Tensions Rise in School District With Classrooms Set to Reopen Next Week

school
Boca Raton Community High School

Palm Beach County’s public schools appear headed for a turbulent on-campus reopening Monday in turbulent times.

District principals last week sent Superintendent Donald Fennoy an extraordinary letter blaming him for much of that turbulence and accusing him of “overpromising” to parents. Previously, the Classroom Teachers Association had blasted the Human Resources Director Gonzalo La Cava for demanding that all faculty return to classrooms, even if they had advice from a doctor to work from home.

That criticism prompted Fennoy this week to hold a three-hour meeting with principals and to release a three-minute video essentially apologizing on both counts. He began the video by addressing his comments to “Team Palm Beach.”

School board members also took criticism for tying on-campus reopening — for parents who want to send their children—to the county’s Phase 2 reopening. Under that plan, campuses would reopen one week later. That date would have been Sept. 14, but Gov. DeSantis extended it to Monday.

School boards in Broward and Miami-Dade also said campuses would stay closed until Phase 2, but they retained discretion on when to reopen. Broward’s latest target date for a return to campus is Oct. 5.

In turn, board members have blamed Fennoy for lack of preparation and poor communication. Fennoy got the job in 2018 after his predecessor, Robert Avossa, abruptly quit. Fennoy had been Avossa’s deputy.

To complicate matters further, Palm Beach County Health Director Alina Alonso this week noted a 29 percent increase in COVID-19 cases among people 15 to 24. That’s the highest of any age bracket. Much of that, Alonso said, comes from college students. Still, more than 54,000 children in Florida have tested positive since March, with 11,600 in just the last month.

Shortly before Wednesday’s board meeting, the teachers union called for the board to fire Fennoy. I had heard that there might be such a move. If it was nascent, however, it died once the principals’ organization opposed it during the meeting. So did a business coalition that included the Greater Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Council.

Not that Fennoy got off easily. Board members kept pressing him on who will decide whether teachers can work remotely. La Cava got lots of questions and clearly didn’t satisfy all board members. And on to Monday.

“It gets noisy before it gets calm,” Fennoy said in the video. Expect much more noise.

Restarting the Arts (Garage)

After months of virtual shows, Arts Garage has reopened in Delray Beach’s Pineapple Grove. The challenges, however, aren’t going away soon.

The early stage of Phase 2 allows just 33 percent of seating. If you want a table for two, you must buy all six seats, since strangers can’t sit together. Only in Phase 3 could Arts Garage get to 50 percent. Executive Director Marjorie Waldo points out the obvious: No business model assumes that Arts Garage sells only a fraction of its seats and thrives.

So what’s been the hardest part of the last six months? “Reducing staff significantly,” said Waldo, who started almost four years ago. “We have had to really restrict spending.” And like so many businesses, whether for-profit or non-profit like Arts Garage, things had been going well before the pandemic. Almost all shows were sold out or well-attended.

The city has helped by forgiving its rent. The community redevelopment agency has continued its quarterly payments. Waldo secured a $90,000 Paycheck Protection Program loan and other grants. But Arts Garage couldn’t put on any performances.

So Waldo created “From our heARTS to your homes”—online performances by local artists who donated their time and people could watch free on YouTube. The series “lasted longer than we had hoped,” Waldo acknowledged this week.

But Arts Garage did 55 of them, and Waldo said the performances kept the organization’s presence in the public’s mind and promoted the generous artists. “It’s nothing like live,” Waldo acknowledged, “but we’re trying to stay alive.”

With the return to live performances, Arts Garage is adding livestreaming. “It’s really tough,” Waldo said, “but my team is amazing.” The free stuff ended in mid-August, Waldo said. She hopes that the quality persuaded patrons that the in-house material is worth paying for.

Last Saturday’s, Waldo said, “was the best one yet.” There will be seven shows this month and eight in October. In November, “We hope to produce more.”

Where do things stand? “We’re getting by.” If case numbers don’t surge back as they did in mid-summer, Arts Garage could break even. Like so many executives, Waldo dreams of much better times in 2021. “I’m hopeful of that.”

Twentytwenty update

It had been a while since I checked in with Rhonda and Ron Weisheit, the husband and wife team behind Boca Raton’s Twentytwenty Grille. I’ve followed them since pandemic restrictions kicked in.

In a normal year, the Weisheits would have been on vacation in July. This year, they had to keep the restaurant open. Now Palm Beach County is entering Phase 2 of reopening, so restaurants can use half of their indoor capacity.

As Rhonda explained, however, Phase 2 “doesn’t mean much to us.” Before the pandemic, only 20 people could dine inside. To follow social distancing, Twentytwenty can’t add many more people indoors.

But that “hasn’t been an issue,” Rhonda said, because outdoor seating “for the first time in the summer is so popular. I used to cringe when I had to tell a guest in September they had to sit outside. Now they ask for outside.”

The Weisheits bought another covering to expand outdoor seating and “have found some creative nooks to keep the compromised guests safe.” Since mid-August, the restaurant is “on par compared to last year.”

As restaurateurs in the Northeast and Midwest worry about colder weather, those in South Florida should have temperatures working for them. Until there’s a widespread vaccine, outdoor dining could be a salvation for the next few months.

Twentytwenty may be an indicator of the recovering economy. In addition to the restaurant’s faithful regulars, Rhonda said, they have seen “travelers” and received “a ton of referrals.” Curbside business “has slowed a bit,” but the Weisheits plan to keep some of the pandemic features, such as the multi-course dinners.

“We will continue to be creative,” Rhonda said. The pandemic has demanded that of all restaurant owners. The Weisheits want to “support those who saw us through the toughest part of Covid.” Let’s hope that she is correct to use the past tense.

And bars

bars

Bar owners complained when the county’s Phase 2 reopening plan delayed their reopening until perhaps November. On Tuesday, county commissioners asked staff whether that could happen earlier or, if not, some of the county’s federal pandemic relief money could go to bar owners.

While noting those complaints, there are public health reasons to worry about bars. States that allowed bars to reopen saw a spike in COVID-19 cases three weeks later.

Checking in on real estate

I have written about the strong real estate market in Boca Raton and Delray Beach that has eased fears among local officials of a drop in property taxes. I also have written that prospects are lower for commercial real estate.

A new analysis by Wells Fargo agrees. Despite the recovery from COVID-19, “commercial real estate is lagging … Across all major property types, vacancy rates have turned higher and rent growth has slowed, or in the case of retail, declined outright.” The commercial tax base is particularly important in Boca Raton. It will take several months to tell whether commercial property will be a drag on 2022 budgets.

RIP Bob Langford

Bob Langford, who served as executive director of the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District for 34 years, died in August at age 74. His death was not reported until last week.

Susan Vogelgesang is the district’s chairman. In an email, Vogelgesang recalled how she won her first term on the board after running unopposed and came to the job “uninformed about the district.” Langford “was kind enough to spend hours telling me the history of the board, taking me to each and every facility to bring me up to speed, and guiding me through the budget process step by step. Bob was patient and always kept me in the loop even before I was actually in office.”

I also remember Langford as knowledgeable and easygoing. Former Boca Raton Mayor Susan Haynie regularly cited Langford’s departure eight years ago as the point when relations between the city and the district began to sour.

“Our community,” Vogelgesang said, “has lost many of its little-known but valued members to various causes during the past six months. People like Bob take a lot of Boca’s history with him.”