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Mary Fischer
Mary Fischer
Robert Chilmonik
Steven K. Teuber

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The infighting on the Lee County school board has come to a head.

Multiple investigations launched by school board members the past two months, along with a state investigation of the district’s top administrators, have left board members focused on issues that don’t necessarily concern students.

Various sides have said the bickering and backbiting needs to stop so education leaders can focus on educating children. And yet the infighting continues.

Disagreements on the school board have typically come down to a 3-2 vote, with chairman Mary Fischer, Tom Scott and Don Armstrong on one side and Jeanne Dozier and Cathleen Morgan on the other. Votes are traditionally split when it comes to Superintendent Joseph Burke. The last five votes to investigate allegations against Burke have failed by 3-2 votes.

“It’s a cauldron of infighting down there,” said Bob Chilmonik, a former school board member who served from 2002-2010. “It will stop at some point, but I’m afraid that somebody will lose their seat over this.”

Past school boards were known to “rubber stamp” and there were more often 4-1 or 5-0 votes, so it is healthy to see a new board that has shown independence with 3-2 votes, Chilmonik said.

But for some school board members, investigations and conflicts are nothing new.

“Investigations happened when I was on the school board,” said Chilmonik, noting another board member filed an ethics complaint against him. “This isn’t uncommon what’s been going on. I think what you have right now is a board with three members who have taken what they feel is the best path and that’s keeping Burke in place, and I agree with that.”

Investigations

The school board faces two investigations. The largest one involves allegations Burke mismanaged funds and closed an active employee investigation. The state department of education’s inspector general will be sending investigators to the district to look into those allegations.

A representative from DOE’s communications department said investigators are in the information-gathering stage and a date hasn’t been set for when they will visit the county.

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Burke announced his decision to retire in June in a March 25 memo to board members. However, he has stated his decision depends on outcome of medical tests for him and his wife.

The issues have caused conflict on the board. The second investigation was prompted by board member Scott when he requested the inspector general investigate Dozier for fraud and bullying.

“Mr. Scott’s letter contained allegations of violations of criminal law,” Kassandra Elekes, a representative from DOE’s cffice of communications and external affairs, said in an email. “After discussing the details of the allegations with (Florida Department of Law Enforcement), they recommended that we refer this case to them.”

A representative from FDLE said the department is looking into Scott’s allegations.

A third request from Dozier to investigate each of the school board members for ethics violations from the date they were first elected has also been sent to the inspector general. The board voted 3-2, with Fischer and Morgan’s support, to ask for the investigation in March. That request was forwarded to the Florida Commission on Ethics by the inspector general.

However, in an April 4 letter to Fischer from Inspector General Mike Blackburn, the board was advised state departments can’t send complaints on behalf of entities to the ethics commission. Board members will have to file individual complaints to the commission.

“I will be bringing it up at the Tuesday board meeting about whether or not we want to move forward,” Fischer said. “Because an individual has to make a complaint about specific allegations and each allegation has to take a separate form.”

Steven Teuber, who served on the board from 2002-2010 and is planning to run for election next year, said nothing is being done.

“It’s divided. You have two people not getting their way and you can’t put any of it on (former school board member Jane) Kuckel, or Morgan or Dozier,” Teuber said. “You can’t hang anything on them, because they’ve had no say. Everything that has happened, which is nothing, has been because of the three.”

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Teuber said there were disagreements and investigations when he was on the board but the situation was never as bad as now.

“I have never seen the lack of professional decorum like I have seen in meetings in the last two years in my entire career on any board,” he said. “We had a renegade board member and we dealt with him, but it was never disrespectful.”

Chilmonik agreed the level of attacks against board members now are different because they’re being played out in public.

“There were attacks occurring when I was on the school board, a lot were focused on me,” he said. “But it just wasn’t as public. It was behind the scenes.”

Long history

An investigation into a Lee County superintendent isn’t new and in some ways the situation Burke faces mirrors that of former Superintendent John Sanders.

After 18 months with Lee schools, Sanders was fired after an investigation launched by board members to prove he violated his contract. Sanders was replaced by Burke’s predecessor, James Browder, in 2003.

“When we came in Sanders was superintendent and he had just got hired. The previous board brought Sanders on. I didn’t know him from Adam and he was getting nothing done,” Teuber said. “My philosophy is you change the man or you change (out) the man. We gave him opportunities and he didn’t do it and then Jim came in.”

The school district is one of the largest employers in the county, which leads to outside interests trying to influence the board, said Chilmonik, noting he believes influence has contributed to the problem. The district employs nearly 10,00.

“Its people who are doing construction, selling products and services, Lee County schools has the largest food service operation south of Tampa,” he said. “… All those individuals have a vested interest, like the federal government. People have an interest in getting their way and that’s caused some problems down at the school district.”

But it’s hard to say whether Lee is any worse or better than any other school district, Teuber said.

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“You’re working with five or seven board members that all have agendas and school districts have to show performance,” he said. “Fifty percent of the tax bill is education. So people expect a lot and they’re not very tolerant. It’s like sports, if you’re not in the championship quickly, you start replacing coaches.”

Teuber said he isn’t sure if changing board demographics will eliminate the problem.

Earlier this month the board voted for a proposal to start the process of expanding its membership from five to seven members. Under the proposal, hearings and a ballot measure about what an expanded board would look like would occur in 2014 and be in place by November 2016.

Fischer, who can sometimes be the swing vote on board issues like the one backing Dozier’s ethics investigation request, said she joined to put an end to infighting and problems she saw from past members.

“I’m disappointed that we have not reached a point where we are working efficiently as a team, all five of us,” Fischer said. “When I wasn’t on the board I attended board meetings… and was in the past kind of appalled by their behavior. I thought, ‘we can do better than this and treat our staff and community better for the ultimate.’ I do still believe that.”

Connect with this reporter: @AshASmithNews

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