Council, school board air their heated feelings

Published 10:24 am Friday, September 2, 2016

On Tuesday night, members of Franklin City Council and Franklin City School Board came together in order to hash out issues and work on communication, transparency and collaboration.

Although there is still work to be done between the two governing bodies, both the mayor and school board chair left the meeting feeling like a step in the right direction had been taken.

Much of the time was spent discussing the internal control issues within the school board that were found in last year’s city audit, and certain funds that council is withholding from the schools as a result.

To recap, when Davis & Associates presented Franklin’s audit findings for Fiscal Year 2015 they said they had found five issues with the school board all relating to internal controls and all being considered to be at a moderate or high-risk level. The Virginia Department of Education then sent a letter to superintendent Dr. Willie Bell and the board asking them to create a corrective action plan. Then-school board chair Edna King replied with a letter refuting all the findings and noting that they didn’t believe any corrective action was necessary.

As a result, when it came time for council to approve this year’s budget, they granted all items except for the capital improvement plan regarding education. At that time they made a motion to continue to withhold those funds, which were to be used for bus acquisition, transportation vehicles, a storage facility and engineering costs, until they received what they believed to be an appropriate response regarding the audit findings.

Once mayor Frank Rabil and current school board chair Dr. Andrea Hall-Leonard opened the floor, it didn’t take long for the two groups to dive right into this topic of discussion.

It was brought to the attention of council that a few hours before the meeting began, a letter had been sent to them from Stacy Haney of Reed Smith Law Firm, which represents the school board, stating that another certified public accountant had reviewed the audit findings and that they were refuting those findings once again and noted that no fraud had been committed; however, they were making changes to their policies.

Several of council members were still not satisfied with this response.

“We need a document, in letter form, that states what you all are changing and how you’re doing it,” vice mayor Barry Cheatham said.

Councilman Benny Burgess echoed this saying that the school board needed to list the policies they are changing and what’s been changed.

School board member Verta Jackson then jumped in and said, “We don’t have to answer to you; we are two separate governing entities.”

A heated debate was then sparked between both parties, each member stating how they felt about the situation.

School board member Will Council then said how sad of a night this was that the two boards who are supposed to be the leaders of Franklin can’t seem to agree on anything.

Several other board members voiced how that regardless of what was going on, the money which council is withholding isn’t about them, it’s about the 1,0300 students who attend Franklin City Public Schools.

A few compromises were thrown into the mix. One that stood out to many was having a separate CPA come in and write the letter for the school board that would satisfy council. However, some were still reluctant to this, as the school board doesn’t have to legally answer to them.

Hall-Leonard noted that trust really needed to be built between the board and council, because it is obvious that there isn’t any.

Burgess then said that a way for council to learn to trust the school board is for them to spend money on what they say are going to, referencing the time that council had borrowed money for the schools to buy iPads, but then it was learned that desks and chairs and other technological devices were bought.

Bell then jumped it and reminded them that once they give them the money, the money is theirs to spend on whatever they feel is necessary.

Rabil and Hall-Leonard both said they knew this meeting was going to be tough, and although a lot had been said, it gave everyone a chance to get their feelings out. They both agreed both boards needed to go home and digest everything that had happened and then go to their separate upcoming meetings and talk about what they want to do.

They both also added that quarterly meetings would begin to happen, where the mayor, vice mayor, school board chair and vice chair would all sit down to talk about everything, in hopes to continue to strengthen the relationship and line of communication within the two leading governing bodies.