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Naples Daily News (Florida)

Collier County Public School District canceled its contract with the vendor that supplies sports officials Tuesday as controversy surrounds the private company's finances.

The district notified the Collier Officials Group on Tuesday afternoon it would cancel the three-year contract the parties signed in March, district athletic director Joe Kemper told the Daily News. The COG owes its game officials about $30,700 for work this past spring, managing partner Bill Walker said last week.

The district wasn't confident with Walker's plan submitted July 10 to fix the issues surrounding its unpaid officials, Kemper said. District administrators notified Walker of their decision in an email Tuesday.

"At this time, the district has concluded the proposals don't provide a viable way to resolve the controversy arisen here," Kemper said. "The district has moved to terminate our contract (with the COG)."

Walker, who now lives near Phoenix, took exception to the district's actions. In an email sent Tuesday to school district Director of Purchasing Nancy Sirko, Walker wrote that the termination was "a pretty weak and ill thought out response. I expected better from our 'working partnership.' "

In a phone conversation with the Daily News, Walker continued to express his displeasure with the school district's decision.

"No one has talked to me about this," said Walker, a high school sports official in Florida since 1978. "Not a peep. I've gotten not one phone call in relation to (my plan).

"The only question that I've asked (the school district) - and I have not gotten one single answer - how does any solution they want to come up with address how to get the officials paid? No one has ever responded to that. I'm trying to do the right thing. I'm trying to do something that gets the officials paid, but, basically, they don't want to hear about it."

On July 3, district officials gave Walker a week to come up with a solution to pay the officials who worked games during the 2013-14 school year. The school district also wanted to know how Walker would retain the disgruntled referees to continue to officiate games in the county.

Walker emailed a letter to the school district late Thursday saying he hoped to secure a loan and use his own money to pay the officials. He also said he wanted to start a new officials group that could work with the district "without the financial liability of this current COG situation hanging over" it.

Walker said he was willing to liquidate a securities account worth between $9,000 and $10,000 to help get the officials paid.

"(That) is a hefty sum for me to pull out of my pocket," Walker said. "My intent was to liquidate that account, put the capital in, sit down with the officials, and work out a plan to get everyone paid."

Now that the school district has voided its contract with COG, Walker was unsure if the officials ever will get paid.

"Why would I liquidate that stock account if there is nothing to resolve?" he asked. "My solution, I felt, was the only solution that made sure these officials get paid."

The school district plans to reopen the bidding process for a new officials group as soon as Wednesday, Kemper said. The plan is for the bids to be unsealed and read on Aug. 6. A recommendation would be made to the school board to accept a bid at the board's meeting Aug. 12.

When the district opened bids in February, three groups submitted proposals, including COG. The district said at the time groups must be sanctioned by the Florida High School Athletic Association to bid. This time around, Kemper said, the district will take bids from unsanctioned groups that can get their FHSAA certification if they are selected.

The FHSAA requires officials groups be sanctioned to work games at its member schools. The FHSAA's deadline to sanction officials was Tuesday, when the organization planned to make a decision on the Collier Officials Group. Justin Harrison, who supervises the FHSAA's officials program, said before the district announced its decision that the FHSAA would wait to rule on the COG.

In a text message to the Daily News, FHSAA executive director Roger Dearing said the organization will respond Wednesday regarding the sanctioning process. Dearing is out of the state on vacation.

Preseason contests for high school golf, swimming and volleyball can start Aug. 18. Preseason football games are Aug. 22, with the regular season starting the following Friday. Waiting until Aug. 12 to officially choose a new officials group will be cutting it close, but Kemper said it shouldn't affect any games.

"It could be a tight window, but I wouldn't say we're worried," Kemper said. "We're going to stay on top of it and make sure everything happens on time. I'm confident that will happen."

The school district signed a three-year contract with COG, at the time a new company, in 2011. COG coordinated the officials for athletic contests at eight public and two private high schools in the county.

Happy with the service it received, the district signed another three-year contract with COG in March. Kemper said a clause in the contract allowed the school system to cancel the contract if it is in the district's best interest.

In 2011, the Collier Officials Group replaced the Collier Athletic Arbiters Association, which had been in charge of hiring and assigning officials for all high school and middle school athletics in the county for nearly two decades

July 16, 2014
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