This could be a pivotal week in the continuing story that is Old School Square.
On Wednesday, there will be an invitation-only preview for an exhibition that opens Friday at the Cornell Art Museum, which is part of Old School Square. The exhibition is called Heart of the Square—Let Our Voices Be Heard. It is designed as a statement by Old School Square to the city.
One can assume that the statement is aimed partially at Mayor Shelly Petrolia and city commissioners Juli Casale and Shirley Johnson. On Aug. 10, they voted to terminate Old School Square’s lease with the city of the buildings that became Delray Beach’s arts and cultural hub.
Old School Square was not on the agenda for the meeting at which Petrolia, Casale and Johnson ended the lease. A petition asking the commission to reconsider got roughly 10,000 signatures, but Petrolia made clear at the next meeting that she didn’t care about public opinion.
So this will be Old School Square for the Arts—which has run the complex for 32 years—making its collective appeal to the wider community.
“We want to show people how much we have done” since 1989, said Old School Square Chairwoman Patty Jones. The group decided to “activate” the Cornell to tell the history of what was “a dark, dank building” more than three decades ago. The property was fenced off.
Through the work of private citizens and with their donations, Old School Square became the catalyst for downtown Delray Beach’s revival. The group’s supporters believe that Petrolia, Casale and Johnson ignored that history. Organizers of the event include past and former Old School Square board members, donors and supporters.
Melanie Johanson is curating the exhibition. Johanson has been associated with the Cornell since 2013. The works, she said, will feature “themes of hope. We want the community to fight this fight with us.” In one room, attendees can leave written notes with memories of Old School Square.
The exhibition runs through Feb. 5. Four days later, the lease termination takes effect. This Friday, the city holds an information session, known as a bid conference, for groups wishing to run Old School Square.
According to the 130-page request for proposal, any bidder must attend Friday’s meeting and visit Old School Square. In keeping with “cone of silence” rules, bidders are not supposed to contact any city official except those in the purchasing department. The city is seeking “organizations with appropriate qualifications, experience, financial capacity and a proven track record of executing best in class campus operations and management services.”
Old School Square for the Arts has said that it will not apply to get the lease the group says the city wrongly terminated. Old School Square has filed notice that it intends to sue, but nothing has been filed.
So the exhibition may not be Old School Square’s only response to what happened in August. But the timing obviously is intentional.
Special Session called
The Legislature will meet in special session this month to restrict local governments from enacting vaccine mandates for employees. Gov. DeSantis and other Republicans seem to be selective in their targets. They apparently won’t target private companies, perhaps because many of them—such as Disney—have set their own mandates and like them.
Delray Beach requires all employees except police officers to get vaccinated or undergo weekly testing. On Monday, City Manager Terrence Moore told me that he doesn’t expect legislators to target Delray Beach’s program.
“Ours is not a mandate,” Moore said, “We provide an option.” Still, the staff did have “an internal discussion,” given the politics of the issue. Moore believes that what he calls “an initiative” will be able to continue.
Delray looks at new employee contract
On the agenda for today’s Delray Beach City Commission meeting is ratification of a new contract with the Service Employees International Union. The SEIU represents all union employees except first responders.
Notably, the contract would bring the city into compliance with the constitutional amendment that raises the minimum wage in Florida through 2026. Also notably, the contract specifies higher pay for employees at the water treatment plant. Delray Beach has had many problems recently related to the utilities department. The staff memo says such positions are especially hard to fill.
And staff pandemic payments
Another item on today’s agenda is approval of $500 payments to “ancillary staff members” for their work during the pandemic. The payments would go to 144 employees.
Commissioner Ryan Bolyston first proposed what most people would call bonuses to recognize employees who couldn’t work at home but stayed on the job because their work was essential. A snag appeared to arise, however, because of the term “bonus.” So it’s a “payment.”
Either way, it’s overdue.
Highland Beach votes on fire department
Highland Beach voters will decide today whether to create a town fire department. The estimated cost is $10 million. If voters approve the referendum, Highland Beach will end its contract with Delray Beach for fire-rescue service.
The contract runs until 2026. Either side, though, can opt out with three years notice. In May, Highland Beach formally notified Delray Beach that it intends to withdraw. The town would start its department in May 2024.
Things will be less clear if voters reject the referendum. Town commissioners claim that Highland Beach will recoup the investment within five years. They believe Delray Beach’s costs are too high and that the separation will mean better service for less money. Today, we will see whether the public agrees.
Boca Raton Historical Society Museum Reopens
Speaking of museums, on Wednesday the Boca Raton Historical Society Museum has its formal reopening. It closed early in the pandemic for structural renovations and creation of new exhibitions. The museum will offer a decade-by-decade tour of the city’s history and four rooms offering deep dives into legendary architect Addison Mizner, Boca Raton’s pioneer days as a farm community, World War II and development of the personal computer by IBM. It’s worth a trip.