Watermelon Pageant vs. Jefferson County School Board

Complaints arise against neglected Kilpatrick Auditorium

Ashley Hunter, ECB Publishing, Inc.

A complaint issued by the Jefferson County Watermelon Pageant came before the Jefferson County School Board at the board's monthly meeting on Monday, June 11.
On Friday, June 1, rehearsals for the pageant were held at the Kilpatrick Auditorium, and the pageant itself took place on Saturday, June 2.
For seven years, the county-wide pageant for the Watermelon Queen had been held at the auditorium, which is owned by the Jefferson County School District. For the entirety of those years, use of the auditorium had been given to the pageant committee for no charge.
That changed this year when the school board voted during its scheduled May meeting to increase the rates and bill the pageant for the auditorium.
At that deciding meeting, no pageant or festival committee members were invited to come and present an opposing argument to the new proposed rental agreement terms.
This decision by the board was made only a few weeks before the pageant, with the Jefferson County School Board putting together a contract that required the pageant committee to pay fees upwards of $1,200 for the rented use of the auditorium.
Despite having held the pageant at the auditorium for a number of years without charge, the pageant had agreed to the presented payment and proceeded to hold the pageant on the designated weekend of June 1 and 2.
The complaint presented by the pageant committee on June 11 stemmed not from the rental fees, but from the condition that the pageant committee had found the auditorium on the afternoon of the rehearsals.
The keys to the auditorium were presented to the committee on the day of Friday, June 1, leaving the committee with only a few hours to inspect and decorate for the rehearsals and the following pageant. Arriving at the auditorium at 2 p.m. on Friday (rehearsals began at 4 p.m.), the committee discovered an infestation of filth.
The dressing rooms were littered with trash and coat hangers. Molding feces filled up toilets, with stained bowls and rims; one toilet was reportedly so full of “waste” that it could not be cleaned or unstopped.
The auditorium stage was full of chairs and risers, which needed to be moved by the committee.
The trash cans were full of garbage, rotting food, and insects.
The seating area in the main auditorium was littered with trash and peanuts.
There were only two working lights to illuminate the whole stage, and the pageant committee had to bring in itsown external lights.
The air condition was not operating properly and fans had to be produced to cool down the warm dressing rooms.
The stage curtains were tied back and required the committee to climb up ladders and remove the cords holding the curtains back.
The north side of the auditorium had a water leak, which had left the carpet soaked and smelling of mildew; the mildew smell and fumes gave several of the committee members headaches throughout the weekend and one contestant slipped on the wet carpet and hit his head.
The stage floor was dusty and grimy, even after the pageant committee's attempts to sweep it clean; it left the hem of one contestant's white dress stained and dirtied.
The back door of the auditorium had been left unlocked and was open, resulting in a building that was not safe or secure.
The grass was long and, according to the pageant committee, looked as if it had not been cut in weeks.
Upon discovering the condition of the auditorium, the committee had called Superintendent Arbulu and requested that the custodian, who is under the payroll of the school district, come and assist with the cleaning but the custodian did not arrive until Saturday morning, long after the committee had been required to clean the mess up themselves.
Emerald Greene Parsons, a former Pageant director who has overseen the pageant for the last seven years, spoke to the board at their June 11 meeting in criticism of the repulsive conditions that the pageant committee had found the auditorium in.
“If you are going to rent something, it needs to be rentable. If you are going to put up a dollar sign, then it needs it to be usable,” said Parsons. “[The auditorium] was just nasty.”
Parsons and the other representatives from the Watermelon Pageant and Festival passed out printed photos that were taken on the day of rehearsals for the pageant.
The photos, which were given to audience and board members alike and showed the condition of the auditorium, caused a stir and Board member Shirley Washington had to call for order after the audience began to murmur and discuss the photos.
Once the audience had quieted, Parsons mentioned that she had compared auditorium rental prices with the Madison County North Florida Community College auditorium after the June 1 and 2 disaster at the Kilpatrick Auditorium. “It would be clean, spotless, and worth every penny; I know that. The stage lights would come with it, the curtains would work, and I would not be cleaning toilets,” said Parsons of the NFCC auditorium.
Parsons also mentioned that she directs the Miss Madison County pageant in the Madison County Central School. They have to move chairs and do basic sweeping/dusting, but they haven't ever complained as they are being provided the school auditorium free of charge.
Likewise, they have never complained about the poor conditions of the Kilpatrick Auditorium in the past, because it had been presented to the Watermelon Pageant free of charge. But this year, an over $1,000 price had been put on the auditorium, and it was in the worst condition that Parsons had seen it yet.
“We aren't the only ones renting it; what if this was a church group that had gone in there? Or a Boy Scout or Girl Scout troop? Anyone could go into there and find the same mess,” said Parsons.
The Watermelon Pageant is complete for the 2018-2019 year, but Parsons did issue a warning: “It is over and done with, but next year we are going to need somewhere to rent, and it might be here; I might try to talk the whole committee to moving it to Madison.”
If the 2019-2020 Watermelon Pageant moves to Madison County, the contestants would be required to drive to the neighboring county, and Jefferson County would lose the benefit of the pageant being centered in its home base.
After Parsons had said her piece, Board Member Washington asked if the pageant committee had reported the state of the auditorium to Superintendent Arbulu, to which Arbulu cited that they had and that the school district's Administrative Assistant Ramona Kinsey had gone down to assist in cleaning up the auditorium.
“We are going to make some changes in terms of the maintenance of this facility; there's no excuse for this,” added Superintendent Arbulu, adding that the district had planned to use some upcoming grant monies to make improvements to the auditorium building.
Board member Bill Brumfield spoke up, saying that he had received calls over the week following the pageant from concerned individuals regarding the state of the auditorium and had already planned to address the situation with the board. “I felt embarrassed, Whoever we are paying, they should have went in and cleaned it up,” said Brumfield. “I think we need to give her back some of her money. From what I see now, [the auditorium] was awful.”
Arbulu backed Brumfield's suggestion at reimbursing of the pageant for the rental fees.
At this time, Board member Charles Boland, who had been silent throughout Parson's presentation, spoke up and addressed the fact that at the May meeting, he had been the only board member to vote against billing the Watermelon Festival for the use of the Kilpatrick Auditorium. “I was the only one who voted against it (the fee), I have had nieces and cousins who have been Watermelon Queens, and this (the pageant) has been going on since the late 40's and I wasn't for charging y'all,” said Boland. “If we do the right thing, we will give them their money back and have another vote that we won't be charging [them]. This is a community thing, it has been going on since the late 40's, and we shouldn't be charging people for the use of our facilities if they are something like that.”
Shirley Washington, who was acting as chairperson in the absence of Sandra Saunders, was the only one who voiced any disfavor in refunding back the rental fees to the Watermelon Festival.
“I too am embarrassed with the condition, but the only thing is that we want to be fair, honest, and consistent with everybody. Now, we do charge community folks to have activities there,” said Washington. “If we aren't going to charge one, then we need to go back, revisit our policy and not charge anyone in the community that is having any activities there.”
Washington said that, as someone who believes she has presented herself as a fair, honest and consistent person, that she would not be comfortable allowing the Watermelon Festival special privileges, despite the history that the board has with the festival and pageant.
According to Washington, there have been other events in the past that have functioned without the use of the air conditioning, and those events did not expect to be reimbursed by the board for their rental fees.
“I could somewhat agree with reimbursing them a portion, some of their money, but not all of it,” said Washington, who then repeated herself, saying that the committee should have contacted the Superintendent and addressed the mess then instead of handling it on their own. “Then the Superintendent would have gotten in touch with the custodian or whoever was in charge,” added Washington.
“Correct me if I am wrong,” Parsons turned to another member of the pageant committee as well as to Superintendent Arbulu, “Wasn't he called? He never showed. He never came.”
Arbulu backed up Parson's claim, agreeing that the custodian had been called on Friday, but did not immediately go to the auditorium to assist with the clean-up.
Nan Baughman, the 2018 chairperson for the Watermelon Festival spoke up, saying that the custodian eventually showed up on Saturday morning. “He showed up at 8:30 a.m. Saturday morning with his cleaning supplies and I told him we didn't need him. All I needed him to do was get the garbage and ants out; we'd already scrubbed the bathrooms.”
“We just felt like this needed to come to the board's attention. Maybe y'all should revisit your contract and say, 'if it is being used for the youth of the community'. We had girls who were up helping with the pageant that have been there (in the pageant) since they were babies. In their business today, they say that the reason they can speak in front of people is because of these pageants that gave them that self-confidence,” added Baughman. “I just think it is something that y'all should decide and we just wanted to bring it to y'all's attention.”
Washington thanked Baughman for her input, before adding: “But on the other hand, it's not on our agenda. We would have to have a workshop, put it on our agenda for the next board meeting, we would have to discuss it and then go through the changes in policy or whatever. We cannot make any changes tonight because it is not on our agenda.”
Parsons agreed with that understanding and reiterated that their main goal that night was to bring this topic to the attention of the board, as Baughman had said.
“Whether you refund the money or not, the fact of the matter is that next year, those stage lights will be just as bad as they have been for the last eight years because there is no love or care being put into that building whatsoever. The leak over the back door, all of it- there's no love or consideration being put into a building that you are renting out to churches, or Boys Scouts or Girl Scouts. That's the only place that anyone in this county can use, and it's just deteriorating, it's just falling apart.”
Brumfield asked if the pageant committee had gone and checked out the building prior to the evening of rehearsals, especially in regards to the lights.
“The lights haven't worked in seven years,” said Parsons. “I mentioned it every year and every year I'm told that there's not enough money to fix them.”
“Al Cooksey had a lot of money,” interjected Brumfield. “You should have gotten him to fix them.” “It was the same school board embers back then. It's in the same condition right now as it was years ago,” said Parsons. “Maybe I should have come [to the school board] seven years ago because it was the same board. Six, five, four, three, two years ago, it was all the same condition.”
Washington finally interjected that the board could not be held accountable for the condition of their building if no one had told them that it was that bad off. “If a person doesn't know it, you cannot hold that person accountable for something he or she doesn't know. We were not aware that the lights were not working. Had you come to us those seven years that you knew that they weren't working, then we could have done something about it.”
Finally, Brumfield asked Attorney Reeves if it would be possible for the matter of refunding the Watermelon Festival their rental monies could be added to the that evening's agenda, or if it should be added to next month's agenda.
At that point, Washington interjected in conflict to Brumfield's inquiry, stating: “It is not on our agenda. Some things we don't have to ask the attorney for, that we should be able to analyze. If it's not on the agenda or we didn't amend the agenda to put it on there, then we cannot deal with it tonight.” Brumfield requested that the matter be added to the agenda for the July board meeting of the Jefferson County School Board, which will take place on Monday, July 9 at 6 p.m.