School Funds Under Scrutiny and Boca Gets a New Assistant City Manager

Person depositing money in a pink piggy bank on top of books with chalkboard in the background as concept image of the costs of education

A controversial ruling by the 4th District Court of Appeal could undercut the 2018 referendum that voters approved to help the Palm Beach County School District.

The four-year referendum quadrupled an existing property tax that went toward operating expenses—specifically to hire arts and other specialty teachers—and was due to expire. For a home valued at $400,000, the annual payment increased from $100 to $400.

Most of the money went to boost teacher salaries and thus reduce turnover, especially among younger teachers. The rest went to retain the existing specialty teachers and to hire more school police officers. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting happened in April 2018. The Legislature gave districts some money but not enough for Palm Beach County to meet the new state mandate.

The ballot language noted that the money would be for “non-charter schools.” Two charter schools objected, demanding a share of the money. They lost at trial. In April 2020, a three-judge panel of the appellate court also ruled that the language had been legal.

But the plaintiffs sought a hearing before the full, 12-member court. Last month, in a 7-4 decision with one judge recusing himself, the majority “substituted” its opinion for the previous ruling and determined that the ballot language violated state law. The judges remanded the case to Palm Beach County Circuit Court Judge Glenn Kelley.

What might happen now? District officials say the annual transfer would be roughly $22 million. Kelley could order the district to give the charters money over the life of the tax, through the 2022-23 academic year. He could order the districts to give the charters money over the second two years, after the appellate ruling took effect.

The school board also could appeal to the Florida Supreme Court. Given the ideological makeup of most justices, however, the district likely would lose.

Indeed, most of those seven judges are appointees of Govs. Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis. Both favor charters over traditional public schools and made clear that they wanted judges who adhered to “school-choice” philosophy.

You can see that divide in the ruling. Three judges in the majority—all of whom were appointed before Scott took office—wrote concurring opinions. A judge in the minority wrote a concurring opinion.

In his dissent, Judge Robert Gross used wording that is unusually strong for the 4th DCA. “The majority,” he wrote, “has fabricated an invalid and unauthorized remedy by hijacking the en banc (full hearing) process, ignoring binding precedent, and acting not as a court of law bound by age-old legal precepts, but as a political body governed by the principle of majority rule.” The seven justices, he said, had used a “Jedi mind trick.”

School Board Chairman Frank Barbieri said any shift of money could affect union contracts that the board approved based on getting all the revenue. If voters renew the tax in 2022, the bookkeeping now could be a test run. The Legislature already required that charter schools get a cut from future ballot items.

Delray complaint status

Last fall, the Delray Beach City Commission voted to ask for an investigation of Mayor Shelly Petrolia for issuing orders to city staff. Under the city charter, the mayor and commissioners can’t do that.

So what has happened? No one seems sure.

Any involvement by the Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics or Office of Inspector General would have to start with a complaint. It won’t come from the city’s legal staff. City Attorney Lynn Gelin said, correctly, “The commission indicated they did not want staff involved in the process.”

In this case, the commission means Ryan Boylston, Adam Frankel and Shirley Johnson, who made up the majority. Petrolia obviously voted no. So did Juli Casale, Petrolia’s reliable ally. 

On Wednesday, Frankel said he and the others didn’t want to risk “retaliation” by Petrolia against any staff members who filed the complaint for the city. The vote arose out of a text message from Interim City Manager Jennifer Alvarez to Gelin. Alvarez complained that Petrolia was giving her “directives.”

Individual commissioners can file complaints. Petrolia did so as a commissioner, accusing her colleagues of paying too much for lifeguard stands. The inspector general’s office found nothing to substantiate her claim.

Boylston said he also doesn’t know where the complaint stands. Frankel referenced an email in which Tracy Caruso, who lost to Petrolia in last week’s election, said the ethics commission is investigating Petrolia. Residents can file complaints. But the commission and the inspector general’s office don’t comment on complaints until they find reason to proceed or to dismiss them.

The accusation remains out there. Before Tuesday’s vote to certify the election results, a rumor went out of an attempt to unseat Petrolia because of the alleged violation. Nothing happened.

Boylston, Frankel and Johnson could settle things by filing a joint complaint. If they don’t, that vote will have been only symbolic.

Conversion therapy affected?

Last month, the U.S. House passed legislation that would add LGBTQ protections to civil rights and labor laws. This area’s two representatives, Democrats Ted Deutch and Lois Frankel, voted yes.

One provision in the bill could affect a legal fight involving Boca Raton and Palm Beach County. Each has banned conversion therapy on minors. The practice, which mainstream psychologists consider junk science, seeks to change a child’s sexual orientation.

I asked Deutch’s communications aide if the bill bans conversion therapy. “Not explicitly,” he said, “but it would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity as the federal government does for race, religion, sex, national origin under the Civil Rights Act.”

He quoted from the bill: “The discredited practice known as ‘conversion therapy’ is a form of discrimination that harms LGBTQ people by undermining individuals’ sense of self worth, increasing suicide ideation and substance abuse, exacerbating family conflict, and contributing to second-class status.”

The Liberty Counsel, which represents those who practice conversion therapy, clearly believes that the legislation would end the practice. “The so-called ‘Equality Act,'” the group said in a statement, “not only threatens the free exercise of religion and free speech, but it will also be used to prevent people of all ages who struggle with unwanted same-sex attractions, behavior, or gender confusion from getting the counseling they desire.”

Two plaintiffs sued Boca Raton and the county, seeking a preliminary injunction against the ban. The city and country won at trial and but lost before a panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and they are waiting to hear on their request for a hearing before the full court.

The legislation still must pass the Senate.

Gibson named Assistant City Manager

Boca Raton just took the first step toward planning for the next generation of upper management.

Effective Monday, Communications and Marketing Director Chrissy Gibson will become assistant city manager. She will continue to supervise her current staff and will oversee the Mizner Park Amphitheater and the city’s risk management department.

Leif Ahnell has been city manager since 1999. For the last 17 years, he and deputy city managers George Brown and Mike Woika have formed the city’s administrative hierarchy. Ahnell supervises finance and public safety. Brown oversees development projects. Woika handles daily operations, such as utilities and sanitation.

That unchanging cast over nearly two decades is unprecedented among the county’s large cities. The three men have roughly a century of experience with the city. But Ahnell can retire as early as next year and must leave by 2024. Brown and Woika are nearing retirement age.

Delray Beach shows what can happen when cities don’t make succession plans. David Harden retired in 2012 after almost 20 years as city manager. Since then, the city has had four permanent managers and three interims, the latest being Alvarez.

Boca Raton added the assistant job in the 2019-20 budget, but the pandemic pushed back the hiring. Gibson joined the city in 2010, acting as community relations manager for the amphitheater, which the city had taken over. The Boca Raton native and Florida Atlantic University graduate got her present position in 2015.

Restaurant update

reopening

After the pandemic shut down restaurants last St. Patrick’s Day, I began following Ron and Rhonda Weisheit, owners of Twentytwenty Grille in Royal Palm Plaza. I wanted to follow the effort of a small restaurant trying to survive.

On St. Patrick’s Day 2021, Rhonda Weisheit emailed her patrons to express thanks “for your genuine support of us! You stepped up to everything that (Ron the chef) ‘dished out,’ you generously took care of our servers, you supported us with gift certificate purchases, heartfelt emails and phone calls, and now your reservations are pouring in. You kept us safe from ever closing our doors!”

In an email, Rhonda said they still usually open just one of their inside tables. “The weather is absolutely gorgeous right now, and our courtyard is so alive and inviting. I have no idea what is going on, although we will happily take it.

“Every night is like a Saturday night. Right now, I know that the vaccine is definitely helping. We are seeing guests that haven’t been to a restaurant for a year. A ton of new people that just moved to the area and travelers and our amazing locals. We are looking into an open air conditioning system so not to lose outdoor seating!”

Rhonda and Ron started Twentytwenty Grille in January 2014. They were headed toward a record year in, appropriately enough, 2020. Let us hope that a record year still awaits for them and all the other restaurant owners and workers in our area.