COVID-19 Hits School Schedules and Budgets Hard, Election Battles in Delray, and More

COVID-19

Palm Beach County is about to debate an old topic from a new angle: the first day of school and the COVID-19 pandemic.

School district administrators want the 2021-22 academic year to begin on Aug. 10, the first day allowable under state law. That prospect angers parents who believe that it would cut into summer camp and other activities, presuming that public health developments would allow a normal schedule.

Because the pandemic pushed back this year’s first day of classes, the Aug. 10 date would mean a shorter summer break overall. But administrators worry that at-risk students will fall back even more the longer summer break lasts from a cascade of delays in their return to normal. Some of those students may not have been in a classroom since March 2020.

You can see this shaping up as a regional and class controversy. Students in Boca Raton, who tend to come from more affluent households, signed on for distance learning last spring at much higher rates than students from poorer families. They also are more likely to have gone back to campus this year, which everyone agrees benefits students most. Their parents probably want the later start date.

Yet in Delray Beach and other cities with significant minority populations, parents may believe that earlier would better. The virus has affected communities of color at much higher rates. Fewer of those parents are able to work from home.

Even before the pandemic, research showed that a year-round calendar—with more, but shorter, breaks—would help most students. The less time between classes, the greater the retention and the less the risk of “summer slide.”

Culturally, though, Americans are used to that long summer break. “My constituents don’t want year-round schools,” said board member Karen Brill. She wants classes to start in the third week of August. Administrators counter that such a schedule would push first-semester exams after Christmas.

Districtwide, however, that rich-poor disparity is real and will continue until the pandemic begins to subside and/or more people become vaccinated. “We always had the ‘summer slide,'” Board Chairman Frank Barbieri told me. “Now we have the ‘COVID slide’ and the ‘distance learning slide.'”

The district identified 22,000 students—about 13 percent of the county’s total—who have been on distance learning and now are “lagging.” Officials can’t order those students back to campus, but all parents got notes encouraging it.

Last week was the deadline for parents to decide whether their children will learn at home or in classrooms for the second semester that begins on Feb. 2. That number could be important in many ways.

Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, who wants all students to return, seems to have decided that the state will not withhold money for each student who stays home, but Brill says, “We don’t really know.” Barbieri said the district has “set aside” between $40 million and $50 million, just in case.

Either way, budget problems loom.

Florida faces a roughly $2 billion gap for next year. Despite the potential damage to students, legislative leaders say that cuts to education are inevitable.

According to a district spokeswoman, Palm Beach County will get about $157 million from the second COVID-19 relief bill. Some of that, however, will go to charter schools. And the district will hold back some for the 2022-23 budget. She also confirmed that there is “no expectation” that the district won’t lost money for enrollment dropoff next year.

A sensible plan would have been for Gov. DeSantis to prioritize vaccines for teachers and for Corcoran to determine what districts need to get every student back to class this fall. But DeSantis prioritized older Floridians and has refused to enact any measures that might reduce the virus spread.

So on Wednesday school board members will debate when to start the year while they wait for answers. And the pandemic harm to many students will continue.

Delray election battles take shape

Battle lines in the Delray Beach election are clearer with release of the candidates’ latest fundraising reports.

Officially, city commissioners Ryan Boylston and Adam Frankel and Tracy Caruso—who is challenging Mayor Shelly Petrolia—are not running as a slate. But the donations confirm that Boylston, Frankel and Caruso are aligned against Petrolia, former Commissioner Mitch Katz and Price Patton.

Katz is challenging Boylston in Seat 3. That’s a rematch from 2018. Patton is going against Frankel in Seat 1. Petrolia has threatened publicly to unseat Boylston and Frankel because they voted against her on key issues. Most notably, they opposed the suspension of former City Manager George Gretsas that led to his firing.

The December reports of Katz and Patton show $1,000 contributions to each from Ken MacNamee, a commission gadfly who is a close ally of Petrolia and Commissioner Julie Casale. Petrolia recruited Casale to run last year against Bill Bathurst, who also had opposed the mayor on major issues.

In addition, Katz and Patton got $500 from John Barrette. He is married to Kelly Barrette, an active social media voice and another Petrolia ally. Patton and his wife, Carolyn Patton, previously had donated $1,000 each to Petrolia. 

Meanwhile, Boylston and Caruso received $100 from Yvonne Odom, a longtime activist in Delray Beach’s minority neighborhoods and known more recently to the wider public as the grandmother of tennis prodigy Coco Gauff. Four years ago, Petrolia and Katz repeatedly voted against choosing Odom to fill out the commission term of Al Jacquet, who had moved on to the Florida House.

Caruso also got $100 from Chuck Ridley. A member of the West Atlantic Redevelopment Coalition, Ridley strongly opposed the abolition of the independent community redevelopment agency board that Petrolia engineered just after becoming mayor in 2018. Petrolia and Casale refused to approve the updated redevelopment plan for West Atlantic Avenue until the coalition’s name had been expunged.

Boylston had the best December of any candidate, raising $30,000. He has the usual large donors, but his list totals almost 100 contributors, many of whom gave small amounts. Boylston previously had loaned his campaign $10,000. Katz has raised about $6,000, including a $500 loan.

Frankel had a strong December, receiving $22,500. That gives him almost $35,000. Patton took in about $10,000. He started his campaign in November with a $10,000 loan.

As for the mayor’s race, both candidates dropped down from big totals in November. Petrolia raised $7,300 in December, giving her a total of almost $92,000. That includes a $50,000 loan. Caruso brought in $23,000, bringing her total to $101,000. She has loaned her campaign $51,000.

The police union is backing Caruso, Boylston and Frankel. So are most of the usual business donors. Ocean Properties bundled $1,000 contributions for Boylston and Frankel. Restaurant companies are significant donors.

Boylston and Frankel each got $1,000 from Match Point, promoter of the annual Delray Beach Open tennis tournament. Both approved the settlement of the city’s lawsuit against Match Point. Katz has criticized Boylston over that decision. Boylston counters that the deal will save the city millions while allowing the tournament to continue as promotion for the city.

Donations will drive campaign themes. Caruso continues to get money from political action committees that normally focus on the Legislature. Caruso is married to State Rep. Mike Caruso, whose district includes coastal Delray Beach.

Petrolia thus will continue to portray Caruso as someone controlled by outside interests with no ties to the city. Caruso will respond by criticizing Petrolia-inspired turmoil at City Hall. The latest recent purge included some Gretsas hires, including Assistant City Manager Allyson Love.

Katz and Patton will criticize the incumbents as beholden to the establishment. That’s what you do when the money and the endorsements go to the other side. Boylston and Katz will respond that they got those donations and endorsements because they want stability, just as business owners do.

With no elections scheduled for next year, the commission to emerge from the March 9 vote will choose the next supposedly permanent manager, deal with litigation from the last two managers and oversee whatever role the city plays in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and Delray Beach’s recovery from the pandemic. There’s a lot at stake.

Delray docket

delray

The Delray Beach City Commission will hold two meetings today. The first, at 2 p.m., will be a discussion of how to choose the next city manager. At the 4 p.m. regular meeting, the commission likely will give final approval to the changes for The Linton, Menin Development’s project to convert a commercial building on Linton Boulevard just west of Dixie Highway to residential.

Staples & Office Depot

Staples is coming after Office Depot again.

Last week, Staples offered $2.1 billion—or $40 per share—for Boca Raton-based Office Depot. Staples is the country’s  largest office-supply retailer. Office Depot is second.

Staples tried to buy Office Depot four years ago, for $6.3 billion. The Federal Trade Commission opposed the deal, arguing that it would discourage competition and thus raise prices. After a judge sided with the FTC in a preliminary hearing, Staples withdrew the offer.

The private equity firm Sycamore Partners, which is based in New York and has $15 billion in assets under management, since has acquired Staples. In addition, Amazon has taken an even bigger share of the market. If Office Depot’s board favors the sale, the two companies could argue that only the merger will save them from online retailers.

Office Depot has had as many as 2,000 employees at its headquarters on Military Trail near Clint Moore Road. Staples is based in Massachusetts, so a sale likely would mean that many—if not all—of those jobs would go.

Nothing will happen soon. Presidential administrations are changing, and regulators may take as long as six months to review the proposal.

Lauzier lawsuit

I mentioned those lawsuits against Delray Beach by former city officials. The one from Mark Lauzier, who claims that he wrongly fired in March 2019, has been scheduled for trial between April 26 and May 21.

That schedule, however, will depend on the pace of jury trials resuming. The pandemic cancelled them for much of last year. The 15th Judicial Circuit website shows trials scheduled through February.