The Epic Failure of The Orange County School Board

This article originally published in West Orlando News Online.

BlockerBldgThis is the second of a three part series where we critique the reasoning of the Orange County School Board to close the Richmond Heights Elementary School. In the first part, we looked at Attorney Diego Rodriquez assessment of the Settlement Agreement and his go ahead blessing to the board to vote on the issue

In this part, we will analyze the comments of the board members as they explain why they voted to close the school. The voting members had different reasons for their vote which were not consistent. There was not a single compelling reason to close the school but rather a mismatch of excuses, made up arguments and poor logic. The school board failed the citizens of Orange County by closing this school when there was not a real reason to do so. Before the board members stated their comments, school board Chairman Bill Sublette allowed residents up to three minutes to voice their concerns. Four residents voiced their opinions. They all wanted to keep the school open. John Powell, the Richmond Heights Elementary School PTA President, spoke before the board. He brought with him about 500 signed petitions from neighborhood residents. Chairman Bill Sublette received the petitions, then continued with the meeting.

 Chairman Sublette was the first to speak and offer comments. He said that he respects so highly the Board Member who brought this issue to the Board. He thinks that there are some very good arguments for closing the school. Bill Sublette thought that Ms. Gordon had plenty of public meetings and plenty of notices for her to reach out to the community.

 Even though the Chairman did not call this Board Member by name, clearly he was talking about Ms. Kathleen Gordon. Ms. Gordon represents School District 5. This is the district where Richmond Heights Elementary School is located.

 Mr. Sublette voiced very strong sentiments for keeping the school open. He listed many strong and logical reasons for keeping the school open. I was moved and so was the audience who gave him a round of applause after he finished.

The next Board member to comment was Ms. Flynn who asks for an explanation of the settlement committee. However, there is no settlement committee. There is a Settlement Agreement. The Chairman said there had been several meetings on the subject. The Settlement Agreement should have been central to those meetings. Obviously Ms. Flynn missed those meetings because she did not understand what the agreement was. Ms. Flynn deferred her vote until later because she wanted to hear what Ms. Gordon would say. Ms. Flynn did indicate that a small school is not able to offer what other schools can offer because of funding. She said that funding would not get any easier.

Ms. Bell was the next to give comments. The first thing she said was, “Okay, I don’t want to get Ms. Gordon mad at me, but…” Ms. Bell then went on to explain why she thinks small school are sometimes better than larger schools. She voted to save Richmond Heights Elementary based on her experiences at a small school.

 Ms. Moore then turned on her mic and talked about small schools from another perspective. She said charter schools were taking capital money. She said that this issue to close Richmond Heights Elementary was born out of Ms. Gordon’s concern for the students when there is fewer capital dollars and fewer operational dollars. Ms Moore voted to close the school because of the possibility of a lack of future dollars.

 Mr. Roach was the next person to speak. His comments were on point and rivaled Bill Sublette’s in drawing out my emotions. He voted to keep the school open based partly on the promise that the school board made to the residents of Orange County in November of 2002. Mr. Roach said that the School Board promised to build a new Richmond Heights Elementary if the residents passed a half penny tax. The residents passed that tax and now would like to have it’s school. Mr. Roach thinks that it is a bad idea to break promises.

 Next was Ms. Gordon. Ms. Gordon dominated the comments part of the meeting with her talk. Ms. Gordon spoke for about twelve minutes but really did not say anything worthy. She mentioned a number of issues that she worked on over the years. Many of which have nothing to do with the closing of Richmond Heights Elementary. Her entire dissertation was to get the listener to believe that closing Richmond Heights Elementary is the best thing for the community. She wanted the listener to believe that closing Richmond Heights and expanding Eccleston is the best that we are going to be offered so we should take it.

Curiously during that entire 12 minutes, Ms. Gordon never gave a legitimate reason to close Richmond Heights. During that entire talk, she never said why there is a need to close Richmond Heights. She only said that she wanted to leave a legacy of her time served.

 I’m just wondering, why not leave a legacy of three new fully equipped schools rather than two? The board had already agreed to three new schools. Why cut back to two schools for your legacy, when you could have three? There was no logic coming from Ms. Gordon’s entire twelve minutes of talk time.

Here is a recording of all the comments from the School Board Meeting with my commentary.

Ms. Robbinson was the next board member to give comments. She asked about “Island Zones.” Chairman Sublette allowed Ms. Simpson, a staff person to come up and explain Island Zones to Ms. Robbinson. Ms. Simpson said there are Island Zones close to Eccleston and Richmond Heights Elementary schools. They are the Palm Lake and the Pershing Island Zones. Ms. Simpson said that students from those Island Zones go to predominately white schools, away from this area. This Island Zone is made up of about 100 students in the Richmond Heights / Eccelestons area and they are bused out of the area. Ms Robbinson said that she struggled with the issue but because Richmond Heights is a small school she voted in support of Kat Gordon to close the school.

Obviously Ms. Robbinson still didn’t understand the concepts of Island Zones. She knew there could be an issue but she didn’t know why. The students in the Island Zone that is near Richmond Heights are being bused up to 15 miles away, taking about $650,000 with them from Richmond Heights.

 Ms. Cadle was the last of the board members to speak. Ms. Cadle signed the Settlement Agreement as an Orange County School Board Member. She read the agreement and understood it. She knew that on page 6 of that document states, “the school board could not close Richmond Heights Elementary unless the board believes there is a Dramatic Revenue Short Fall.” She knows that on Page 7 of that document that the School Board could not close Richmond Heights Elementary school because of a “Desire to save Capital.” She knew this. So why did she vote to close Richmond Heights Elementary? She said lack of technology was one reason. Another was because students, faculty, staff and parents all get a case of the warm fuzzies if they moved to Eccleston Elementary School.

I watched the school board meeting video several times. I was looking for a reason, a common thread, weaving through the comments as to why they wanted to close this community school. There was no logical reason that I could find within the comments of the board members.

 Here is what I heard.

 Chairman Sublette said it was a tough decision. He thought about it for weeks. Well, he should have read the Settlement Agreement during that time. Obviously he didn’t.

Some members voted to keep the school open because it was a small school.

Some members voted to close it because it was a small school.

Some members voted the way they did because they didn’t want Kathleen Gordon “upset” or “mad” with them.

We know that the lack of money is not the issue because there is a documented $37 million surplus.

Kathleen Gordon said there is not a busing issue.

Joie Cadle wants to close the school so that the residents will get the warm fuzzies by attending a new school miles away.

A couple of members wants to keep the school open because they like community schools.

One board member brought up Island Zones and thought it might be an issue.

One board member thought that larger schools are better because more students get to play football.

Another board member thought small schools are better because, even though there might not be football, there are other activities.

Some of the board members were in favor of closing the school using the same reasoning others used to keep it open.

They are not consistent. Five board members voted to close Richmond Heights Elementary. None of whom live in the district. NONE OF THEM. Yet these are the people that decided to close your school.

 More that 500 people signed a petition to keep the school open. These 500 people live in the district. Yet the 5 out weigh the 500? Am I missing something here?

 There is no core reasoning to close Richmond Heights Elementary. None. There is no consistent thread weaving its way through the school board conversation to close the school, or is there?

Think about this:

How many people said that they did not want to hurt this person’s feeling?

What person said that she knows the Settlement Agreement in and out?

Who even now will not back off this issue, knowing that her constituents want to keep the school open?

Who continued to champion this issue, by having meeting after meeting trying to persuade people to support her legacy?

Who did Chairman Sublette say brought this issue to the board?

You know who…

There are no legal reasons or logical reasons to close Richmond Heights Elementary School.

 The only reason the School Board chose to closed Richmond Heights Elementary School, is because Ms. Kathleen Gordon wanted it closed….. PERIOD

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