Saturday, September 30, 2023

Backlash Mounts Over Old School Square Debacle, School Mask Opt-Outs & More

Criticism has been fierce and swift in the week since the Delray Beach City Commission voted to end the management contract for Old School Square.

As of Monday morning, roughly 5,000 people had signed a petition calling for the commission to rescind its decision. Doing so would require Mayor Shelly Petrolia or commissioners Juli Casale and Shirley Johnson—who formed the majority—to ask for a new vote at today’s meeting. Ryan Boylston and Adam Frankel voted no. Critics of the decision expect to pack the chambers.

Meanwhile, Old School Square for the Arts—which has had the contract since creation of the cultural hub 30 years ago—sent a letter to City Manager Terrence Moore. The letter came in response to an email from Moore after the commission vote.

Moore addressed rumors that the secret agenda was to develop Old School Square. Moore, who started work two weeks ago, said, “As is evident from the public’s response, Old School Square is meaningful to many, and clearly vital to the charm and vitality of Delray Beach. This historic site will not be sold or in any way diminished.”

Nonprofit groups such as Old School Square for the Arts that receive public money, Moore said, must be “effectively and efficiently managed.” He stated that Old School Square has received more than $9 million “in subsidies” and pays $1 a year to lease the city-owned complex that includes the Crest Theater, the Cornell Museum, the Fieldhouse and the Pavilion, which is the large outdoor gathering place.

old school square

“Agencies that receive funds from the city,” Moore said, “have financial reporting responsibilities. Transparency is a requirement.” At last week’s meeting, “a majority of city commissioners expressed their dissatisfaction with the reporting as provided by Old School Square’s staff.”

Old School Square representatives were at the meeting, prepared to respond to that “dissatisfaction.” Instead, the commission voted before the public comment portion of the meeting after having given no notice that such a vote might happen.

So the letter to Moore was the response that the commission prevented Old School Square from making last week. It is a detailed response.

Of that $9 million, the letter noted, $2 million has been for capital improvements to the building and grounds. Under the lease, the city is responsible for such work because the city owns and the buildings and the land.

Moore “failed to mention,” the letter said, that Old School Square has raised “millions of dollars in private funds to renovate the campus buildings.” That work will “save the city on maintenance and system repairs costs.”

The letter took issue with the term “subsidies.” They are community redevelopment agency grants, Old School Square said, which also go to other nonprofits in Delray Beach. In normal–pre-pandemic–times, the letter said, CRA money amounts to less than one-fourth of Old School Square’s operating budget. Translation: Old School Square does not rely solely on public money. Far from it.

Old School Square’s lease “contains a multitude of reporting requirements that even the city didn’t realize were required” before requesting them last month, the response continues. Some requested documents “never even existed.” According to Old School Square, however, “All of our financial reporting requirements, historically and currently, have been addressed.”

The key issue is what happens if the termination holds. Petrolia, Casale and Johnson implied that it would be a fairly simple transition to a new group. Not hardly.

As Old School Square’s letter makes clear, the city may own the buildings but the group owns everything inside them: “This includes lighting systems, sound systems, rigging systems, seating, appliances, equipment, software, etc.” Old School Square owns the website, the marketing apparatus and the donor list.

An Old School Square representative also said the group owns the name itself. So the new, supposedly better Old School Square might have to be called something besides Old School Square.

If no new, well-financed nonprofit emerged, would the city have to take over? What would that mean?

old school square

At full operations, Old School Square’s annual budget is about $3.5 million. The city would have to complete the renovation work for Crest Theater, since the private donor would withdraw her money. So would all the other donors.

Add the cost of what it would take the city to replace all the infrastructure and the price could be nearly $10 million. Where would that come from?

Termination would require 180 days notice. If there’s no certainty about the long-range future under new management, the short-term view is the same. Moore said, “I am hopeful (emphasis mine) that performances scheduled to take place during the next six months will continue.” And does the commission want to give its new manager Old School Square to worry about?

By ending the contract, Old School Square said, “The city (would) need to start from the ground up with empty vacant buildings in order to even begin to attempt to rebuild what has taken Old School Square Center for the Arts, Inc. 30 years to create here, and that will come with a hefty price tag.”

Though Boylston opposed termination and will continue to do so, he notes that Old School Square has had problems. The last two executive directors have resigned. If the city hasn’t always been good at communicating, neither has Old School Square. But he favors a resolution that leaves the group in charge.

Joe Gillie was Old School Square’s first executive director and retired after 23 years. “We had challenges,” he said Monday. “Any nonprofit does. But I never thought that somebody was going to smack me in the head and take away what we had built.”

If the termination stands, Gillie said, “It will kill culture in Delray Beach.”

Mask opt-outs

More parents in Boca Raton than in Delray Beach are opting their children out of mask wearing in schools.

According to Palm Beach County School District reports, 528 parents at Boca Raton High sent notices Monday to exempt their children. At Atlantic High in Delray Beach, the number was just 18.

At roughly 3,500, Boca High’s student population is 1,200 more than Atlantic’s. Still, the disparity is high. One reason could be that Atlantic has many minority students, who are less likely to be vaccinated. All high-school students are old enough to receive a vaccine.

Boca High also may be an outlier. There were 154 opt-outs at Spanish River High School, 86 at Olympic Heights High and 128 at West Boca High. Countywide, almost 10,000 students out of 179,000 opted out.

Among younger students, numbers also are higher in Boca Raton. At Verde School, which this year is K-7, 164 parents didn’t have their children wear masks. That is more than the opt-outs at all four Delray Beach elementary schools–Banyan Creek, Pine Grove, Plumosa and Orchard View–combined. At Calusa Elementary in Boca Raton, 94 parents opted out, as did 103 at Addison Mizner School.

These numbers could change, based on conditions. About 1,000 Palm Beach County students had to enter COVID-19 quarantine during the first week of school. Gov. DeSantis has prohibited districts from enforcing mask mandates, and public health experts believe that the current surge won’t end for at least another 10 days.

Building safety update

Unlike Boca Raton, Delray Beach has waited for guidance from Palm Beach County on crafting an ordinance to require safety inspections of older buildings after the condo collapse in Surfside.

That guidance may come soon. At today’s meeting, the county commission will discuss a proposal worked out with the League of Cities. It recommends inspections for buildings east of Interstate 95 that are four stories or taller and at least 35 years old. West of Interstate 95, the standard would be 25 years. The standard would apply to all structures, not just condos or apartment buildings. 

At a recent city commission meeting, Petrolia expressed impatience with the county and asked whether Delray Beach should proceed on its own. Next week, the Boca Raton City Council likely will require inspections for buildings that are 30 years old and are at least 50 feet tall or have more than 500 occupants. It would exempt single-family homes and duplexes.

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Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, has been a South Florida journalist since 1974. He worked for The Miami Herald until 1976 and for The Palm Beach Post from 1976 until 2014, where he served as managing editor and editorial page editor. Since 2014, he has written a politics blog, commentaries and other articles for Boca magazine. His writing has earned first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. Randy has lived in Boca Raton with his wife, Shelley Huff-Schultz, since 1985. His son, daughter-in-law and their three children also live in Boca Raton.

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