5 HOT TOPICS
Ashley Hunter, ECB Publishing, Inc.
1 Citizen raises accusations against Jefferson Somerset
“What good is having a school board here when they have no say-so in the school?” was the question posed by Mr. Seymour, a guest speaker at the Monday, May 14 School Board meeting.
According to Seymour, the current leadership at the Jefferson Somerset charter school was similar to the dictatorship that Germany was under during Adolf Hitler's power. “They make their rules, they decide what they do, and they do exactly what they want to do and no one has any say-so about it,” he added.
According to Seymour, a woman who worked at the school had come before the school board earlier this year to complain against her son being suspended from school. Following her appearance before the board, the woman had been fired from Somerset and then banned from entering school property, even though she had children currently in attendance at the school. When the woman did enter school property, she was given a written warning by law enforcement and has been unable to attend her son's graduation ceremony because of that. “That sounds utterly ridiculous to me,” said Board member Shirley Washington. “I don't understand how a parent cannot come onto campus and participate with her child.”
Board Chairperson Sandra Saunders added that she had already spoken to members of the school's leadership staff about this problem, per citizen request, and had been given a story that had contradicted with the ones that the former Somerset employee and Mr. Seymour had given her. “I think somebody of this board needs to get into these people's [Somerset's] faces in a meeting and find out exactly what is going on,” said Saunders. “Someone has to be held accountable.”
School Board Attorney Tom Reeves advised Superintendent Arbulu obtain the documents regarding the parent being banned from entering school property and get to the reasons behind the action before taking up any accusations against Somerset. “There are good reasons that a parent can be excluded, but we don't yet know what those reasons are.” Even in the case of validity against Somerset's actions against the parent and former employee, there has to be a way to get a child to school, and a way for parents to get in contact with teachers and staff despite the ban.
2 Transportation woes continue
The board has had multiple conversations regarding the flow of responsibility for the transportation of Jefferson-Somerset students and the upkeep of the buses used by Somerset.
While the buses are still, technically, owned by the Jefferson County School District, the charter school assumed responsibility for transportation of students within thecontract signed between district and charter. Somerset also has the contract with the transportation vendor who drives and maintains the buses. This has raise d some concerns for the school board, as under Florida Statute, they are held responsible for the ultimate transportation of students and care of transportation vehicles.
The problem arises when the Department of Education alerts the district to deficiencies within the transportation services; as the district does not have a contract with Mr. Luckey, they have no way to provide incentive for him to make the required changes.
“If in fact Mr. Luckey's company were not to do things according to statute, I don't understand what we could do about that. We don't contract with them, it's not like we could withhold their money,” said Superintendent Arbulu. “We have no carrot or stick in this relationship.”
School District Attorney Reeves advised that, due to the contract Somerset had signed with the school board, there were aspects they could be held liable for by the district.
“They have responsibility to provide transportation services in accordance with the law,” said Reeves. “If the problem is that the buses haven't been serviced properly, that's not on us and thats something we probably could terminate the contract [with Somerset] over.” If Mr. Luckey or his company violate a transportation statute, the district would be allowed to look at Somerset as the responsible party.
However, Board member Washington had her own set of concerns regarding the staffing at the transportation office. While under the School District's hand, the transportation services had to be staffed with a positions such as a secretary and mechanic; positions that are no longer being filled. “How are we allowing them to get by with this?” asked Washington. “I don't understand why, when we had transportation, the DOE made demands in order for us to have transportation. They are getting by without it, and we could not get by without it. Somebody needs to be in that office.” Washington also announced her plan to contact the DOE transportation office and demand answers.
“What we need to do is have DOE come here with Somerset and Mr. Luckey, all of us sit down in a board meeting, talk it out and find out what's what,” suggested Board member Bill Brumfield, who also announced that he was tiring of the constant back-and-forth nature of this struggle with no solution in sight. “I think we are silly for not having a board meeting with all the players here.”
The board made no further progress into a solution outside of a possible workshop and Board member Washington calling DOE.
3 Summer enrichment program coming to old elementary school
The School Board approved the final edition of an agreement with Rodell and Kathryn Thomas for the usage of the old Jefferson Elementary School (located at 906 Rocky Branch Road) cafeteria from May 22 - June 31 for their Harvest Center Summer Enrichment Program. The program will provide a place for the Thomas' to serve parents and students from the community by allowing the youth safe place to spend the summer. Board member Shirley Washington addressed some concerns she had with the contract, notedly the ones that placed the Harvest Center Enrichment Program responsible for grounds upkeep and for paying for the repairs of pre-damaged equipment. The board approved the contract after making changes that removed the program's responsibility to upkeep the grounds and only required them to pay for repairs that were caused by the program's use of the cafeteria, modular bathrooms and fenced play areas. School District Attorney Reeves also questioned the program's insurance policy amount and provided suggestions for the policies he would recommended. The board required the Thomas' to hold a $1,000 insurance policy in order for their program to take place within the old school. The board voted unanimously in favor of the revised contract.
4 Divided board over rental fees
This problem arose when it came to the attention of the Jefferson County School Board that some local organizations and events were being charged less for use of various properties and buildings owned by the school board.
One of those programs was the annual Watermelon Festival Pageant, which has been held for a number of years within the old Jefferson High School Kilpatrick Auditorium without a rental charge. Many on the board found this incredibly unfair to other groups and events, which had received a bill for their use of the buildings at Jefferson High.
The only board member who took up against the updated rental agreement was Board member Charles Boland, who shared that he felt the sudden change was unfair to the Watermelon Festival.
“I don't think we are doing the Watermelon Festival right about this. We didn't charge them last year, I don't know what we have charged them in the years past, and now we are going to turn around and charge them for the auditorium this year and I am strictly against that. They have not actually been notified [of the changes], none of the representatives from the Watermelon Festival are here tonight to make comment, and all I'm getting is [information] that comes from [Superintendent] Arbulu and I don't know if it is concrete or not,” said Boland. “I would like to hear the other side of the story before we start charging everybody in the Watermelon Festival a fee. They are part of this community, they have been in this community since the 50's. I'm not for charging them when we haven't charged them in the past.”
Saunders interjected that while she understood Boland's objection, she felt it was wrong to exclude Jefferson County's Watermelon Festival when other entities were being charged. From there, she immediately called for a vote. Board member Brumfield made the motion, Board member Washington seconded the motion and the board voted 4-1, with Boland being the only one voting against the updated and enforced rental plan.
The only events or groups that will be excluded from the rental charge will be clubs or organizations that are integral parts of the school, support school activities, or will be exclusively for students.
5 Arbulu's request goes ignored
In April, the School Board approved a request from Superintendent Arbulu to hire a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) to help with the finance reports, budget trimming and financials of the remaining year due to the fact that, prior to April, the board had received no financial reports and Arbulu had discovered a $55,000 error in payment to Somerset. After the April 17 Special Board meeting where the school board had approved Arbulu's request, the superintendent sent the request to the Department of Education (DOE) to have them sign approval on the hiring of the CPA.
The CPA in question had already been recommended to the Jefferson County School District by the DOE for prior projects, and Arbulu felt there would be no problem with hiring her.
However, at the May meeting, Arbulu stated to the board that she had yet to receive any response from the DOE in regards to the hiring of the CPA; neither a yes, nor a no. This left Arbulu in a difficult spot due to the board needing financial statements, but Arbulu lacking the necessary training and skill sets to provide the accuracy needed for financial handling.
“I am going to give you these statements to the best of my ability. I am not a CPA, I cannot profess to be an accountant. I am doing my job to the best of my ability with the tools I have,” said Arbulu. “Therefore, I will not represent that [the financial statement is] 100 percent accurate or error free – I cannot make that claim.”
Arbulu added that while she felt the most recent financial statements (April's) was 'pretty ballpark' and in the general range of accuracy, she did not feel comfortable assuring the board of it being air tight.
“I need professional eyes to look at these things and until I have that, I cannot tell you this is 100 percent on the money. I think it's darn close, and every month we will get a little bit better at this until we get help.”
Each month, about school district funnels about $6,00,000 through the district's wallet, which includes certain monies which goes into Somerset.
“When you are dealing with money, we don't need to not be 100 percent sure,” advised Board Chairperson Sandra Saunders who then addressed that the DOE had contacted her and informed her of their dissatisfaction of the board voting to approve Arbulu's April request of hiring a CPA for the end-of-the-year finances. “I'm trying to tell them that I am tired of them calling me to tell me something [they] don't like after [they] told us to go forward with a company which [they] referred,” added Saunders. After that, Saunders announced that she was not comfortable approving the finance report due to the fact that Arbulu had advised that she could not claim it to be accurate, as well as an act of protest against the DOE's refusal to acknowledge Arbulu's request.
Board member Shirley Washington pitched in her own dissatisfaction with the Department of Education's refusal to acknowledge Arbulu's request.
“They recommended the lady. I cannot understand DOE of tonight. Seemingly, they expect us to be failures. They want us to be failures. They want to criticize us,” said Washington, who then agreed with Saunders over not approving the report.
Board member Bill Brumfield questioned whether the board could go about writing a letter to the the DOE to: “tell them that we are tired of this.”
Saunders appreciated that idea, but advised that perhaps School District Attorney Tom Reeves should write it and request that the DOE provide a response instead of outright ignoring the request.
The board agreed unanimously to not approve the April financial statements provided to them by Arbulu at the May meeting.
Board member Charles Boland clarified that the refusal to approve the financials would not effect the salaries of anyone employed by the school district.