not as a business owner that had the opportunity, but just as a taxpayer, a parent of a child in this community, you know you want to see your tax dollars spent wisely and prudently."
Dr. Lockamy's recommendation to the board was clear. Compactors are cleaner, safer for the kids because they are harder to get into, and more rodent resistant.
"I really believe I made the smart decision," insists Superintendent Lockamy. "I know it's more money. But money can't replace one child that happens to get in that thing and can't get out. Or someone gets in there and is someone who can harm children on campus."
I attempted to reach each of your school board members to confirm why they were so willing to spend millions more to pick up trash for a system where one out of every five high schoolers can't graduate and where taxpayers just coughed up millions in additional property taxes for schools.
Most of those who responded said they simply went with the superintendent's recommendation.
Larry Lower's comment was "…no comment."
Dr. Diane Hoskins told me she was against dumpsters because they, "… provide opportunities for predators to lie in wait for passing children."
This, even though she admitted having no evidence that it's ever actually happened.
Carolyn Stewart owns Savannah's ABC Waste Services, a company that's served hundreds of clients in town since 1956, including Gulfstream and even the local hospitals.
"Anytime I have an opportunity to bid on something, I'm there," said Stewart.
Ten years ago, she bid on the Savannah Schools' trash contract, as she put it, before she knew better. In 2005, when the same contract went out for bid, it too required only compactors, only the one's Stribling built.
Like two dozen other qualified local trash pick-up companies, Stewart did not bid this year despite the fact that winning the bid would put hundreds of thousands of dollars in profit on her books each year. So why not just try it?
"Because I did not feel that I had a chance to win. I did not even have a chance. Only Stribling had a chance," says Stewart.
Another reason Dr. Lockamy was able to convince the school board that compactors were better than front end loaders involved the school's carbon footprint. You see, Lockamy was convinced that compactors would create less wear and tear on the school system and put less carbon monoxide into the air because there would be fewer trucks on the road. I also crunched those numbers and what I came up with was exactly the opposite.
You see, every time a compactor is emptied, a single truck must go to the school, drop off an empty compactor and haul the full unit to the dump. It takes about 90 munites per trip, once every 10 days. That means a truck is on the road for each school about 270 minutes a month.
With dumpsters, a single front-end loader can visit more than 30 schools before its trip to the dump. Even with several trips per week, each school requires a truck to be on the road for less than 140 minutes a month. About half the time.
Perhaps that's why none of the surrounding school districts use compactors.
Bulloch, Effingham, Liberty, Bryan and even Jasper Counties all use dumpsters, as do Georgia Southern and Armstrong State Universities. Just to be sure, I asked Dr. Lockamy whether $4 million wasn't enough incentive to take a chance on the dumpsters.
"We've done that in the past," he said. "We've done those in the past and we had some issues. We've had raccoons in some units."
Raccoons aside, there are also some real questions about the efficiency of using compactors at every school. Compactors hold between four and eight tons of trash. I checked the average volume of trash headed to the dump from the average Savannah public school. It comes out to only four and quarter tons, a month! That means many compactors are being picked before they are a quarter full.
Wall says there is a scenario where compactors might be an efficient way to go for our schools.
"If you had schools that had 5,000 students in them, then a compactor would be justified."
Now, it's the superintendent calling all this sour grapes.
"When you don't get what you want, the first thing you scream is 'oh, it's flawed,'" says Dr. Lockamy.
As soon as this contract was granted to Stribling Systems, school board rules were changed when it comes to written correspondence between bidding companies and board members after the bidding is closed. It's no longer allowed.
We also spoke with Stribling System's owner, Robert Stribling. He insists the Chatham County schools are actually saving more than $100,000 a year by using compactors. He explains that when you are servicing schools where a large amount of the garbage is food waste, it's critical to have a closed and sealed system like a compactor.
Stribling also says volume is more important to consider than weight when you're dealing with school trash. It's not very heavy but it is very bulky. "Some schools in Chatham County had three and four dumpsters when we took over," he says.
Perhaps the single most common complaint among board members about using dumpsters was the problem of trash escaping the containers. That issue is not limited to dumpsters. We found compactors in town left open with trash scattered around and liquids leaking from the bin.
When it comes to a little trash escaping a dumpster, School Board President Jolene Byrne told the board, that's why the schools have a custodial staff.