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TEAM Sanibel taking school complaints to state level

By Staff | Feb 2, 2010

Parents of children at The Sanibel School said they are taking their concerns to the state level.
For nearly two months the Lee County School Board has been inundated with parents alleging the school administration was bullying and intimidating students and staff. Finally, on Jan. 12, Lee Superintendent James Browder released his final determination that he found no grounds to discipline any member of the administration.
Ten days after the determination was delivered by Browder the investigation became available as a public record for the community according to state law, but the Sanibel parents who should be the most interested in obtaining a copy of the report said they aren’t ordering it.
Claudia Foster, a spokesperson for TEAM Sanibel — the group of 30 parents who filed complaints against the school district — said the record would cost approximately $400 from the district’s Department of Communications. She said none of the parents have purchased the report and they aren’t interested in pooling their money for it, either.
“I haven’t broached that yet with my parents, because to be honest, it will all be convoluted,” she said.
A controversial court opinion related to the state’s public record law has been interpreted by some local governments, including the School District of Lee County, to allow those agencies to charge an additional fee for records requiring “special services,” in this case the staff time needed to redact personal or confidential information from any file. The department said it will charge $354.06 for an estimated nine hours of staff time — not counting the price per page for copies.
Foster said the group of parents expected the Lee County School District to side with the school in the investigation, and now they’ve brought their concerns to the state’s Bureau of Exceptional Education and Student Services, as well as the Office of Professional Practices.
The parents first approached the Florida Department of Education last year with their concerns, but state officials told them they needed to file a local complaint with the school district before the state can become involved.
“Now that this investigation is complete, we can take it to the next level,” said Foster. “We are hoping that someone at the state level, who is more objective, will look at it more stringently.”
The school district also compiled what an expert in employment law, Tampa Bay attorney Thomas M. Gonzalez, described as “two large volumes of documents which were respectively labeled ‘Investigation Summary,’ and ‘Volume I’ and ‘Volume II.'”
Gonzalez was sent the investigation by Browder to provide an objective opinion. He found that “the complaints are not worth any serious attention and are of a volume consistent with a long-term principal who has established a management style which has allowed her to be successful.”
The district also has received input from parents who are supportive of the administration.
Foster and the members of TEAM Sanibel claim the district only contacted 10 out of the 30 parents who filed a complaint during the investigation, and only one of 44 former employees who were listed as contacts. She also claimed that no supporting evidence was sought.
The state departments are currently looking into the allegations, she said, and are accepting phone calls and further documentation from Sanibel parents.
On Jan. 26, Browder met with Sanibel School’s parent-teacher association and student advisory committee to discuss the findings of the investigation. He asked PTA and SAC members to share the report findings with the rest of the community and the groups discussed ways to “help the school move forward in a positive fashion.”
The Sanibel School investigation is officially considered closed by the superintendent and school board.
Meanwhile, according to the district’s communications department, none of the five school board members have received or requested a copy of the full investigation.
“To my knowledge, I am unaware of a complete investigatory file being provided to anyone, including school board members,” said Director of Communications Joe Donzelli.
Last month the school board and public received the same document — a three-page memorandum from Browder outlining his final determination. The finding was discussed at an afternoon meeting which dismissed minutes after the memo was released and before board members could discuss how the investigation was conducted.
Board Member Robert Chilmonik, who demanded the board discuss the investigation on Jan. 12, said he never received a copy of the full report. He also wants to let the public know how it was carried out.
“I did not receive it. You have to request it,” said Chilmonik. “I’ve had to request reports in the past.”
He added that as a school board member he’s been charged for records in the past and is waiting to request a number of reports including the one on The Sanibel School. Typically, board members don’t receive full investigative reports, he said, unless one member requests the item and then all five are furnished with the document.
“Circling the wagons and stonewalling, that is how the Lee County School Board works on any topic that may seem controversial,” said Chilmonik.
Board Member Jeanne Dozier said she received a copy of the memorandum from Browder and assumed the items provided were the full findings.
“We all received a copy of the letter when Dr. Browder contacted Tom Gonzalez,” said Dozier. “It is my understanding that the report is this letter.”
She added that board members received a testimonial packet from the Sanibel parents before the investigation concluded, but she was disappointed with the content because it was full of clipped newspaper articles and photocopied statutes, and not statements from parents.
“They came and gave us a notebook and they said they had all of these statements in there,” she said. “Then, all of the sudden, when I started reading this stuff, it is something that has nothing to do with what is going on in Sanibel.”
Chairman Steve Teuber said he didn’t receive a copy of the full report from the district. He explained that whether board members get copies of a report depends on the circumstances of the investigation.
“We will probably get a copy of that,” he said. “I have seen all of the data that he will present to us.”
Teuber pointed out that it’s the job of the school board to monitor policy as well as district processes, and not to micromanage the superintendent or staff.
“We would review it to see if the process worked, not to micromanage the superintendent in the decision he made but make sure the process was followed correctly,” he said.
Elected bodies such as the school board typically don’t involve themselves with internal operations carried out by district staff, but they do vote to terminate any staff members who are found guilty of violating district policy. The board also votes to hire or transfer employees in the system.