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New Council asked to revisit city charter school issues

By Staff | Nov 16, 2017

Cape Coral Mayor Marni Sawicki, who will leave office Monday, has left the incoming Council some words of advice regarding the city’s charter school system.

And judging by the tone of her four-page memo, there will be no love lost when Sawicki turns the gavel over to mayor-elect Joe Coviello.

Sawicki provided members of the incoming board with both background and what she maintains are unresolved issues. She touched on a lack of an internal audit of the Internal Cash fund, what she says is a high turnover rate at the high school and a former superintendent’s statements to local news outlets, highlights of a feud between she and members of the governing board this time last year.

“We have a Governing Board that has ignored the concerns of our City Auditor, questioned the motives of our City Manager, Finance Director and Mayor, and failed to recognize any shortcomings currently in our system without further pressing,” her memo states.

Sawicki said she hopes the new Council and the Charter School Authority – a governing board appointed by Council – can work with the city to implement policies and establish boundaries so the city school system can keep track of itself, which Sawicki said it hasn’t done for years.

“I love the charter schools, but not the governing board,” Sawicki said.

She recommends a strict accounting of funds, including money raised and distributed by the Charter Schools Foundation, and that policies be put in place for future reporting practices.

As the new Council gets ready to take over, Sawicki maintains the Council/Authority relationship has gotten no better and the system hasn’t addressed its issues because it has all the power.

“The City Council has no authority to fire or remove them because it’s not outlined in an ordinance or Chapter 26 about how we govern. That’s absolute power and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” Sawicki said.

At an April 24 meeting earlier this year, Sawicki said they were close, but after board members point of ordered her and she angrily left the meeting, the City Council gave back the power of the governing board to “police themselves.”

In her memo, Sawicki advises the new Council on how to proceed from here. She said it needs to address an ordinance and define the role the governing board has, install the “best practices” changes City Manager John Szerlag suggested, and implement checks and balances.

Sawicki said while “best practices” changes will cost the city the most, it will end up the best investment in the end.

“It’s going to cost $2 million. When you have $1.3 million coming through an internal task fund, if you implement controls that will stop waste, it’s a drop in the bucket,” Sawicki said.

Charter School Authority chairperson Jessica Cosden, a sitting City Council member and Council’s liaison to the charter school governing board, refuted Sawicki’s claims. She said Thursday the system has either done or in the process of doing much of what was requested in the internal audit and that the relationship with the city is better now than a year ago.

She also said safeguard policies and procedures related to fund raising and disbursement of money raised for school projects are in place.

“There has been no pushback against the Auditor’s Office. The board has had no issue with that was in the report. We agreed with the findings and were happy to comply,” Cosden said. “We’ve also instituted many of the best practices and (interium superintendent) Jacque Collins has done a wonderful job to repair the relationship with city staff, and the board has been supportive of her and of having a good relationship with the city. I can attest to that.”

Cosden said she has spoken with both the external auditors and the city Auditor’s Office and neither shared complaints of staff, city staff, or with the Charter School Authority.

City staff made 57 best practice recommendations. The initial agreement was to implement proposed practices that do not require hiring additional personnel or cost more than $5,000.

It was also stated in the April 24 meeting that the management of the charter school system be treated as a city department, which would give the charter schools access to all staff departments, and the charter school system would follow city protocols. This does not mean that city management would tell them how to run the system or what to budget.

Incoming mayor Joe Coviello said the city’s four-school charter system is among the best amenities the city has. He said there are many issues that need to be addressed, but is confident he can forge a better relationship.

“I’ve met with one of the governing board members. We had a very positive meeting and I’m looking forward to looking into the history of what’s gone on and make changes in the processes moving forward,” Coviello said, adding that he is one of eight members, and that City Council as a whole needs to determine the right course of action.

Of those eight, four are new, which Coviello hopes will mean “turning the page to a new chapter.”

“This will give a fresh perspective and look at what’s going on. We want to look forward and not back. We need to look at what practices can be put into place by the governing board and make the system work better,” Coviello said. “I’m looking at it from a positive light.”

One of those incoming Council members, Jennifer Nelson, said she looks forward to addressing the issue.

“All that I’ve seen seems to be due to processes. We’re missing opportunities to have better controls in place, especially when it comes to handling cash,” Nelson said. “I look forward to having a fresh perspective on this. With the new members, we’re committed to a positive outcome. Our name is on the door, so we need to offer as much expertise as possible.”

Coviello said what struck him the most was the turnover of teachers, which is usually a sign of something amiss in any organization.

“When you have a large percentage of turnover, something is not working to the best of its ability,” Coviello said. “You start to question why, I don’t know why that is and I hope it’s being addressed and that the governing board is putting its best foot forward.”

Coviello also said he wants to look into the role of Cosden, a council member, and see if her also serving as the Charter School Authority’s chair creates a conflict.

Cosden said the city charter does not forbid a council member from serving on the school governing board and the outgoing Council never asked her to leave the chair.

“If it’s the desire of the new Council for me to step down, I have no problem. The current board recently elected me for a second term, so I know they support me,” Cosden said.

Cosden said City Council members have expressed a desire to continue to improve the relationship with the charter schools and that they see its value to the city.