The Richmond Register

Education

May 9, 2014

Outburst at school board meeting over use of jail trusties

After superintendent’s report on cost savings

RICHMOND — Madison County School Board Chair Mona Isaacs asked a woman if she needed to be escorted from Thursday’s meeting after her outburst about the number of incidences that have occurred since the school district began using jail trusties in its bus garage 15 years ago.

Superintendent Elmer Thomas had just told the board how much money was saved since 1999 by using jail trusties instead of employees for certain tasks.

Thomas referenced a Dec. 15 Richmond Register article “District explains use of jail trusties in bus garage,” in which Madison County Jailer Doug Thomas said he could recall only a few incidents over the years involving jail trusties.

After explaining how he calculated the savings, Thomas talked about the low number of incidences over the approximate 6,938 days trusties have worked for the district.

“So, we have negligible occurrence,” he concluded.

“I know I’m out of turn and everything ...” began Mary McMahan from her seat in the audience. “I’ve got two kids at White Hall (Elementary), and I take exception with this. All it takes is one time.”

The school is adjacent to the district’s bus garage on North Keeneland Drive.

“I take issue with the way you just so lackadaisily said that. I’m great you can say that over 15 years, $647,823.75 is saved,” she said, raising her voice and slamming an object on the table in front of her. “I thought we were here about the kids.”

Isaacs told McMahan she was out of order.

“I am out of order, and I am happy to be out of order,” McMahan continued. “Because he’s the superintendent. He’s suppose to be all about the kids, and that was just way too lackadaisical ...”

Although Isaacs banged her gavel, McMahan did not stop talking until asked if she would like to be escorted out of the room.

“The fact is, we have incidences in our school district every day,” Isaacs said. “When given the great scope of the number of incidences we’ve have, we’ve had a miniscule number from that (trusty program).”

Some parents who pick up their kids at school could pose a greater risk than the inmates, she said.

“I don’t think that’s a fair assumption,” Isaacs said of McMahan’s statement. “I would not accuse Mr. Thomas of making light of an incident that may endanger a child.”

In October, White Hall was put on lockdown for a short time when a man spotted at the campus fence near the playground, aroused suspicions.

Teachers ushered students into the building as a precaution and called police.

The man at the fence turned out to be a trusty working at the nearby bus garage who told police he was assigned to pick up litter along the fence. The man was not charged and was returned to jail.

Jailer Thomas said the incident was a “big misunderstanding.”

McMahan brought up this incident at Thursday’s meeting.

“I was there that day,” said Supt. Thomas. “Obviously, if I reported (to the scene) immediately, then I was very concerned about our students. So, I actually take issue with you saying that.”

On Friday, Supt. Thomas said the trusty discussion was a chance for him to share information about the cost of paying for trusties’ lunches versus the overall cost to the district.

“For the past several months, the reimbursement for lunches at $7 has been brought up, and I wanted to share that for the price of one lunch, the district doesn’t pay out approximately $102.50 (plus some additional benefits) per day for an employee that would do the same job,” he said.

“In the previous months, the discussion has never been about safety, just the lunch reimbursements,” he added.

McMahan brought up the use of jail trusties at December’s board meeting.

“I understand that we are now feeding the prisoners who work in the bus yard,” McMahan said during that meeting’s public comment period. “Despite the fact, why we even have prisoners in a bus garage adjacent to White Hall (Elementary), I do not understand, but why they need to be fed at taxpayer expense, I definitely do not understand that.”

At both the November and December meeting, board member Mary Renfro had questioned reimbursements made to Director of Transportation Skip Benton, $287 (for October) and $322 (for November).

Chief Finance Officer Debbie Frazier each time explained Benton was being reimbursed for providing meals to the trusties who “clean up around the garage and do maintenance-type things,” with no other cost to the district.

The district averages 2.5 trusties a day for 7 hours of work each. Each inmate is given a $7 lunch, which costs the district approximately $350 a month, Supt. Thomas reported Thursday.

For 185 days of work per year, the district pays trusties just over $3,000 versus more than $46,000 for the same amount of work from regular employees, he said.

In December’s Register story, Jailer Thomas said most of the trusties are state prisoners, while a few are county prisoners who may owe child support. Only inmates the state Department of Corrections classifies as “Level 1” or “Level 2” may work outside the jail.

The inmates on these levels are non-violent offenders, some with no prior convictions. They have never had behavioral problems in jail and are serving short sentences, generally less than five years, the jailer said.

Each trusty also is strip-searched when returned to the jail each day.

In exchange for their work, trusties can earn a sentence reduction of up to four days a month. The state pays each prisoner 63 cents a day.

Showing good behavior and a willingness to do these jobs also can work in a trusty’s favor when it comes time for their parole hearing, Jailer Thomas added.

“If you’re eligible to work, it’s my job to put you out there,” he said, noting that the state will transfer work-eligible prisoners to other counties if he does not find them jobs.

Madison County receives $33 a day for each state prisoner housed at the detention center.

“I don’t think the taxpayers are upset that we use free labor. I don’t think that’s the issue,” Renfro said Thursday. “I think the taxpayers and myself, the problem that we have is, our tax money is paying for a lunch for them.”

Renfro said she verified with the jail that inmates who participate in the trusty program are provided a “sandwich and a drink in a bag.”

She suggested giving the $350 a month spent on inmate lunches to teachers.

Board member Becky Coyle said using trusties in the garage and “teaching them a skill” is one way the district gives back to the community.

“Inmates need a chance to be able to make better of themselves,” she said. “What better place than someone supervising them at the bus garage. I don’t have a problem with giving them an opportunity to serve the community.”

Jailer Thomas said two of his trusty crews, that work for the Department of Transportation, are delivered bagged lunches from the jail. However, he said the city of Richmond, its recycling center, the Valley View Ferry and Madison County Schools provide lunch to their trusty crews “as a reward for hard work” and “for hours of free labor.”

Look in Sunday’s paper for a second story about Thursday’s meeting.

Crystal Wylie can be reached at cwylie@richmondregister.com or 623-1669, Ext. 6696. 

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