The sale of the old Pierson Elementary School property was a flashpoint at a Volusia County School Board meeting June 25.
The impetus for the brief brouhaha was similar to that which took down former Superintendent Tom Russell, who was ousted on a three-to-two vote in June: Freshmen School Board Members Jamie Haynes and Ruben Colón both took issue with the lack of transparency of the process.
As an aside, Russell’s $244,288 severance package was approved during the June 25 meeting.
The details of the Pierson deal, in which the School Board sells half the property to the Town of Pierson, had been sent to School Board members only five days before the meeting, according to Haynes, and those details were not included in the online agenda packet for the public to read.
“My issue tonight is still with our process,” Haynes said. “Every member sitting in this audience, every member listening, every member that will read about this in the newspaper — they have a right to know ahead of time what we’re going to do, and what we’re going to talk about, and how the decision came to be that it ended up here for us to vote on.”
A lack of transparency also appeared to be the motivating force behind the vote to oust Russell, after the newer members of the board alleged he had failed to fully inform School Board members about an ongoing federal investigation of the treatment of special-needs students.
The Pierson sale was originally part of the consent agenda, which means it could have been approved without discussion, had School Board members not pulled the item and requested a detailed presentation.
Documents concerning the sale were put online after the meeting.
Ultimately, the School Board unanimously approved the Pierson school sale, making it clear that the problem Colón and Haynes had with the action was not necessarily in the details of the transaction, but the manner in which the deal was done.
“My job is to make sure that what we’re going to consider, or vote on, is available for the public to view in a timely manner,” Haynes said. “We are trying to live with ‘This is the way we’ve always done something, so this is the way we’ve done it.’”
The emphasis on transparency comes at a crucial time in the district. Summer is the busiest time for schools, as they prepare budgets and lesson plans, hire and fire staff, scramble to renovate or begin construction, react to newly passed state laws, and find out how they did the year before.
School grades for the district are due from the state in summer months.
But as the newer members of the board try to change the status quo, they encounter the usual problems. Attempting to change a vast system built by decades of decisions on local and state levels is no easy feat.
At a budget workshop July 2, the School Board discussed planned renovations and school construction funded by a half-cent sales tax voters renewed in 2014. District staff recommended that the board use monies from the half-cent sales tax to secure a bond to expedite capital projects. Haynes brought the discussion to Starke Elementary.
In the project plans, Starke is allocated $4 million for renovations, the smallest amount in a list of eight projects.
“It’s one of our highest-poverty schools. And I feel as if we turned our back on it several years ago, and we still have turned our back on that community,” Haynes said.
“I think the time for identifying all those schools was 2015, I think, perhaps, when the initial discussion was coming up,” Board Chairman Carl Persis said.
He was corrected by staff and other School Board members. In fact, the projects were initially decided on in 2013.
At the time, School Board Member Ida Wright said, the school district was still debating whether to close Starke Elementary.
“Starke is a very old school,” Wright said.
“Starke was going to be closed,” Haynes said. “And, probably, those renovation costs there were to make it into a building that could be used for training or house district staff, because that was what the plan was. So, we just let this school go, and we still have students there.”
Colón chimed in.
“Not having been there when these conversations were taking place, the question at hand is, do we borrow the money or not? And if what is being said about Starke is accurate, that it wasn’t on the radar, then I think that we may need to go back and re-look at the prioritization of these projects,” he said.
At that meeting, the School Board agreed to move forward on obtaining a loan of $100 million to move up the timeline of their list of capital projects. They had previously voted against a similar bond agreement the year before, in a 3-2 vote.
There was a general consensus to reconsider the funding allocated for Starke.