A dispute over the word “negotiations” has joined the list of contested issues in Columbia’s mayoral election.
The question of whether Mayor Brian Treece interfered with a proposed partnership between Columbia Public Schools and the city of Columbia to transport students on city buses surfaced at a candidate forum in January. On Monday night, the underlying policy issue will come before the Columbia City Council at its regular meeting.
The council will consider a resolution to support legislation that would allow cities and school districts to collaborate on providing transportation for high school students. The bill, HB 606, sponsored by Rep. Chuck Basye, R-Rocheport, is the latest in a series of bills that would allow such partnerships, which has been a legislative priority of Columbia Public Schools since at least 2016.
Second Ward Councilman Mike Trapp asked city staff to prepare the resolution at a Jan. 22 council meeting.
“There’s been a cloud on whether or not there is council support, and I think making that crystal clear is gonna help us get that passed,” Trapp said.
At the Jan. 10 forum, Chris Kelly attacked his opponent, Treece, for lobbying against a proposal similar to Bayse’s last year.
“The city and the school district entered into negotiations about putting city school kids on the buses to take them to schools,” Kelly said at the forum. “Change their lines a little bit, change the times a little bit. We’ll give you some money; you’ll get some vouchers.”
On March 30, 2017, Treece testified against a bill similar to Bayse’s at a Senate committee hearing in Jefferson City. Treece was there on behalf of the Teamsters, a union that represents school bus drivers and a client of his lobbying firm, TreecePhillips LLC.
“If you’re the mayor of a city, you shouldn’t lobby against things that the city is trying to get done with its own school district,” Kelly said.
Treece said in an interview with the Missourian that he didn’t identify himself as Columbia’s mayor when testifying. Treece also said the City Council hadn’t taken an official position on the idea when he lobbied against the bill. When the council agreed to add the legislation to the city’s lobbying agenda at its April 3, 2017, meeting, Treece abstained from the discussion.
Since then, Treece said he hasn’t lobbied for or against the proposal and that he won’t lobby against Basye’s bill. Treece said he plans to abstain from the council’s discussion of the resolution supporting Basye’s bill Monday night.
Treece also refuted Kelly’s criticisms.
“Mr. Kelly’s comments were false,” Treece said. “The city did not negotiate with the school district.”
To corroborate his statement, Treece gave the Missourian an email exchange between himself and interim City Manager John Glascock.
The day after the Jan. 10 forum, Treece sent a message to Glascock from his re-election campaign email address, asking a series of questions about whether Kelly’s claims were true.
Here is the email exchange between Mayor Brian Treece and Interim City Manager John Glascock regarding the status of talks between the city and Columbia Public Schools on a possible student transportation partnership.
Glascock’s response, sent Jan. 15, states that the city never negotiated with the school district about vouchers or specific bus routes and that no agreement with the district was ever reached.
The email also said that the city has “discussed the utilization of CoMo Bus within the CPS system as other communities outside the state have done.”
Kelly, who also received the Jan. 15 email from Glascock, dismissed Treece’s position as a “linguistic trick.”
Noting that there’s “nothing inaccurate” in the email, Kelly said Treece asked very specific questions to elicit very specific answers.
Conversations about transporting students on city buses were taking place before Treece testified in Jefferson City.
“Whether you characterize ‘conversations’ as ‘negotiations’ is Trump-esque,” Kelly said.
Discussions between the city and the school district about a collaboration have been ongoing since at least 2016, Columbia School Board member Jonathan Sessions said, adding that the city and the school district are allowed to work collaboratively on other issues.
“We could share money if we decided that there was a lamp that the city would pay to install and we would pay to run,” Sessions said. “We could do that today, but we can’t share buses.”
The state only covers about $2 million of the $12 million it costs the school district to bus its students. Sessions said a partnership with the city could free up part of that $10 million deficit to spend in the classroom.
Like Kelly, Sessions critiqued Treece’s focus on “negotiations.”
“That’s a lawyer word. Yes, there have been no ‘negotiations,’ and, yes, there have been no contracts,” Sessions said.
But that’s because the two parties can’t legally enter into an agreement, he said.
“(Treece) can try to parse words as much as he wants,” Sessions said, but Treece was there in the room when the issue was discussed.
Here are the minutes of an April 29, 2016, meeting that included representatives of the city of Columbia, Boone County, Columbia Public Schools, MU and the Columbia Chamber of Commerce. The minutes show that Mayor Brian Treece attended and that there was talk of working for legislation that would allow students to ride city buses to school.
Sessions shared minutes from an April 29, 2016, meeting that included representatives of the city, Boone County, Columbia Public Schools, MU and the Columbia Chamber of Commerce. The meeting followed a joint legislative visit to Jefferson City and included a discussion of local legislative priorities. Among the topics broached was “a potential change to allow Columbia students to work with the City to allow students to use City busses (sic),” according to the minutes.
Treece, who was elected mayor April 5, 2016, was present at the meeting, according to the minutes.
He said he didn’t remember the discussions.
“I don’t recall those,” he said, “but they were not specific negotiations.”