Brevard County Commission moves forward with lawsuit to halt closures
By Chris Fish
VIERA -- In a unanimous vote Feb. 19, Brevard County Commissioners agreed to move forward with conflict-resolution proceedings with the Brevard County School Board, in order to prevent the closing of three local schools.
This vote came after a failed attempt on the same day to authorize a lawsuit that would ask a judge to halt the closure proceedings.
The authorization for the lawsuit received a vote of 3-2, with Chairman Andy Anderson and Commissioner Trudie Infantini voting against the filing of the suit. However, County Attorney Scott Knox later said an authorization of a lawsuit by the commission requires four or more votes in favor of the motion.
According to Brevard Commissioners, the Brevard School Board did not follow proper procedures in the closures of the three schools: Clearlake Middle, Gardendale Elementary and South Lake Elementary.
The conflict-resolution was designed to authorize county legal staff to ask a judge to approve an injunction, which would halt the closing process for the schools.
The Brevard County School Board's decision to close three of four schools on the chopping block could save the district a little more than $3 million, officials said.
The board, which currently has a budgetary deficit of $30 million, voted on Feb. 12 during a board meeting to close Gardendale Elementary School in Merritt Island, South Lake Elementary School in Titusville and Clearlake Middle School in Cocoa.
County Commissioners said the board's decision made during the meeting did not follow proper procedures in working with an advisory Capital Outlay Committee and did not provide an option for community input before making its decision.
"It was extremely disappointing and a wasted opportunity," said Michelle Speisman, committee member of Save Brevard Public Schools. "We have had the entire community in Brevard rally in support, and (the board) had the opportunity to use that to help with moving forward. "
At the meeting, Brevard County School Board members voted 3-2 for the closure of Gardendale and South Lake and 4-1 for the closure of Clearlake.
Sea Park Elementary in Satellite Beach was approved to remain open by a vote of 2-3.
Vice Chairwoman of the board Amy Kneessy was the only member to vote against all closures.
"I don't believe $3 million is worth alienating the entire community over," she said during the meeting. "My priority is not closing schools."
Board member Michael Krupp also expressed his hesitation with the closing of Gardendale Elementary during the meeting. He, along with Ms. Kneessy, voted against the closure of the school.
"Gardendale has worked long and hard for what it has (accomplished)," he said to the other board members. "We can't just throw it away."
The decision to close three of the four schools for budgetary purposes comes in the wake of a failed voter referendum in November, which would have raised $32 million annually for revenue, and weeks of community protest and involvement.
To accommodate for the closures of the three schools, the board is looking into changing current attendance boundaries for other schools, according to the Brevard Public School's website, www.brevard.k12.fl.us.
To accommodate for the closure of South Lake Elementary School, the board will change the current attendance boundaries of Apollo, Coquina, Mims, Oak Park and Pinewood elementary schools.
For the closure of Clearlake Middle School, the board will look into the currant attendance boundaries of Cocoa High School, Rockledge High School, Clearlake Middle School and McNair Middle School.
For Gardendale Elementary, the board will review the current attendance boundaries of Audubon, MILA and Tropical elementary schools.
Michelle Irwin, director of district communications for Brevard Public Schools, said the board had two capacity review meetings in order to assure that redistricted schools will not exceed capacity.
However, Ms. Speisman, who has a child at Gardendale, said she is skeptical that the schools will not exceed capacity.
"It's likely that these new schools will reach or be above capacity," she said. "The idea of shifting boundaries every three to five years creates an unstable zone that won't help families come to our area. If schools look unstable, no one will want to raise a family here."
The board will continue to move forward with further budgetary cuts and proposals, including a "pay to participate" sports program, ending corridor busing to choice programs and a reduction of fine arts programs.
During the meeting, the board voted to cut corridor busing and said it would like to look further into a concept where students will be required to pay for bus transportation to choice schools.
If this passes, it may be in contradiction with state law, which requires free and equal access to public school.
During the meeting, the board also voted to enact a $30 application fee for students applying to attend a school out of his or her district.
Before the board's decision, a group of parents created the Brevard Parents Political Action Committee, an organization that said it is committed to raising awareness to the issues concerning Brevard parents.
"The last three months have been very difficult for many parents, and we have attended board meetings, workshops, information meetings and some have even had private meetings with school board members," said Christine McClure, board member and communications director, in an email. "In the end, we were left with the perception that our voices were not being heard. We believe that all elected officials should be accountable to their constituents, especially our school board, which represents the most innocent of our Brevard County residents."
Organizers for the group said they hope to engage appropriate local political bodies in order to seek positive outcomes for the parents of Brevard County students.
"We would like for all parents, grandparents and guardians to join our group, as there is power in numbers," Ms. McClure said. "We need the school board and the superintendent to know that we will not just fade away."
Ms. McClure said the organization is taking note of several appeals made by different members of the community, including thanking pubic officials and Titusville Mayor James Tulley for their public opposition to school closures.
"(We) concur with the county and municipalities that spoken out in protest to the manner in which (the board) selected schools for closure," she said. "We will work cooperatively with them to support their cases. In addition, there are other parent groups, who intend to file various lawsuits against the school board, and we will watch those developments with interest."
As of press time, the Brevard County School Board said it would continue to host public forums to gain input from community members, regarding the proposed revenue enhancements and budget cuts from 6:30 to 8 p.m. on a regular basis.
The next forum is scheduled for Monday, Feb. 25 at the Viera High School auditorium.