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Naples Daily News (Florida)



Collier County Public Schools staff blew the call in deciding not to check out the leaders of the organization that hires officials for athletic contests.

The district this week notified the Collier Officials Group it no longer will be its vendor to coordinate the hiring of sports officials for high school games. This came after revelations by Daily News reporter Adam Fisher and correspondent Scott Clair that more than 30 umpires and officials hadn't been paid the total of $30,000 or more they were owed by COG for working games this spring.

How it's supposed to work: The district's role is to contract with a reliable organization to hire the sports officials. The organization schedules the sports officials for school athletic contests, then bills the school. Each school sends money to the organization, which turns around and pays the officials their token $40 to $60.

It didn't work that way.

The district staff failed to do the simplest of background checks on two men behind the Collier Officials Group. Had it run the most rudimentary of Internet searches, it would have seen financial red flags on one of the two men behind COG, with mounting debt of more than $1 million for indebtedness and foreclosure.

Instead, the district gave Randy Merrill and his partner a three-year contract renewal in March. Merrill filed for bankruptcy in May.

The district staff's explanation: It checks out the financial statement of the organization, not its owners. That is shortsighted. If an organization is run by one or two people, it essentially is the personal operation of those principals.

School districts today are well-versed in the importance of checking out backgrounds of people, from the employees it hires to the vendors who work at schools. So it wasn't too much for the schools and athletes to expect the district to run a simple Internet search to check out the background of two men the district was relying on contractually. Merrill's partner later offered to straighten out the mess, but the district declined.

Now, the district must scramble to get a new oversight organization in place before the school year starts. District staff intends to have a bid process completed so the School Board can vote on Aug. 12 to contract with a new vendor. This time, the district can't make the same blunder: Staff must further review who is behind the organization it is hiring. School Board members must seek assurances that's been done before they vote.

The schools, game officials, student athletes and fans are depending on district staff to make the right call this time.




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