Question: When Is A Valid Document Not A Valid Document?
Answer: When It Originates In The School District
Last spring, I got involved with community use of School District facilities. I asked for a copy of all rules and regulations concerning public usage and received the following on April 18, 2014:
- SB Bylaws & Policies 7510 – Use of District Facilities
- Blank Facilities Use Agreement, Monroe County School District
- Community Use of Facilities and Equipment, Schedule of Rental Rates
Obviously, the core document is the Facilities Use Agreement (FUA). Awareness of that prompted me on July 18, to request copies of all FUA’s issued during the past year. As is always the case with the District, it has not been easy and it has taken over two months to obtain the FUA’s. A review of them reveals a great many things.
For example, Page 2 itemizes the fees to be charged, including “Rental Fee” and “Air Conditioning $______ (@ $55.00 per hour). Earlier versions, “Agreement for Use of Monroe County Facilities”, include “a Rental Fee of $______” as well as a charge for air conditioning. This form also itemizes charges in a separate area including “Fee: Rental $______” and “additional Hours” for A/C charge.
What is noteworthy will both forms is that both include a rental charge for the use of School District facilities. The older version even cites “(School Board Policy KF: Use of Facilities)” to justify charging rent. There is no ambiguity; the user is expected to pay rent.
As the FUA’s began to dribble in, I reviewed them as best I could. The capacity for District employees to complete what amounts to a contract leaves a lot to be desired. For example, most are not dated. However, the matter of rent was addressed in all cases and was done in one of three ways.
School Board policy , SB7510, puts principals in charge of negotiating all FUA’s and then forwarding their recommendations to the Superintendent. As best I can tell, that has never occurred. Principals routinely negotiate and finalize FUA’s without any central office involvement. That is, the superintendent has no idea as to public use of school facilities.
When it came to determining the rental charge, principals applied 1 of 3 standards.
1. Waived the Rental Fee
In the majority of instances, principals simply waived the rental fee without any explanation or justification. This is particularly true at Key West High School where rental fees for commercial entities like a semi-professional football team are even waived.
When I asked Superintendent Porter if he or any of his predecessors had either authorized or approved rental fee waivers by principals, I received an emphatic “No”. However, as is Superintendent Porter’s wont, he gave no indication that he intended to inform principals that fee waivers of any sort are not permitted without his personal approval as is required by SB 7510.
Perhaps the most interesting rental fee waiver was (is) being done at Poinciana School. There, the Eagles Rest Ministries has been using the school auditorium for Sunday services at no charge other than a reduced fee for A/C. It is difficult to tell how long this has been going on as the FUA is undated. However, since the FUA was signed by Amber Bosco, we know it has been at least two years.
2. Donation In Lieu of Rental Fee
At least at Key West High School, receiving a donation, usually indeterminate, was often accepted in lieu of charging the prescribed rental fee. I am now in the process of determining if any or all of these donations were ever paid, the amount of the donation and the disposition of each.
All of this is important for a whole variety of reasons, one of which is damage to facilities. At KWHS, for example, several of the uses were of athletic facilities and SB7510 requests that “amounts charged shall be according to the current rate schedule recommended by the Superintended and approved by the Board,” not a donation. Also, SB7510 states that “Facilities used must be returned in as good a condition as when first occupied…” and the FUA mandates that “A walk through must be completed before and after rental….”You have to ask yourself how often, if ever, were these post-mortems completed or did the maintenance department simply replace damaged sod and the like?
3. Charge The Rental Fee
This is the least used option, but it has been employed, particularly by Harry Russell at Sugarloaf School and Hammond Gracey at Marathon High School. There is no way to tell why, if ever, rent is assessed as opposed to the exercise of one of the other two options. It is clearly the exception rather than the rule.
Without question, the principals, ask any school bookkeeper, make the decision whether or not to charge an organization for use of school facilities. That is, when someone files a Facilities Use Agreement (FUA) at a particular school, the principal determines if the rental fee will be waived, if a donation will be accepted in lieu of rent, or whether a rental fee will be changed and the bookkeeper is directed accordingly.
If a rental fee is to be collected, how does the bookkeeper determine the amount of the fee? According to NEOLA, as best I can ascertain, the last time the School Board approved and published a “Schedule of Rental Rates” was sometime prior to 9/27/2011 as a part of SB7510. Since the School Board does not annotate its Bylaws & Policies at the time of adoption or revision, it is impossible to provide an absolute date for the first publication of the “Schedule of Rental Rates” as part of SB7510.
That schedule runs 3 pages, but can easily be synthesized as follows:
- Auditorium, $100 plus $55 per hour for air conditioning.
- Classroom, $25 plus $10 per hour for air conditioning.
- Cafeteria, $175 plus $55 per hour for air conditioning.
- Gymnasium, rate varies from $175 to $250 depending on the school and $55 per hour for air conditioning.
- Athletic Fields, $400 plus $85 per hour for lighting at high schools and a flat $100 at all elementary and middle schools.
The bookkeeper adds the appropriate numbers in the “Fee” column on the “Agreement for Use of Monroe County School District Facilities” then being used. The form for FUA’s has changed over the years and, again, it is not exactly clear when the changes were made and what form was in effect on any given date. The bookkeepers complain about this.
What is noteworthy is that when a rental or other fee is levied, the principals, to a person, turn to the “Schedule of Rental Rates”, reprinted as the “Community Use of Facilities and Equipment, Schedule of Rental Rates”. That should come as no surprise, as it was given to me by the superintendent’s Public Records Request liaison, Karen Hladik, as part of a package of documents governing public use of District property. She certainly thought that it was valid or she would not have given it to me. It is not as if there is an alternative source. This is the only published guide and all of the bookkeepers keep it on file.
So, what is the problem? The superintendent’s office thinks that it is a valid document. At least 2 principals and their bookkeepers believe it to be a valid document and govern their behavior accordingly. I am willing to accept it as a valid document as it was given to me in good faith and the execution of such a document is within the authority of the superintendent as laid out in SB7510. Why would “Community Use of Facilities and Equipment, Schedule of Rental Rates” be anything but a valid document?
Enter Dirk Smits, District legal counsel. It is his contention that the “Schedule of Rental Rates” or “Community Use of Facilities and Equipment, Schedule of Rental Rates” are not valid documents as there is no proof that the school Board ever approved them.
How can it be determined if the School Board ever approved the documents in question? That is a very good question. The School Board, when it publishes its Bylaws & Policies on the District website rarely, if ever, annotates the document to identify that it has been approved and when. I have urged the District to do this, to annotate, for years, but so far, my recommendation has been declined.
In the absence of any dates for guidance, all one can do to ascertain approval status is to review the minutes of EVERY School Board meeting, going back whatever number of years to the original creation of Bylaws & Policies!!
Mr. Smits rejects out of hand the argument that if the District publishes or otherwise distributes a document, policy or procedure, that it is, by definition, valid. In effect, he argues that the Bylaws & Policies published by the School Board are so replete with errors as to be totally untrustworthy.
Consequently, if someone insists that the School Board enforce one if its policies, e.g. collection of rents for use of District property, Mr. Smits insists that the complainer, not the School Board, must demonstrate/prove that the policy or procedure is valid, i.e. Board approved. I would suggest that that is an impossible standard, an impossible task. I would further suggest that to require the public to prove to Mr. Smit’s satisfaction the validity of a policy or procedure published by the School Board is absurd on its face.
Since, according to Mr. Smits, the “Schedule of Rental Rates” is not a valid, School Board approved document, the failure of the School District to charge and collect thousands of dollars in rent from the Eagles Rest Ministries for use of the auditorium at Poinciana School is acceptable. By not properly approving the “Schedule of Rental Rates”, the School Board, in turn, was not obligated to collect the rent.
Talk about the effect of unintended consequences. We shall talk more about that next week as we look directly at how the Monroe County School District has subsidized the Eagles Rest Ministries and continues to do so despite being aware of this situation for 5 months and having promised to correct it.