Richmond Heights Elementary Closes: Is Jones High Next?
On October 25, 2011, the Orange County School Board voted to close Richmond Heights Elementary School over the objections of community residents. The board voted to close the predominantly Black school even though there is an agreement in place that forbids its closure, unless certain conditions are met. The specific conditions of that agreement were never met. The so called Settlement Agreement went into effect almost two years ago.
It is an agreement made between the Orange County School Board and the Orange County NAACP. The District Court accepted this Settlement Agreement in August 2010.
There are several schools on the protected list, mostly predominately Black schools. This was done to keep OCPS from unfairly closing Black schools and busing those students to schools out of their general area. The agreement also guaranteed that these protected schools were maintained, renovated or rebuilt, as required.
Yet, with the Settlement Agreement in place the Orange County School Board found a way to get around the court authorized deal to close Richmond Heights Elementary. One reason given for closing Richmond Heights by School Board member Kathleen Gordon is that, the school had very low enrollment. The enrollment of Richmond Heights Elementary School is about 30% less than its potential capacity.
Jones High School is not listed as a protected school in the Settlement Agreement. Jones High School has an enrollment of about half its capacity. Does this indicate that Jones High School could be the next school on the list to be closed?
I reviewed the video from the October 25th meeting of the Orange County School Board to try to understand how the School Board could bypass the court ordered agreement. What I found was shocking. It appears to me, that the School Board’s General Counsel gave a report that misled the board. The board accepted this information and applied it as justification for the vote to close Richmond Heights Elementary.
Here are excerpts and comments from the October 25th School Board meeting. Decide for yourself if this vote was proper. You can view this video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M9VzR-ZDV00&feature=youtu.be
Let’s evaluate part of the school board’s meeting as it pertains to Richmond Heights Elementary School.
Board Chairman Bill Sublette turned the discussion over to School Board Deputy Superintendent Barbara Jenkins. Jenkins, in turn, handed off the matter to Legal Counsel, Diego “Woody” Rodriguez who she said, “composed” the item and so would take the lead.
The school board had already debated the Richmond Heights, Eccelston issue in other meetings, according to Sublette. All that was needed now was the legal interpretation of rules as they pertain to the Settlement Agreement. This interpretation of the rules could give the Board the right to vote on this issue. The Legal Counsel for the School Board, Attorney Diego Rodriguez interpreted the Settlement Agreement in a way that gave the board the legal okay to vote on this issue. The Board in a five to three decision, voted to close Richmond Heights Elementary and expand the size of Eccleston Elementary.
I was able to obtain a copy of the Settlement Agreement. This 15-page legal document explains in specific terms the conditions by which Richmond Heights Elementary can be closed. Here are what I consider as the two major conditions that have to be met in order for the School Board to close Richmond Heights.
The first major condition that has to be met:
a: Dramatic Revenue Shortfall – The School Board has to believe that severe financial exigencies (e.g. Dramatic revenue shortfalls, significant reductions in operating revenues, etc.) require the closing of one or more of those schools along with other school facilities, to accomplish a necessary reduction of operating expenditures.
The second important statement made in the Settlement Agreement is:
b. A desire to reduce capital expenditures will not justify the closing of a school identified by name in this Agreement.
Richmond Height Elementary, is a school identified by name in the agreement.
During my research, I obtained a copy of an e-mail from the OCPS financial department which indicated there was not a dramatic revenue shortfall during the period in question. Also, OCPS’s web site shows the budget for the school years. This report shows a $37 million dollar surplus for the last two years. This proves that Attorney Rodriquez gave misleading information that caused the board to act inappropriately by voting to close Richmond Heights Elementary.
During the Board meeting, Attorney Rodriquez’ main points were “Dramatic revenue shortfall” and “the amount of money that would be saved by the district if Richmond Heights were to be closed.” Rodriquez should have advised the Board that it would be illegal to vote on this issue. The vote by the Board to close Richmond Heights Elementary never should have taken place.
This was an illegal vote by every member of the School Board. It shows the careless disregard the Board has for District 5 residents. They did not care to read the rules, or they did not understand the rules. Even though Rodriquez misrepresented the information in the Settlement Agreement, the responsibility of the vote rests with each member of the Board. Each is obligated to read and understand the issues on which they are voting. The Board of Education FAILED the residents of Orange County, Florida, in general, and Kat Gordon completely FAILED Richmond Heights Elementary, specifically.
Part II of this Richmond Heights School Board series will discuss how the Settlement Agreement came into existence.