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School board member apologizes to President Obama

By Staff | Sep 26, 2009

A Lee County School Board member sent a letter of apology to the White House this week over the school district’s decision not to broadcast President Barack Obama’s back-to-school speech.
The speech on Sept. 8 marked less than a handful of times in history that a president directly addressed students in the classroom — including President George H.W. Bush in 1991. Politicians on both side of the aisle debated whether the speech was politically objective and it was later released before Sept. 8 to give school officials time to study its contents.
On Sept. 3 the school district released a statement that students would not see the speech live, and instead it would be added to district media centers as a reference item.
Even weeks after the speech, there has been consternation in the community from both supporters and opponents of Obama’s address. In reaction to the district’s decision, Lee County School Board Member Robert Chilmonik sent a letter to the White House describing what he viewed as “a disservice to our children.”
“I would like to apologize to you for our disrespectful treatment in response to your message of hope to all students across our great country,” wrote Chilmonik.
Discussion about the letter during Tuesday’s school board meeting broke out in a verbal tiff between Superintendent James Browder, who contends the district made the right decision, and Chilmonik who disagreed.
Browder said the White House didn’t give the district enough time to inform parents, but that it would be available for all teachers.
On Friday, District Spokesperson Joe Donzelli said use of the recorded speech isn’t being tracked, but added all teachers have access and that the video was posted on the district’s Web site (www.leeschools.net). It was also rebroadcast on Comcast Channel 99 after Sept. 8.
According to Chilmonik, the district needs a strong motivational message. Part of Obama’s address was directed at disadvantaged minority students, as well as coaching all students to take responsibility of their own education.
In Lee County, 45 percent of white students, 19 percent of black students and 24 percent of Hispanic students passed the FCAT Reading exam in high school.
“Students from all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds are performing below our peer districts and the state,” wrote Chilmonik.
Browder said during this week’s meeting that Chilmonik originally supported the district’s decision to not air the speech live, and has since changed his mind for political reasons.
“I can’t let Mr. Chilmonik’s letter pass,” said Browder. “Again, it is filled with inaccurate statements and filled with things that make him look like he’s done something.”
As for the FCAT scores, Browder said that Chilmonik isn’t looking at the same data as everyone else in Lee County.
“This is a cheap political trick and he has every right to do it, but I’m not going to sit here and allow him to continue to berate the Lee County School district and the teachers in it,” said Browder.