Jim Anthony and his crew have been fixtures at Muscogee County School Board meetings for nearly two decades, working at various mailing addresses for an army of superintendents, administrators and board members, insuring that the system’s monthly sessions were recorded, produced and televised.
He’s the only videographer that the school district has ever had and his contract wasn’t renewed this week — for reasons that would not be revealed until the day after the board meeting.
The aging vendor left Monday night’s lengthy board meeting weeping, walking out without a personal handshake or an official thank-you note from the people he has served.
His departure wasn’t discussed at a recent work session and there was no mention of the matter on this week’s agenda. Board members didn’t find out what was going on until near the end when a fellow board member interrupted the proceedings.
But before the night was over, questions were bouncing around the boardroom wondering what had happened to a video contractor only a few of them knew personally — even though Anthony had been around longer than just about anyone in the room.
The conflict began as the public meeting was ending. A motion and a second were being sought so the panel could go into executive session to discuss a real estate matter. That’s when board member Frank Myers interrupted the legal process and offered stunned colleagues a taste of what was happening.
“I guess tonight was just going to end without anyone saying a word,” Myers said, clearly spelling out that Anthony’s long tenure was ending. “Nobody has said a word, and this is such a disservice and a slap in his face. Hopefully someone can say something nice about this man who has given years of service?”
Even the board chair didn’t seem to know what was happening. “Did we miss an announcement?” Kia Chambers asked, turning to look at Superintendent David Lewis who sits next to her at the head table.
“Have we talked about this?” Chambers asked, looking straight at Lewis. The superintendent said something and Chambers indicated that the matter would be discussed later. Then she looked down the board table at Anthony.
“I apologize, Mr. Anthony,” she said, asking the longtime contractor how many years he had been involved with the school district.
He said 20 years.
“Twenty years … that’s a long time … let’s give him a round of applause,” Chambers said.
People applauded and a distraught Anthony began to cry.
Lights, Camera, Owen
During the late 1990s, former school board member Linda Parker talked frequently about how Muscogee County meetings ought to be televised. Nobody paid close attention until 1999 when a Fort Benning school librarian decided to run for a seat on the board.
Owen Ditchfield was a well-known community activist on the south side of town. He was a journalism graduate from the University of Montana and he served two tours in Vietnam. At the top of his political platform was a plan to put board meetings on TV and Ditchfield never missed an opportunity to talk about that during the campaign.
He was elected in 2000, and at his first meeting as a duly sworn school board member, he moved to televise board proceedings every month. His wasn’t a popular idea on a board about to be mired in another spirited superintendent search and Ditchfield was about to be given a graduate course in patience.
Colleagues leaned on him to forget or delay his proposal, but those folks didn’t know Ditchfield. He was relentless and in April 2001, in an 8-1 decision, the board reluctantly voted to televise on a 6-month trial basis.
Around that time, Jim Anthony of Anthony Productions was asked to examine the downstairs boardroom in the old Bradley Library to scout for camera and microphone positions.
A contract was signed, paying Anthony and his company $500 a month to record and prepare video so that meetings could be shown on the Government Access Channel. They were broadcast at 4 o’clock starting on the afternoon after the live meeting. After that they showed up at all hours of the day and night.
That agreement, with tweaks for pay and updated technology, rolled on until 2017 when $221,000 worth of audio visual equipment showed up on the school board agenda to deal with video issues in the boardroom.
At the meeting, MCSD chief information officer Ron Pleasant summarized the proposal:
“Right now, we have two cameras that are in this room that are controlled in the back room … That would be increased to six cameras. You might have noticed earlier in the evening, our microphone at the podium kept coming out, turning on and turning back off. We’re really talking about a replacement of every single microphone that you see in here. … We’re replacing the monitors. Earlier this evening, I was noticing that there’s a color problem in one of them; it’s looking like it’s black and white.”
Pleasant talked about the possibility of one day being able to connect school networks to the city system next door at the City Services Center. “But that’s not part of this project,” he said.
You can see a video of the June 25th meeting of the Muscogee County School Board on YouTube. Discussion of the termination of Jim Anthony’s contract comes at the end of the video. Click here to watch.
Board members Myers and Mark Cantrell questioned the need for such expensive equipment and also balked at the cost. “$220,000 is what some people spend on a house,” Cantrell said.
“The idea that it is going to take $220,000 to fix this issue is ludicrous,” Myers said. He even suggested that the district could save money by shopping for monitors at Sam’s Club instead — a comment that drew a resounding “Amen” from the back of the room.
Cantrell also asked about Anthony and his people: “I’d like to know what happens to the people who are working for us now.” By then, Anthony’s company was known as Affordable Productions in Columbus. It was being paid $13,785 per year to videotape the meetings.
A RFB (Request for Bids) had been issued and 26 vendors responded. Anthony was not on that prospect list, which irked Myers. “We don’t treat people like that in our society,” he exclaimed before recognizing Anthony and thanking him for his service:
“I get that some of your equipment may be a little antiquated, but you should at least have a chance to be involved in helping us fix the problem. It’s a black eye on this board for you not getting that opportunity – not even being given notice.”
Pat Hugley Green — then the board chair — joined the discussion and said Pleasant had been clear that the item in question wasn’t about Anthony but about refreshing equipment in the boardroom. Myers disagreed.
“It’s because he’s been fired. That’s why it’s not about him.”
Several administrators later denied Myers statements. The purchase of the $221,000 piece of equipment was defeated in a peculiar 3-4-2 decision. Jim Anthony continued as he had from he beginning— until Monday night.
Lewis explains his actions
A string of emails were exchanged after the meeting involving the superintendent, the chief information officer and board member John Thomas. The messages described the weeks leading up to the district’s decision to allow Anthony’s contract to expire.
In his email, Thomas also asked Lewis about the propriety of his acting alone on the video contract without conferring with the board or seeking their approval.
This is the superintendent’s written reply:
“The Superintendent of the Board of Education may make contracts for supplies, labor, repairs, and other necessary school purposes, binding the merged school system where the expenditure involved does not exceed the amount of fifteen thousand dollars ($15,000.00). In addition, Board Policy DJED states in the Non-construction purchases, first bullet, “Purchases of products or services using tax-supported funds with the total transaction cost of $15,000 or less may be made non-competitively and may be made without Board approval. … More importantly, the contract service was for the period of July 2017 to June of 2018. No action was taken to terminate the contract as it ended per its terms.”
It was left to Pleasant to explain the thinking behind the termination of Anthony’s contract. In a peculiar quirk, the reasons were provided after the board had voted. Pleasant included that reasoning in an email to Lewis that was later shared with others.
These are some of Pleasant’s reasons:
- Complaints from constituents about the quality of the broadcasts.
- Because of his fees, Anthony said he could not afford to invest in more up-to-date equipment.
- Concerns that the MCSD was not getting consistent video quality because of Anthony’s declining health and the lack of a continuity plan whenever he was absent.
- Complaints about the appearance and demeanor of Anthony’s team members, including reports of smoking in a building where it is prohibited.
Pleasant closed with this candid conclusion:
“I do want to point out that Mr. Anthony has attempted to make his product better but it’s just not as good as what we are doing internally. I also want to point out that Mr. Anthony has recruited a new team and they look more professional than the previous team … After looking at all of this, I find that I would not spend the money to continue purchasing the services provided by Mr. Anthony knowing that we are capable of producing the same/better service internally and have made recommendation to you that we not renew. I personally reached out to Mr. Anthony weeks ago to share with him that I would not be recommending to you that we renew the service agreement with him going into the new fiscal year. I shared with him my thanks and, during the conversation, he even conceded he would likely do the same thing.”
Before the tears came conferences
Anyone who knew Jim Anthony in the beginning has seen him grow tired and weary. As he has gotten older his health has become an issue and, as Ron Pleasant observed, the quality of his work has suffered.
As Anthony himself has noted, his yearly fee of $14,340 does not allow him to upgrade and modernize his equipment in a field that is constantly changing. Nor would his pay allow him to afford to pay a quality staff.
More than anything, Pleasant’s closing comment answered many people’s concerns that, like the board, Anthony did not know what was coming on Monday night.
The director cites several one-on-one conferences where Anthony was informed about what was coming and why.
This is the professional side of the treatment of a loyal contractor who worked with the school system for nearly 20 years.
But the personal side of his service was inexplicably ignored until the absolute closing moments of Monday’s board meeting, which board member Frank Myers described as “a slap in his face.”
That’s probably why Jim Anthony wept.
People did have some nice things to say about his years of service and then he received a warm round of applause from the people still left in the boardroom.
In the end, board chair Kia Chambers did her best to mitigate the way that he was personally treated.
And what she said was appropriate.
“I apologize, Mr. Anthony.”