5 Things To Know from Joint City Council/ Charter School Board Meeting (Apr. 24)

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On Monday evening, the city council and the city's municipal charter school authority governing board held their second joint meeting of the year at City Hall.

The focus of the latest meeting was to review recommended best practices created by city staff in hopes of creating a long term sustainablity for the school system while addressing the recent financial concerns brought forward in a recent analysis report.The meeting had its share of emotional moments and candid conversations as tempers boiled over at times during the meeting.

Below are five things of note from that meeting.


City Manager presents over 50 recommended best practices

The meeting began with City Manager John Szerlag and city staff presenting 57 best practices recommendations from the city's finance, human resources, and IT departments, as well as the City Clerk's Office.

Among the best practices recommended by the city were bringing the school system into the city's email system, have the city council approve the school system's annual budget in June rather than during the city cycle of September, have a quarterly review of its investment policies, purchase a timekeeping system for school employees.

There was no disagreement amongst either the city council or the governing board regarding the overall recommendations made in the presentation.

However, one recommendation made by the city regarding treating the school system as a "city department" for its financial policies and procedures raised concerns from some on the dais.


Should city council take over governing the charter school system?

Reacting to the idea of the school system's finances being treated as a city department, council member Marilyn Stout said for her to go along with that plan, the structure of those who oversee the school system would have to change, "The only way I would look at it as acting as a department is if this city council acted as the board that made the decisions. That to me is primary."

Stout went on to explain that she felt it was in the best interest of the city that if that restructuring were to take place, a separate board should not be responsible for making those decisions.

Council Member John Carioscia agreed with Stout saying he was strongly for the city council taking over the reins of the school system with the current governing board serving in an advisory position.

Mayor Marni Sawicki also supported the transition saying the board should be made up of elected officials rather than appointed ones.

However, council member Richard Leon opposed such a move, saying moving in that direction was not about what was best for the school system but, rather fitting some's agenda, "I think it is an easy cop out and isn't the right path."

Agreeing with Leon, council member Rana Erbrick stated she was strongly opposed to the city council taking over, and she felt the governing board should be given the latitude to run the school system, "Best practices needs to go to the governing board and superintendent to work out implementation. I am fine with handing over subsidy for the time being to get through the process. Unlike others up here, I have confidence in them."

Council Member Rick Williams also sided with leaving the governing board in place saying the city's charter school system is one of the best-run school systems's in the country and changing directions would not make sense.


City subsidizing services provided to school system

In addition to the proposed recommendations, Szerlag also explained that the cost to provide the current level of services from the city to the school system amounts to $511,825 annually. Of that, the city subsidizes $257,908.

Szerlag went on to explain that if the city were to implement the recommended best practices, that cost of service would require five new full-time employees and increase the contribution from the city for those services to over $600,000.

According to Chapter 26 of the Cape Coral Charter, the charter school system can seek outside sources to conduct services provided by the city. However, the city has the right to require the charter school system to use city departments and personnel for services such as human resources, purchasing, administrative, accounting, financial, engineering, risk management, construction, repair and maintenance, insurance and other related services from the city.

Szerlag told the city council that while the city has the power to require the school system to use city departments, it has always allowed the school system to seek other resources if it chooses.


Mayor storms out of meeting

Monday night's joint meeting between the city council and the municipal charter school authority governing board was, to say the least, an emotional one.

The meeting hit the peak of that emotion when a visibly angry Mayor Marni Sawicki abruptly walked out of the proceedings.

Sawicki's departure happened after council member Rana Erbrick called a "point of order" during a verbal back and forth between Sawicki and governing board member Robert Zivkovic.

At issue during the exchange between Sawicki and Zivkovic was recent dissension between the city council and school governing board.

Zivkovic criticized the mayor and city council for their actions over the past year that he said, has hampered the governing board's ability to focus on the education of its students.

Sawicki responded, saying it was time to clear the air and took Zivkovic and the rest of the governing board for what she felt was their lack of questioning then superintendent Nelson Stephenson's motivation in going to the media and social media regarding concerns that the mayor was on a mission to have him fired. Sawicki says she still doesn’t understand why Stephenson went public after what she felt was a productive meeting between the two in September of last year, "I would like to know what changed," Sawicki asked Zivkovic.

Zivkovic responded saying when he asked Stephenson his reasons behind going public with his issues with the mayor that he was told by Stephenson it was due to the public records requests she had made regarding the hiring process for both he and Oasis High School principal Shannon Treece.

At that point, Erbrick spoke up saying the conversation was inappropriate, to which Sawicki responded that this was the only place she could have this conversation with the governing board, referencing Sunshine Laws. Undeterred, Erbrick cut Sawicki off by calling a "Point of Order" to the meeting.

After a brief exchange between Sawicki and a member of the audience, council member Richard Leon reminded the mayor that there was a "point of order" on the floor.

Sawicki then stood up and said pointing to Leon and Erbrick, "All of you continue to do what you do so great, which you do on Facebook."

She then handed the gavel to Mayor Pro Tem Rick Williams and exited the room making comments to Leon and Erbrick as she left. According to a post on his Facebook page, Leon says Sawicki called him a "dumb-ass" before leaving the room.


In conclusion

The meeting began to wind down with council member Jim Burch trying to bring composure back to the meeting saying while he understood what the mayor was trying to relate to the governing board, both sides have plenty of blame to share in the current poor relationship between the city and the charter school system, "I see a bunch of obstinate children trying to deal with one another and getting nowhere at all. Let's try getting this thing back on track."

Burch added that he felt the recommendations presented at the meeting were very good and sets a solid groundwork to bring sustainability to the school system, and put the focus back on the children where it should be.

Szerlag closed the meeting stating he will now work to incorporate the recommended best practices with the superintendent of the school system. He added that the best practices laid out at Monday night's meeting cannot be implemented without hiring additional personnel. He also asked that the city council consider approving the annual budget for the school system in June rather than wait until September, and recommended the current subsidy provided by the city for its services to the school system stay the same for the short term future.