Cut off at the pass

It is Saturday morning in the freshman's cafeteria of Edgewater High School in College Park. From the looks of things, the few people in the room would rather be anywhere else but here for the last of seven public meetings meant to gather complaints about the largest government in Central Florida, Orange County Public Schools.

In fact, most people are elsewhere. Though the cafeteria has room for several hundred people, only 12 are in the audience. Two of them are school board employees, one is a city commissioner and another is a bored-looking technician taping the meeting.

Citizens weren't the only ones who stayed home. Seven of 13 committee members didn't bother to attend, either.

What happened? How come so few people chose to address arguably the most important civic problem facing Orange County taxpayers -- how to improve the reputation of the school board so that it can win over voters and increase their share of much-needed tax dollars?

Doug Guetzloe, who co-chaired the committee, blamed poor turnout on the school district's failed promise to promote the meetings. "Right off the bat, they tried to cut the feet out from under us," he says. "There was no promotion. No advertising. No Orange TV. The way you get people to these things is to promote it."

It wasn't supposed to be this way when Schools Superintendent Ron Blocker formed the 13-member committee last spring. Called the Accountability and Responsibility Advisory Committee, its task wasn't to lobby for a sales-tax increase. It was to collect citizen input on how to make the school board more accountable, which in turn might give taxpayers more confidence in voting for a sales-tax increase. The district expects a $1.3 billion shortfall in construction expenses in the next decade.

As it is, the Orange County district, with 20,000 employees and an operating budget of $953 million, is one of the few in Central Florida unable to win more tax dollars for its schools. The reason: The district has a reputation for misspending money and equipment, and for officials afraid to make decisions, preferring to delegate the responsibility to paid consultants.

Blocker, hired last year, was supposed to help the district turn the corner. He forced out three managers in the district's facilities department, though school officials were quick to point out the managers' infractions were one-time, non-criminal: They'd failed to follow district procedures.

To the surprise of many, Blocker formed the accountability committee with an eye toward persuading the public that the district had reformed. It isn't often government officials actually solicit public opinion; usually they assume they already know what's best.

Then a strange thing happened. The school board decided it also wanted to transform itself into a traveling committee, ostensibly to receive input from and lobby the public on a sales-tax increase. Yet the school board conducted its meetings much differently than Blocker's committee. It was much more the old-school way of conducting a public input meeting. A district employee gave a 15-minute presentation of the district's financial problems. Citizens were limited to a five-minute statement. There was no Q&A, though school board members often felt compelled to rebut the information provided by citizens.

What's more, the school board scheduled three of its meetings -- on Sept. 19, Oct. 3 and Oct. 10 -- on the same nights as the accountability committee's public hearings. (The latter rescheduled its Oct. 3 and Oct. 10 sessions in light of the New York and Washington, D.C. terrorist attacks.)

Even so, the scheduling conflicts confused residents who wanted to attend both. "It seems you are sending a mixed message early on in this arduous process," Martha Lopez-Anderson wrote to school board members last month.

School district spokesman Joe Mittiga said a number of factors played a role in the low turnout at the accountability committee sessions. "I think we started out well, but a lot of things changed after Sept. 11," he said. The budget didn't allow for widespread advertising, he said; moreover, because the district doesn't own a truck outfitted for remote broadcasting, putting the itinerant sessions on television was impractical. But the district did send fliers home with the district's 153,000 students. And the district's website provided information and collected messages for the committee. "We're not flowing with cash," said Mittiga, a former aide to mayors Glenda Hood and Bill Frederick. "We relied on our friends in the media, word of mouth, and we faxed some information."

Why didn't the school board wait until after the accountability committee made its recommendations before scheduling its own meetings? "I wasn't privy to their logic," says Mittiga.

Nobody, it seems, can answer that question. (The Weekly tried to contact several school board members, but none were available at press time.)

Dick Batchelor, who co-chaired the accountability committee's meeting with Guetzloe, agrees with Mittiga that the scheduling conflicts were unintentional.

"The superintendent and school board members are anxious to hear our recommendations," he said.

If there was an intention to undercut the committee's effectiveness, it didn't work. The few speakers who did come forward were allowed to talk as long as they wanted, and the committee asked a number of questions to draw out comments -- two allowances almost unheard of in Orange County government.

Indeed, the committee discussed school issues down to the smallest detail, including information on whether it's more prudent to buy or lease portable trailers. The number of consultants the district hires. Whether the construction bidding process is competitive enough. Whether school board members should be encouraged to resign and run again for re-election. And whether the district should be divided into two or more districts (which would require an amendment to the state constitution).

A group of eight Central Florida business leaders presented a letter identifying four priorities the school board should acknowledge if it wants more tax money. Among them: Institute a communication plan. Include safeguards with a ballot referendum. And create an independent review board that could help privatize non-teaching jobs.

The sessions were also an opportunity for school officials to rebut myths held by some citizens. After a speaker claimed that the district employed nearly 80,000 administrators, Mittiga said the figure was more like 20,000 and provided information that showed Orange County's administrator-to-teacher ratio was better than three counties in Central Florida. Orange County also had a better ratio than large counties such as Duval and Hillsborough.

Accountability committee members will wade through the information they've gathered at two meetings at the Educational Leadership Center, the school district's headquarters. They will present their findings and recommendations to Blocker and the school board at a later school board meeting.

"I hope they welcome and initiate some of our recommendations," Batchelor says.

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