City of Franklin: 2016 in review

Published 11:55 am Saturday, December 31, 2016

The year 2016 was certainly an eventful one for the city of Franklin, and especially so for Franklin’s municipal government and Franklin City Public Schools, which made headlines both locally and regionally throughout the year.

In January, the Virginia Board of Education granted partial accreditation to S.P. Morton Elementary School and J.P. King Jr. Middle School, putting the schools on track to receive full accreditation within three years.

In February, The U.S. District Court Eastern District of Virginia dismissed a lawsuit against the City of Franklin filed by Franklin resident Kenneth Sanford, who, at the time, was running for mayor of the city. The lawsuit centered on the city’s confiscation of Sanford’s Chevy Tahoe for unpaid taxes.

  1. Audit reveals internal control issues with city school board. Also in February, an auditing firm working on behalf of Franklin’s city council found several problems with Franklin City Public Schools’ internal controls, all of which were considered to be a moderate or high-risk level. The firm, Davis & Associates, presented its report during a city council meeting so the council could complete its financial statement audit for fiscal year 2015.

Five specific issues the firm identified were a lack of segregation of duties, oversight over financial transactions, significant deficiency in internal controls, budget activities and procurement of services. The school board refuted the auditors’ claims and said no corrective action was necessary in March.

  1. Attorney General’s opinion contradicts school board policy. In April, Attorney General Mark Herring ruled that the policy regarding “citizen’s time” at Franklin’s school board meetings was in violation of a citizen’s first amendment right, freedom of speech. The policy had prohibited speakers from discussing specific personnel or student concerns during the public session, but could be invited into the closed session to do so provided they sign up to speak in closed session on these topics. Permission to speak before the board in closed session was granted at the discretion of the board and speakers were prohibited from engaging in personal attacks against employees of the school system or other persons.

The ruling came after The Tidewater News investigated the issue and ultimately brought it to the attention of Del. Rick Morris, who asked Herring to issue an opinion.

  1. Rabil wins mayor’s seat. Frank Rabil won Franklin’s mayoral election in May. Former mayor Raystine Johnson-Ashburn was not an official candidate on the ballot, but did receive a number of write-in votes. Another big victory went to Linwood Johnson, earning him the Ward 4 seat. Ward 3 representative Greg McLemore, who was also in the running for mayor, received 314 votes to Rabil’s 1,091. Johnson-Ashburn received 63 votes.

Current incumbents in Ward 1 and Ward 2, Barry Cheatham and Benny Burgess, were also elected to serve another term on council in non-contested elections.

  1. PDCCC names new president. Dr. Daniel Lufkin, then-vice president for student affairs at Thomas Nelson Community College, was selected as Paul D. Camp Community College’s new president in mid-May, and assumed his new post in early July. He replaces Dr. William C. Aiken, who has served as PDCCC’s interim president since April 2015.
  2. Franklin School Board reports $480,000 deficit. The Franklin School Board admitted to overspending its operating budget for fiscal year 2016 by approximately $480,000 at the Oct. 3 school board meeting, and made plans to ask Franklin’s city council to re-appropriate funds previously requested for fiscal year 2017 capital improvements to balance the school budget.

Franklin Mayor Frank Rabil said failure to resolve the budget deficit could negatively impact the City of Franklin’s bond and credit rating, since city council is tasked with funding the school board.

“It is disappointing because in June of this year right before the end of [the school board’s] fiscal year, which ends on June 30, it was reported that they only spent 92 percent of their budget, and they potentially had a carryover of around $300,000 unspent,” Rabil said. “Come September, they find that they’re $480,000 over; not under, over. You’re talking about a mistake of nearly three quarters of a million dollars.”

According to school board member Bob Holt, the superintendent’s office’s official explanation at the time for the deficit was that a new finance employee made a clerical error, but Holt was surprised no one caught the mistake earlier.

  1. Western Tidewater coping with Matthew. Hurricane Matthew’s visit this past October certainly made itself remembered in Western Tidewater. The Blackwater River crested high enough to cover the roadway on Second Avenue before the bridge.

Both the fishing pier and steps at Barrett’s Landing were underwater, as was a large portion of Broad Street near South Street.

The Route 58 interchange at Armory Drive closed due to flooding on 58E. Road blocks were set up and traffic was being rerouted.

  1. Franklin cancer rates higher than state, national average. Data from the National Cancer Institute shows Franklin’s cancer rates are higher than both the state and national averages, and have been on the rise since 2009.

Over the five-year period from 2009 to 2013, the city saw its cancer diagnoses rise to 556 per 100,000 people, which is approximately 26 percent higher than the state average of 424 and 19 percent higher than the national average of 448.

  1. Council demands school board’s resignation. 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.

  1. Franklin School Board terminates superintendent, then resigns. Following a brief debate in closed session held in the school board chambers of city hall, Franklin’s school board voted unanimously to terminate Supt. Dr. Willie J. Bell’s contract with the school division without cause, effective Nov. 7.

Bell will receive a severance package of his full salary plus benefits for 120 days.

The board also voted unanimously to name Kelvin Edwards Sr., the division’s director of teaching, learning and accountability, as interim superintendent.

By 9:05 p.m. Nov. 7, all members of the board had tendered their resignations to city council, meeting the deadline established by council in a resolution adopted Nov. 1.

  1. New Franklin school board holds first meeting. The newly appointed members of the Franklin City Public Schools school board held their first meeting Monday, Dec. 20 in the council chamber of city hall. The meeting began at 6 p.m. in closed session and then went into open session, during which time the board elected a new chair and vice chair.

Bob Holt, the board’s ward six representative, was elected chairman, and Dr. Andrea Hall-Leonard, who represents ward three, was elected vice chair.

Editor’s note: This article was updated on Jan. 3 to correct an error about the election for mayor.  In the Jan. 1 edition, the article reviewing news in Franklin during 2016 stated “Frank Rabil won Franklin’s mayoral election in a landslide in May, defeating incumbent Mayor Raystine Johnson-Ashburn.” Although she did receive a number of write-in votes, she was not an official candidate on the ballot.