City school board could face legal consequences from deficit

Published 1:02 pm Saturday, October 15, 2016

The city of Franklin and Southampton County are waiting and watching as Franklin’s superintendent and school board attempt to resolve their $480,000 deficit, and may consider legal action if the issues are not resolved after the next council meeting.

On Friday afternoon last week, Dr. Willie J. Bell, division superintendent of the City of Franklin’s Public Schools, sent a formal letter to City Manager R. Randy Martin requesting funds to cover the deficit reported at the Oct. 3 school board meeting. According to Franklin Mayor Frank Rabil, as of Tuesday this week, Dr. Bell has rescinded his request.

According to Martin, Dr. Bell asked him on Tuesday to hold off processing his request for funds, and believes the delay may be due to the superintendent’s office working with a third party to sort through the budget issues.

The superintendent is still required to submit a balanced budget to the Virginia Department of Education. According to Charles Pyle, VDOE’s director of communications, they are already overdue, having been granted one extension to file by Sept. 30, the original deadline being Sept. 15.

The Commonwealth Attorney’s in Southampton County is aware of the school district’s ongoing budget issues, but has not as of yet decided to launch an investigation.

“I am aware of these allegations, which could possibly be deemed malfeasance under the Virginia Code,” said Eric Cooke, the Commonwealth’s Attorney for Southampton County and the city of Franklin. “At this point, I am interested in whatever corrective action the School Board and the City Council may take, and will consider that before I determine whether an investigation into these matters is appropriate.”

When contacted by the newspaper to comment on the situation, Bell replied in an email that he would release a statement at a later date, but gave no other details. As yet, he has not yet made any statement on how he intends to balance the report without additional funds from the city.

According to school board representative Bob Holt, the board has not received any communication from the superintendent’s office since the Oct. 3 board meeting.

“I would expect the superintendent to call a meeting to let the board know what’s going on, if not a meeting, at least an email with updates would be helpful to the board, but we haven’t heard anything,” Holt said.

He is at present unaware of any plans for the board to meet to resolve their budget issues or meet with city council representatives outside of the next regular scheduled board meeting. According to school board member Edna King, the reason the board has not met may be due to a Virginia state law that stipulates no more than two members of the board may converse at any given time outside of advertised meetings.

“Because of that law, I have always tried not to hold discussions with school board members outside of advertised meetings,” King said.

According to Rabil, Franklin’s city council, likewise, has not scheduled any additional meetings to address the school board’s budget. But this issue and its potential financial and legal consequences will very likely be the prime topic for discussion at the next regular council meeting, scheduled for Monday, Oct. 24.

It is possible that because the school board’s overspending, if ruled as malfeasance under Virginia state law Title § 22.1-91, the council will decide to start the legal process for removing one or more members of the board or the superintendent’s office as specified in Title § 24.2-230 of the Code of Virginia.

According to Howard W. Martin Jr., an attorney with Crenshaw, Ware and Martin P.L.C. in Norfolk, the removal of one or more members of the school board would require a majority of the city council members to sign and file a petition in the circuit court where said board members reside, that states one or more of the following legal grounds for removal.

Those grounds include neglect of duty, misuse of office, incompetence in the performance of duties having a materially adverse effect upon the conduct of the office, conviction for a drug-related misdemeanor offense or conviction for a misdemeanor involving a “hate crime,” when the conviction has a material adverse effect upon the conduct of his or her office.

Article seven, chapter two of title 24.2 of the Code of Virginia, relating to the removal of public officers from office, applies to every elected or appointed public officer except officers whose removal from office is specifically controlled by the state constitution or appointees to an office with no fixed term and whose appointing authority has the unqualified power of removal. According to Martin, generally, local school board members are considered public officers.

As soon as the petition is filed with the court, Virginia state law mandates the court issue a rule requiring the officer to show cause why he or she should not be removed from office, returnable in no less than five nor more than 10 days, and served to the officer with a copy of the petition.

From that point, the matter would go to trial. If the officer is found subject to removal, he or she will be removed from office.