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“We are still interested, more than ever now,” was the message provided by Rev. Clifford Hill in regards to the Jefferson Elementary School (JES) building.
During the last few meetings of the Jefferson County School Board, Rev. Hill has served as a spokesperson for the 11th Episcopal District of the AME Church, Inc. during their attempts to obtain a $1/year lease for the old JES school building.
On Monday, May 13, Rev. Hill came before the Jefferson County School Board during their regular May meeting in order to provide an update into the 11th Episcopal District's leasing progress since the March break-in and vandalism of the old JES school.
According to Rev. Hill, the 11th Episcopal District's board of trustees were working on insurance hurdles pertaining to the property before they could put pen to paper and sign the lease agreement agreed upon by the school district.
“We are still hashing out some issues,” Rev. Hill declared to board members on May 13, summarizing that the 11th Episcopal District's insurance provider was requiring proof of insurance from the school district before the episcopal district's provider could offer an insured plan.
Regardless of those hurdles, Rev. Hill said that he believed the problems would be worked through efficiently and that he mainly came before the board in order to publicly declare that the 11th Episcopal District was still interested in pursuing the property, despite the recent vandalism of the building back in March.
“After the break-in, we had tried to wait on some investigation and find out what was going on with that,” said Rev. Hill. “We are still interested, more than ever now and we believe that we could do great access in the community center.”
Around March 3, five juveniles broke into, vandalized and damaged the main JES school building.
According to the report issued by the Monticello Police Department, it was estimated that the damages would cost “in excess” of $30,000 to repair.
Due to the damage to the property, and the fact that the contract between the school district and the 11th Episcopal District specified that the lease was offering the property as-is (or, “as-was,” as Rev. Hill remarked), the JES break-in will likely cost the 11th Episcopal District an additional $30K-$50K in repair costs before the school can be turned into a community center.
The financial impact of those repairs will be costly and Rev. Hill advised that the 11th Episcopal District's plan, after signing the lease agreement, is to start renovating the cafeteria area first and making the property usable so that they could go ahead and start using at least parts of the property while waiting to complete the full repairs in the vandalized side of the campus.
After Rev. Hill had finished his presentation to the board members, the concept of requesting restitution from the offending juveniles (in order to help cover repair costs) was brought up by Board Member Bill Brumfield.
According to Brumfield, the families of the involved juveniles “will never be able to pay $30,000” for the full costs of repairs.
“Unfortunately, those children made a terrible, terrible mistake,” said Brumfield, before adding: “They are all 12-13 years old. Those children should not go for the rest of their life with a felony on their record.”
In Brumfield's opinion, the families of the five youths would not be able to pay back the full cost of damages without great personal sacrifice and he suggested the idea of requesting a smaller amount of restitution in order for the families to feasibly pay the school district for the vandalism.
Board Member Sandra Saunders, however, disagreed with Brumfield's more relaxed stance on the young vandals.
“We can't just let [the kids] do this, and it goes into vape,” argued Saunders. “It's happened and now we're supposed to brush it off? I don't think so.”
Board Chairperson Shirley Washington also offered criticism regarding how the story of the break-in had seemingly disappeared from the community.
“I don't think we should allow it to be that easy, to just give a slap on the hand,” said Washington.
Present at the meeting was Andrew Deneen, the State Attorney's Office's Chief Felony Division Prosecutor for Jefferson County, who offered to provide the board members with an update on the status on the case.
According to Deneen, all five juveniles had been arrested through a warrant process and are being tried in juvenile court.
As for monetary restitution, Deneen advised the board that restitution in juvenile cases is a “complicated issue.”
“In order for the court to order a juvenile to pay restitution, the court has to find either, a) the juvenile himself or herself has the ability to pay or b) if that is not true, that they cannot pay, they look to the parent for their ability to pay,” said Deneen. “It becomes kinda a complicated process, there will be a hearing in the court to determine the financial abilities of these parties to pay anything.”
Further, Deneen informed the board that Florida Statute concerning juvenile cases is “very specific to point out” that the court cannot order a restitution amount that is considered unreasonable for a juvenile to pay – which $30,000 may likely fall into.
“If we are indeed talking about something around $30,000, $40,000 or $50,000, I think it would be highly likely that the court will determine that a juvenile is not going to have the ability to pay that,” added Deneen.
In addition, Deneen said, when working juvenile cases, the court usually has until the juvenile's 19th birthday to try and get restitution from them before losing the opportunity – which even then, Deneen said, would be a “slow process if money even came in.”
Board members then asked Deneen if the Monticello News “erred in judgment” by publishing the names and photos of the juveniles.
Deneen advised that he could not make comment on the actions of the Monticello News, but did advise that the law for disclosure allowed news media to release juvenile names and photos when “the charge they are facing would be a felony for an adult.”
After Deneen's advisory, Chairperson Washington addressed a concern that she had expressed at prior meetings, mainly that the break-in and vandalism had taken place after the school board had agreed to lease the school campus to the 11th Episcopal District for a dollar a year.
The decision had been fiercely contended by members of the community who felt as though the school district should pursue more financially beneficial lease options for the JES campus.
“The most ironic thing is about this situation is that no vandalism was done until this board voted to lease the building to the church,” stated Washington. “That's the most ironic thing. All this time, it was there, but when the votes came through to do that, it was after the fact. That's irony to me.”
Washington also repeated her early belief that a lessened punishment for the vandalism might cause the youth to feel as though they could get away with similar acts in the future.
“I would be surprised if five kids in the community were aware that the building was going towards being leased by a church,” suggested Deneen. “The timing, obviously, is terrible as unfortunately y'all were trying to get that place occupied so these kinds of things don't happen as frequently.”
A recommendation from a citizen audience member asked if the school district and 11th Episcopal District would consider accepting community service hours that could be spent repairing the JES damage, in lieu of monetary reimbursement.
“We're not just going to settle for community service, I can tell you that now,” stated Washington, adding that 'settling' for community service hours was “not a good idea.”
Washington again brought up her concerns pertaining to the timing of the break-in and how it coincided with the vote to give the 11th Episcopal District the lease, calling the children's reasoning for breaking into the school building a “question that has not been answered.”
“If they [the children] are questioned closely enough, they will probably tell you why they did it,” stated Washington. “It only happened after we agreed to lease this building to [the 11th Episcopal District], and now you're going to slap them on the wrist and tell them 'oh, it's ok'?”
As the court process is still being handled by the state justice system, and, as Deneen reminded board members, “the wheels of justice turn slowly,” Deneen agreed to return to the June meeting of the Jefferson County School Board and provide another update and as much information as he is legally allowed to provide into the case.
The June meeting will be held on Monday, June 10 at 6 p.m., at the Jefferson County School District office, located 1490 W. Washington St.