New buses, student mental health aid: Somerset seeks $3 million

School Board Chair Washington opposes the request

Ashley Hunter
ECB Publishing, Inc.

Brought up for discussion during the Monday, March 11 Jefferson County School Board meeting were two bills that Jefferson Somerset had recently submitted to the Florida House of Representatives, in which the school asks for over $3 million in additional funding
HB 4283 asks for $1.287 million in funds in order to provide funding for mental health counseling, behavioral therapists and other therapist services for the children. On March 6, the bill passed the first House subcommittee where it received a favorable vote (10 yeas, 0 nays).
HB 4285 asks for $1.865 million in funds in order to support the purchase of a new fleet of buses, as well as to fund salaries and benefits for a transportation supervisor and drivers. On March 6, the bill had passed the first House subcommittee where it received a favorable vote (11 yeas, 0 nays)
Both bills are currently in the House's Appropriations Committee.
Despite the fact that the two bills would greatly benefit and enrich the education and transportation provided by Jefferson Somerset, School Board Chair Shirley Washington took offense to the bills.
“After reading both of the bills, it make it seem as though all of our kids...are somewhat handicap in learning, mentally,” said Washington, in regards to HB 4283.
In the bill's appropriation request – which was provided for the school board's viewing – the text states that the bill's $1.865 million would go towards four special education teachers (and nine paraprofessionals), as well as two speech therapists, four psychologists, two certified behavioral analysts, one social worker and six registered behavior technicians.
The targeted group of students would include at-risk, physically disabled and developmentally disabled students between the grades of Pre-K and high school.
The request further states that 201-400 students are included in the 'target population' that would be benefited by the funds.
Washington expressed disbelief that Jefferson Somerset could have that many students with developmental disabilities and asked Principal Cory Oliver (who was in attendance) how many students at Jefferson Somerset currently have an Individualized Education Program (IEP)s or 504s (which are plans that are designed to help kids with disabilities learn alongside their peers by removing barriers to learning).
According to Principal Oliver, nearly 26 percent of the student population need either an IEP or a 504 learning plan, and that the school is still conducting testing to see if more students need to be included.
“[The appropriations request is] saying that our students need services, face to face and all this kind of stuff,” said Washington. “It bothered me because I just don't believe that we have these types of students as highly as Somerset has identified.”
The appropriations request for HB 4283 states that it will improve students' mental health by a “reduction of maladjustment social-emotional behaviors that are impeding the learning process” and will improve the quality of education through “improved student achievement and social-emotional growth for students PreK-12.”
However, Washington added that nowhere in the original contract between Somerset and the Jefferson County School District did Somerset state that they would go and ask for additional monies from lawmakers in order to make changes to the school system.
“It's nowhere in the contract,” said Washington, who took further aversion to the fact that Somerset had made the appropriation requests without first informing the school district.
Shirley Washington also questioned why Somerset would ask the House of Representatives for the money to purchase 14 new buses, as requested in HB 4285.
In HB 4285's appropriation request document, Somerset states that the funds provided under the bill would go towards a transportation coordinator and the hiring of drivers to operate the 14 new buses that the funds would also purchase.
“They asked for 14 buses. They are saying that the [school district's] buses are no good, that [there is] no air condition, no this and no that,” said Washington. “When DOE (Department of Education) came and Somerset took over, they said that our buses weren't in good condition, so what did they do? They sent our buses all over the county to get repaired. So who responsibility was that to keep our buses up to par?”
Washington also implied that, at the beginning of the Somerset/district contract, the school district had paid money to repair the buses that were transferred into the care, but not ownership, of the Somerset staff.
Principal Oliver corrected her however, saying that Somerset had been the ones who paid for the buses to be serviced – not the district.
While the Jefferson County School District had paid up front for the service fees, Somerset had entered an agreement to reimburse the funds.
Without acknowledging Principal Oliver's claim, Washington began voicing her disapproval of the language in the bill requests.
“I don't like this. I'm reading this and you are saying all these things about Jefferson County,” said Washington.
“I still don't understand why we're upset about me and my team trying to secure $3.1 million in funding for our kids,” said Principal Oliver in return. “We don't want a new set of buses for our kids? Is that what you're saying?”
Principal Oliver's question began a rapid back-and-forth discussion between himself and Washington, as Washington continued to oppose Somerset's fund request from the Florida House.
Shirley Washington: “I'm not saying that. What happened to [our] buses?”
Principal Oliver: “They're still there.”
Shirley Washington: “What happened to the buses that we had?”
Principal Oliver: “They are still there. We are trying to secure a brand new fleet for our kids. I don't see a problem with that.”
Shirley Washington: “I do. You are saying that we don't have good buses...what happened to the buses we had?”
Principal Oliver: “They are still there, but why not get new buses for the kids? I don't see a problem with that.”
Superintendent Marianne Arbulu, attempting to smooth things over, suggested to Principal Oliver that she believed Washington opposed the fund appropriations due to the fact that the school board had not known about the request until now.
However, Washington brought up the fact that HB 4285 also included a request for a bus director, which the school district had already been asking for prior to Jefferson Somerset's takeover of the school system in the county.
“You are asking for something that we wanted, that we asked for, and didn't get,” said Washington. “But even still, you can take these bills to Tallahassee and make it seem as though Jefferson County is the worst and the lowest in the state of Florida.”
Principal Oliver argued that Washington's accusations were not accurate and that Somerset had not attempted to corrupt the reputation of the county.
“If you read the application, that's what it's saying about our kids,” claimed Washington. “I didn't like it because I know our kids.”
Washington's continued opposition prompted Oliver to make his own statement: “We are trying to secure funds to keep as many adults in our school with our kids as we possibly can. That's what we are trying to do.”
Principal Oliver added that there are several children in the school system who would benefit from individualized instruction, and that they had not been identified during prior testing.
These funds will help prevent students from slipping between the cracks.
“They are left to float through the system without any sort of system or guidelines and we can't do that,” added Principal Oliver. “This is money for our kids. I just can't believe we're having this conversation.”
Despite Principal Oliver's insistence, Washington continued to express disbelief that the Jefferson County public school system had a advanced percentage of students would benefit from specialized educational plans.
As proof, Washington mentioned Jefferson Somerset's success with its honor roll program.
“You've got all these kids receiving A and B honor roll,” she claimed.
“A grade does not reflect a kid's ability to pass a test nor is it a reflect of whether or not that child has a disability. It's just a grade,” refuted Principal Oliver. “A child can have a disability and still get straight A's. They can have a disability and still graduate from Harvard. It doesn't mean that they don't need all the extra support. They need extra support.”
Washington's response to that statement was simply that it “disturbed” her when Principal Oliver and his staff labeled the county's students.
School Board member Gladys Roann-Watson asked Principal Oliver how the Somerset staff was currently managing without the $3 million in funding.
Principal Oliver said that the school is currently making do through community partnerships and other, smaller, grant monies.
Some partnerships, he said, have been made with local colleges to get instructional individuals in the classrooms with the kids.
Superintendent Arbulu asked Principal Oliver what would happen if the appropriations requests did not gain approval from the House of Representatives.
“Then we keep fighting for something else...we've got to find a way to keep as many educated, meaningful adults around these kids as we possibly can, and that's going to take money, it's going to take more money than anyone saw coming,” said Oliver. “These kids need it, these kids deserve it, and I'm going to fight for it.”