The Madison County School Board convened a special meeting on Aug. 21, took care of some minor business, and then moved on to whether or not to release FTE funds to the New Millennium Charter School.
Angela Ball, attorney for the New Millennium Charter School, along with several members of the New Millennium board of directors were present, including Mary Graham and Diamond Jones. Dr. Jerri Haynes, the school’s director, attended via speaker phone.
School board Attorney Tommy Reeves distributed copies of the charter and the Florida statutes pertaining to charter school contract and outlined the events that had led up to the meeting: in July, the school board had voted to begin proceedings in regard to the school’s charter, based on fiscal mismanagement (the school was several months behind on rent at their facilities, and had amassed debt of about $50,000 in its first year of operation).
However, he reminded the board, because they did not have the authority to simply rescind the charter, period (unless the health, safety and welfare of any student was in danger), what they had begun at that July meeting was simply the process – of notifying New Millennium in writing and giving the school a chance to request and administrative hearing – which it did. Rather than hear the case themselves, the school board elected to have it heard by the Department of Administrative Hearings (DOAH) in Tallahassee. The case will go before an administrative law judge Monday, Sept. 8, but it could be up to 30 days before the judge issues an order or recommendation.
In the meantime, the school received an eviction notice during July, which School Superintendent Doug Brown brought before the school board, with concerns that New Millennium no longer had secure facilities. On behalf of the district as custodian of FTE funds, he had withheld the July disbursement of the FTE funds, and the board went with the district, voting to continue the withholding.
At the Aug. 21 meeting, Reeves told the board that they didn’t have the authority to affect or discontinue funding absent certain provisions outlined in the contract. One was that the school had secure facilities; the other was either submitting a budget or letter of credit showing fiscal soundness 30 days before the first day of school. The board had to make a decision on whether or not those contingencies had been met.
Meanwhile, every month that the district withholds the funds means another one percent in penalties/interest is accruing, that it will have to pay out.
Attorney Ball brought news that the eviction notice had just been dismissed in an administrative hearing by Judge Bailey Browning, and that New Millennium was actively working with its landlord to settle the differences. The school was open and operating, with students in their seats and teachers in their places. “It has been said that the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world, but it’s the hand that holds the purse strings that rules the world,” she told the board.
Further, the superintendent and board had no right to withhold the funds from July and August, since the school was meeting in secured facilities, and the eviction, now dismissed, was being resolved by the two parties and was a non-issue. As for the budget, Dr. Haynes had not submitted a budget yet because she had not yet received the numbers she needed, but the New Millennium board of directors was committed to remedying that. As for the school district itself, it also had contract violations on its side, by refusing to fund the school.
When the school district’s financial officer, Ray Griffin, gave the board updated enrollment figures for New Millennium, with updated disbursement amounts of $9,968 instead of the previous amount of $15,600, Haynes protested that the amount for July and August should be based on the last student count prior to summer, since New Millennium did not hold summer school, and that September should be based on the current student count. She requested a chance to sit down with Griffin and go over the budget figures, just as she had previously done with Andy Barnes, the former financial officer.
Reeves stated that the decision was whether to release the funds; the amount didn’t matter.
Donnell Davis spoke up during the public input segment, pointing to the school’s accomplishments with the kids during the past school year, adding that even with all the complaints the district had against New Millennium, it had still hired away one of the teachers to work at the Central School, so the school must be doing something right.
“You’re holding the money hostage, you’re holding the kids hostage,” he said. “James Madison (Preparatory High School, another public charter school in Madison County) is not going through stuff like this.”
Ashley McCleod, identifying herself as the teacher who had gone to the Central School, said she left New Millennium because her personal finances forced her to.
“I have kids. I have bills to pay,” she said. “I’m here today to see what can be worked out.”
Portia Lundy, New Millennium’s music teacher, said she drives 118 miles to Madison every day for a chance to change and impact lives. “It’s the right thing to do,” she said. “I’m passionate about what I do.”
“We respectfully request that you disburse the funds,” said Ball, adding that Haynes and Griffin could sit down, do the financial calculations and have a budget prepared within ten days.
Reeves stated that with the eviction dismissed, secured facilities were less of an issue, and the board must decide whether to release or not release the funds.
Board member Karen Pickles asked about reports of heating and electrical problems at the facility, but was told that the four classrooms the children were using were up to code. The other part of the facility, which had the problems, was not being used.
After more discussion back and forth, School Board member VeEtta Hagan called for the vote and made the motion that the July and August funds be released. Karen Pickles seconded the motion. Hagan and Pickles voted to release the funds; Kenny Hall, Fain Poppell and Bart Alford voted against it.
“Why?” Lundy demanded from the audience. “This is not right. This is racist. You guys are wrong!”
Hagan told the audience to contact their congressmen and other representatives as she got up to leave. “As a school board member, I say this is unfair. It’s a racial issue. Walk out.”
People in the audience continued to question school board members as the meeting broke up and people began leaving.
Ball stated later that it was a contract situation, with the district saying that the school was in the breach; however, the district was in the breach as well by withholding the school’s funding. Both she and New Millennium believed the only issue was the eviction notice and the securing of facilities; it seems that they were about to turn a corner with the board. The decision surprised everyone.
Meanwhile, the school continues to meet and everyone will wait to see what the Sept. 8. hearing holds.