Council demands school board’s resignation

Published 9:51 pm Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Following nearly an hour of deliberations in closed session, Franklin’s city council voted unanimously, with the exception of Councilor Greg McLemore, who did not attend, to demand the resignation of every member of the school board in a resolution passed at the conclusion of a special called meeting to discuss the ongoing school division budget issues.

The resolution, drafted by City Attorney H. Taylor Williams IV, lists 10 reasons for the council’s decision to demand the board members’ resignations and stipulates that if any members of the board do not submit letters of resignation by Nov. 7, Williams is to file a petition with the Southampton County Circuit Court pursuant to Virginia Code sections 24.2-233 through 24.2-235 asking the court to issue a rule for the board members to show cause why they should not be removed.

The reasons cited in the resolution include:

• In May, 2015 the school board asked city council for an additional $173,000 to pay all end-of-year obligations owed by the school division for fiscal year 2014-15.

• In June, 2015, the school board asked council for an additional $181,000 to close out fiscal year 2014-15.

• It was later determined that the school division did not actually need the additional funds and ended fiscal year 2014-15 with a surplus of $151,000, in addition to the extra $343,000 council had appropriated for the board.

• The city’s comprehensive annual financial report (CAFR) audit for the board’s 2014-15 fiscal year revealed five findings, which the board refuted and did not take adequate corrective measures to the independent audit findings.

• For the first time during fiscal year 2015-16, the city finance director advised the school division finance department that city records indicated the school division had a cash deficit, to which the division finance department offered no response, and later that the division finance department assured the city finance director that the division would receive sufficient revenue by the end of the year, but still reported a deficit of approximately $481,000 by the end of the fiscal year on June 30.

• Pursuant to Virginia Code section 22.1-89 the school board has failed in its duty to properly manage and control its funds.

• Pursuant to Virginia Code section 22.1-90 the board has failed in its duty to submit a report to city council of all its expenditures for fiscal year 2015-16.

• Pursuant to Virginia Code section 22.1-91 the board has failed in its duty to not expend any sum of money in excess of the funds available for school purposes.

• Pursuant to Virginia Code section 22.1-81 the board has failed in its duty to file its annual report with the State Board of Education for fiscal year 2015-16 by the deadline.

• Pursuant to Virginia Code sections 22.1-91 through 22.1-122(E) and 15.2-1244 the members of the Franklin City School Board have committed malfeasance in office, which is a common-law crime punishable as a misdemeanor offense.

According to City Manager Randy Martin, a copy of the resolution has been sent to each board member. Council’s next step in the process will be to fill vacancies as they arise if the current board members resign or the Southampton County Circuit Court rules that they are to be removed from office.

Martin said to appoint new members, the council would have to announce each vacancy in the newspaper and then hold either a regular or called meeting with a public hearing to receive nominations. The only qualifications for someone to be nominated to serve on the school board is that he or she is a resident of Franklin, an eligible voter and a resident of the Ward to which the vacancy is assigned. Six of the seven school board positions are attached to the city’s six Wards with the seventh being at large, meaning anywhere in Franklin.

Martin added that the council is not currently considering any candidates and cannot do so until a vacancy opens up and someone is nominated.

Councilor McLemore stated that had he been at the meeting, he would not have supported the resolution.

“For the record, I do not support the council’s decision to demand the resignation of the school board members without them having a reasonable opportunity to defend themselves,” McLemore said. “I believe this is racially motivated to take control of the $16 million school budget for a school system dominated by African Americans and a school board dominated by African Americans.

“This is a witch hunt after [Franklin’s superintendent], Dr. Bell, and it’s being led by the majority of the council. They want [the school board] out because those people support Dr. Bell, and the only way they can remove Dr. Bell is to remove the school board and replace them with people who are willing to remove Dr. Bell. In my opinion, Dr. Bell has been doing a good job given the plate he was handed. Our school system was in the dump when he took over.”

However, Councilor Linwood Johnson III, one of the other African American council members, disagreed that the council’s resolution was racially motivated.

“We’re looking for justice, not revenge,” Johnson said. “It’s not a witch hunt; Halloween is over. Everyone came to the consensus that this was what needed to be done. It’s not a black or white issue here at all; it’s one city united, working together for the good of the children and the citizens of Franklin, Virginia. We took an oath to do that.”

Johnson added that removing and replacing the current school board is just a short-term solution, and ideally, in the long term, he would like to see the school board become an elected body rather than one appointed by city council.

Prior to the council’s meeting in closed session, several citizens spoke about the deficit during citizens’ time, including two members of school board: Will Councill and Bob Holt. Both prefaced their statements with disclaimers that they were speaking as private citizens and not in their official capacity as board members since officially the board declined to attend.

Council said that he and the board were working to get to the bottom of the deficit issue, that he was unaware of the latest documentation from the Virginia Department of Education, which may or may not show the division’s expenditures exceeding their revenues by approximately $1.6 million, and that the board was working hard to make things right.

Holt spoke of his past tenure on the board from 1993-1999 when Franklin High School was designated a blue ribbon school and was in the top five percent of high schools in the nation, and claimed he had to ask numerous times for a copy of the division’s budget since his appointment in July, 2015, before he finally received one in November, 2015.

Faith Atkinson, who has been employed with Franklin City Public Schools since 1972, also spoke during citizens’ time and urged the council to do everything in their power and within the limits of the law to correct the Franklin school system.

Ed Pickup, a pastor, used his citizen’s time to urge the council not be too quick to come to the rescue with more money to resolve the deficit, and to weigh what state law says about fiscal responsibility against the school division.

According to Martin, the resolution does not negate the current $480,000+ deficit the school division is carrying and council will have to take action at some point to resolve the issue, but since fiscal year 2015-16 ended June 30, there is no immediate deadline for doing so. The council will likely wait until the completion of their audit of the board, which will likely be concluded in late November or early December.