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My Vero: School District hopes fees will discourage questions


Do you know how much our School Board pays Suzanne D’Agresta to serve as its attorney?

I don’t. I hear it’s a staggering amount, but I’d like to know exactly how staggering.

I’d also like to know how much our School Board has paid Husch Blackwell, a national law firm, to represent our schools in connection with a federal desegregation order.

I’d like to know how much the School Board wasted in legal fees to unsuccessfully defend the district’s refusal to pay five charter schools in the county their fair share of local tax dollars.

I’d like to know how much has been paid out to lawyers  in hopes of blocking Somerset Academy from opening an elementary and middle charter school in our county.

I’d also like to know how much the School Board paid to Vero Beach attorney Jason Odom to pursue Superintendent Mark Rendell's wrongheaded allegations against Sebastian River High School criminal justice teacher Joe Nathaniel, who won his termination case in a rout and was reinstated.

And, eventually, I will – for a price.

A hefty price.

According to an estimate from Rendell's administrative assistant, Brenda Davis, it will cost this newspaper roughly $450 to get that information from the district.

As Davis explained in an email last week, it will take the district staff an estimated 20 hours, at $25 per hour, "to retrieve the information, copy it and break it down by case."

That's right, folks. If you want to know how the School Board is spending your tax dollars, you have to pay to find out – even though this information is public record, which means it belongs to all of us.

And get this: Sometimes, as was the case when this newspaper requested a district report detailing the teacher-turnover numbers by school for the just-concluded academic year, the rate doubles to $50 per hour.

To produce the report would take the district staff an estimated four hours, we were told, so that's another $200.

For those keeping a running tally, that's $650 for information that belongs to the public, records that you have a right to see, reports that we need to keep you properly informed about our School District.

So we'll write the check.

We'll pay what, by all reasonable standards, seems to be an unnecessarily high price to gather and transmit information that, given today's data analysis and storage technology, should be at the superintendent's fingertips.

The School District might have thought a small weekly paper would back away from these ridiculous fees, and just go on to something else.  Is the district, by charging $25 or $50 per hour and providing work-hour estimates that seem excessive, trying to discourage our reporting by setting the price so high?

I mean, there's no charge at all for the district's press releases, which usually contain positive stories.

But we'll pay because the people at this newspaper believe these are important stories that need to be told – because you need to know how your School District operates, and how the School Board spends your money.

That doesn't mean I can't question the cost or the man-hour estimates, both of which are so excessive that I can't help but be at least a little suspicious.

It's not just the money, though.

I'm equally suspicious of that pathetic "Fact Checker" icon on the school district's website, where one of my columns on the Nathaniel matter earlier this year was wrongly cited as having contained an error.

For the most part, the "Fact Checker," which was initiated last year by a former public information officer, simply puts a school district-friendly spin on stories it disagrees with or didn't want public to know.

Never mind that in many instances where we have been critical of the district, it has in the end lost its court cases or eventually gotten rid of the personnel we criticized, admitting by deed if not word that our reports were correct.

It will be interesting to see if communication improves now that the district has hired a new public information officer. According to her LinkedIn page, Cristin McMillen has experience as a recruiter for a temporary-worker agency, in sales and human resources, and as a teacher.

"She has a lot of the skills that we need in the public information arena," Rendell told the School Board last week.

And, to be sure, she seems to have the attitude Rendell and the School Board was seeking.

"I just really want to spread more positive news about the district," McMillen said after being introduced to the board.

What's missing, though, is any experience in journalism, public relations or working with the news media.

So we'll see.

Of course, Rendell could make her job a lot easier by being more cooperative and engaging with us media folks. We both have important work to do, and sometimes that work causes us to clash.

But does every interaction need to feel like a root canal?

If there's something happening involving the county – negative or positive, it doesn't matter – I can call County Administrator Jason Brown and get him on the phone.

The same with Vero Beach and City Manager Jim O'Connor.

If they're busy, they'll call me back and talk to me. More often than not, it's more of a conversation than an interview. We'll even go off-the-record when needed.

I have similar relationships with Sheriff Deryl Loar and Vero Beach Police Chief David Currey. Over the years, I've had to ask them some tough questions about difficult situations, requiring professionalism on both sides. We've also had friendly chats.

In the two-plus years he has served as our schools superintendent, I've never had a friendly chat with Rendell, with whom I've spoken only a couple times, just once in a face-to-face setting.

He doesn't respond to messages asking him to call. Almost all of our communications have been via email or through a third party, such as a public information officer or administrative assistant.

I've had more actual conversations with the Indian River Shores town manager, Fellsmere city manager and our state attorney than I've had with the man running our schools.

That shouldn't be, considering how important our schools are to this community and how much of our tax money goes to the district.

We must cover our School District, and, in a small-town community like ours, doing so shouldn't be such a tug-o-war.

Does it need to be such a challenge to get records, reports and other information county residents need to stay abreast of what's happening with our schools?

I've gotten numerous documents – far more detailed and complicated than those we've requested from the School District – from the county, city and law enforcement agencies. And I didn't need to pay for any of them.

Why is dealing with the School District so different?