Tuesday, May 10, 2011

School Board Was Embroiled in 2003 Efforts to Eviscerate Guana

School letter by Ponte Vedra coalition called into question
School Board chairwoman says letters sent to students' homes about school site in Guana preserve violated district policy
Staff Writer
St. Augustine Record
Published Saturday, October 11, 2003

A Ponte Vedra High School Coalition letter sent home with students last week was called a lobbying effort and a violation of district policy by the chairwoman of the School Board.

The superintendent of schools does not agree.

Authored by Marc Bugbey of the coalition, the letter was sent Oct. 2 through the Parent Teacher Organization of four Ponte Vedra Beach schools.

The letter asks parents to contact public officials and voice support for a new high school in the Guana River Wildlife Management Area.

School Board Chairwoman Carla Wright said the district did not know about the letter before distribution.

"It goes against district policy because the letter was not approved by the School Board and the superintendent before distribution," she said.

About 4,000 letters were sent home with students from Ocean Palms Elementary, Ponte Vedra-Palm Valley Elementary, Rawlings Elementary and Landrum Middle School, said Amy Rankin, spokeswoman for the coalition.

The coalition wants to swap the development rights of a 104-acre parcel, known as the Outpost, owned by Gate Petroleum founder Herbert Peyton, for 100 acres in Guana that would be used for a new high school.

The site is one of three east of the Intracoastal Waterway the St. Johns County School District is reviewing for a new high school.

The coalition's letter said: "A group of citizens has developed a plan for the acquisition of land to build a high school in Ponte Vedra. It will rely on the generosity of one individual, the combined efforts of state and local officials, and the support of our community .... After reviewing the plan, we encourage you to contact state and local officials to voice your opinion ...Your support is needed and greatly appreciated."

District policy says: "Materials such as pamphlets, cards, printed publications, and recordings which originate from sources outside the district school system shall not be distributed to students, teachers, or to homes unless such distribution is authorized by the superintendent or designee."

Wright said she considers the letter as a breach of security of district policy.

"It is definitely political lobbying," she said.

But Bugbey said he doesn't see his letter as political lobbying.

"It is clearly stated the coalition is asking for the community's opinion on the issue," he said. "I was trying to raise the level of community awareness on the issue and let the community know the neutral facts of the plan."

Bugbey said he had the idea to send the letter home with students because people don't always read the newspaper.

"I thought it would get people's attention," he said.

Bugbey said he had no comment on the district's policy of reviewing information before it's distributed to students, but said he spoke with PTO presidents, principals at the four schools and School Board member Bill Fehling about sending the letter.

"They all said it was okay.," he said. "Fehling suggested changing one sentence so it didn't sound like lobbying material. It's a fairly balanced piece, it didn't exclude anyone."

Fehling said he reviewed the letter and made suggestions before it was distributed.

"It's not a lobbying effort. It doesn't tell them what to say to the officials, that's not what the flier is," he said. "The flier is not biased."

But Wright said Fehling should not have acted without the board's consent.

"That was not right to do anything without consulting the board and the superintendent. Something is wrong with this," she said.

Fehling said he doesn't think it is necessary for the district to approve all material before it is sent home.

"If the board had to approve everything from the PTO on a daily or weekly basis, multiplied by 29 schools, that's all we'd do. It's up to the PTO and the principals to okay it," he said.

Bugbey said, "I'm letting the people draw their own conclusions on the letter. For me, -support' means I want the community to support issues. I will take responsibility for people thinking -your support' could be construed to mean I want you to support this plan."

The letter asks residents to contact and voice their opinions on the issue to Gov. Jeb Bush, Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, state Rep. Don Davis, R-Jacksonville, County Commissioner Bruce Maguire and Fehling.

Sara Jane Adamson, legislative aide for Davis, said he has received 33 e-mails since the distribution of the letter.

"Twenty-two are for the land swap and 11 are against," she said.

Maguire said he's received eight to nine e-mails a day about the issue.

"Out of those, roughly seven are for it and two are against it," he said."Too many people think the County Commission has a say in this and we don't. Because of that, I keep my personal opinion to myself."

Fehling said he's received 20-to-25 e-mails a day, with the majority supporting the site.

The number of e-mails on the issue to Bush and King were unavailable Friday.

Principals of the schools where the letter was distributed said they see the letter as more of an information tool than a lobbying effort.

"I saw it as information, that's what I still see it as," said Pherbia Engdahl, principal of Rawlings. "We certainly didn't intend to cause any problems."

Engdahl added that she was under the impression that Fehling approved the letter.

Beverly Gordon, principal of Landrum Middle School, said she also saw the flyer as more of an informative piece than lobbying.

"The PTO president actually had the fliers and asked to use them as a communication tool. It appeared general information," Gordon said.

Ocean Palms Principal Michael Parrish agreed.

"I thought it was okay because a School Board member is on the coalition," he said.

Principal Kathleen McCarthy of Ponte Vedra-Palm Valley was unavailable for comment Friday.

Wright said Fehling had no authority to authorize the letter.

Fehling responded that though he reviewed the letter and made suggestions, he did it as a former PTO president and not as a School Board member.

"That's not in my duties," he said.

Superintendent Joseph Joyner said the schools did not violate district policy because the PTOs are affiliated with the schools and not considered an outside organization.

Joyner also said he did not see the letter as political lobbying.

"The flier was meant to be an informational item to parents, that's what its intent was," he said. "Depending on what side of the issue you're on, is how you view it."

Joyner reiterated that, "Typically when there are items of a sensitive nature, we like to review them beforehand." He added that the circumstances of this situation did not allow for that to happen, but he has spoken with all the principals on the district's policy for handling sensitive information.

Would he have approved it for distribution?

"That didn't happen and I don't want to speculate on what I would have done," Joyner said.

Wright said she thought if board members had the opportunity to review the letter, they would not have approved it.

Wright said her concern now is that opponents of the coalition may want to send similar letters home with their views.

"Two wrongs don't make a right though," she said.

Ponte Vedra resident Marcy Silkebaken, who is against a school at Guana, said she opposes the distribution of the letter.

"I think it's inappropriate use of the school system," she said.

Silkebaken said she doesn't think those against the issue are entitled to send out similar information.

"But I do think the school district should notify all parents who oppose the issue and state their position," she said.

Roger Van Ghent, president of Audubon of St. Johns, said those opposed to the letter do deserve equal time.

"I have been working on a position paper that should be finished in a day or two," he said.

Van Ghent said Audubon of St. Johns is opposed to the development of a high school in any part of Guana.

Rankin, however, said there is no reason for people against the letter to have an opportunity to voice their opinion.

"Their opinion is not in the best interest of the school. We have the best interest of the students at heart," she said. "I don't see why they should be allowed to send negative information."

Rankin said the coalition has developed the best solution.

"If the other side really wants to be helpful, they need to come up with a solution," she said.

Wright said the issue will be addressed at Tuesday's School Board workshop. The workshop is open to the pubic and begins at 8:30 a.m. in the Superintendent's Conference Room at 40 Orange St.

"This all comes back on me," Wright said. "I'm embarrassed for the board that this happened. I want to enforce our policy. It's an illegal flyer as far as the school district is concerned. The coalition just hurt their case by letting that flier go out into the schools. That was not a good idea."

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