BY ASHLEY AMASON
Angry parents, administrators, and students addressed the Walton County School Board regarding uniform changes at Freeport Middle and Freeport High School.
Uniform changes are approved by the school board in the annual Student Handbooks, which were on the agenda for approval July 7. However, Freeport High School Principal Shirley Foster and Freeport Middle School Principal Beth Tucker sent letters to parents with end-of-the-year report cards on June 15, 2009, stating that the schools “will be implementing a new dress code to ensure school safety and accountability.” The letter came with an order form and directed parents to the website coachescorner.sports.officelive.com to review color choices and purchase. At the bottom of the attached order form, it stated, “All orders MUST be received by July 30th to guarantee delivery to school by August 21st. All students are expected to be in uniform on the 1st day of school—August 24th.”
However, at the time the letter and order form were sent, June 15, the board had yet to be informed of the uniform change—requiring students to wear school t-shirts—and it wasn’t set for approval until the July 7 meeting.
Additionally, the vendor from whom the schools were ordering the shirts, Coaches Corner, is owned by Vanessa Bump, a teacher in the Walton County school district.
Parents questioned whether it was against school board policy for two of its employees to benefit financially from such a change. Superintendent Anderson stated she would find out if using Coaches Corner violated policy and, if so, the board would issue refunds and use another vendor.
Sandra Jenkins, whose daughter attends Freeport Middle School, addressed the board, noting she had a problem with the “process and implementation” of the uniform change, and sending letters and order forms before the change was brought to the board.
Another parent, Frank Wolf, said, “There should be some kind of repercussion for those who tried to deceive and manipulate us.”
However, Freeport High School senior Melissa Simmons told the board, “I think it’s a great idea for us to wear shirts because it will bring us closer together as a school.” Simmons wore a uniform shirt from Coaches Corner to the meeting.
After hearing multiple complaints and accusations against Principal Foster and Principal Tucker, School Board Vice-Chairperson Sharon Roberts said, “This was done prior to board approval of these handbooks, and yes, it may be up to their [the principals'] discretion to address this board if their school wants to [implement uniform changes], but Ms. Tucker, no disrespect to you or Ms. Foster, but…this is a precursor to board approval. It should’ve never gotten to this position to have parents here saying ‘Board, do you know that you are going to have a new dress code at the schools?’ Now I’m offended that an order form was put on the school website, it was pushed forward…and this board was not even consulted.”
Superintendent Anderson addressed this statement, “I spent an extensive amount of time with Ms. Foster yesterday to discuss how this was done. Ms. Foster assured me that she had addressed ‘pending board approval’ more than one time.”
Foster then addressed the board, “We started at the beginning of last year at orientation in my comments to the students and the parents, and said we are looking to go to school shirts. We had school improvement meetings—we have those monthly—and parents and students are on that committee and those are advertised to the public. So those people on the school improvement team have been aware of it all year, then we brought it before the faculty, talked to them about it. They were supportive of it, so we made the decisions, ‘let’s put it in the school handbook for approval and let’s move forward’.”
Foster said the schools sent letters in June because they knew handbooks would not be approved until July and she wanted students to have ample time to purchase the shirts to avoid spending money on new school clothing.
Roberts asked Foster how Coaches Corner was chosen, to which Foster replied, “Coaches Corner was the cheapest. They could do a T-shirt for $5 and the closest price was $8.”
Superintendent Anderson returned to the issue at hand—whether to approve uniform changes at Freeport High School and Freeport Middle School—stating, “Before you tonight is the school handbook to consider if you will allow Freeport Middle and Freeport High School to have uniforms. I agree that there’s probably a question, Ms. Roberts, in having an employee gain from something like this, and certainly that is something I would look into to ensure there is no legal conflict.”
Roberts reiterated her frustration about not being notified of this change when Foster stated it had been in discussion for almost a year.
Superintendent Anderson replied, “The process of school improvement doesn’t usually come to the board until it’s put into a requested policy.” Roberts then took issue with Coaches Corner, commenting that two employees benefiting financially from such a change “does not look good.”
A Freeport High School grandparent and business owner in Walton County, interjected, “This company is not found anywhere in the state of Florida records as a legitimate, registered company. Are we going to do business with somebody who is violating the state of Florida’s rules by not being a registered business and not paying sales tax?”
Superintendent Anderson replied, “I agree, if the facts bear that out. Again I just want to remind the board, the issue before them tonight is…are we going to allow a dress code? It will be my responsibility, and I will take it very seriously, to make sure that we have not violated [policy] by purchasing anything.”
After being asked if other vendors would be considered, Superintendent Anderson stated, “I would not really want to cast anything against these principals, as if they are purchasing because someone has a T-shirt company that works in our school district so that’s why we’re going to a dress code. We’ve been discussing this for well over a year-and-a-half as an entire body of school administrators, and I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to cast aspersion on our conversations as if we were trying to benefit somebody.”
Roberts rebutted Anderson’s statement, alleging, “Here lately, it is common practice for things to be pushed through before this board is asked, then we are a hindsight…Someone was thinking forgiveness is going to be a lot easier than permission, for whatever reason. If it be someone gaining, personal gain, if it’s an employee, I don’t know what the reason be, but I’m offended by that—”
Chairman Bill Laird interrupted Roberts with the bang of his gavel, stating, “I’m not going to allow personal slander in this board.” Roberts rebuffed, “That’s not personal slander, sir.” Laird replied, “I’m the board chairman and I say it is.”
Superintendent Anderson again urged the return to the agenda issue itself, saying, “In the interest of schools who have to move forward with printing, collating, everything they have to do to get handbooks ready… I will look into any illegalities of who we’re purchasing from, I will work with civic organizations as will the school to have back-up plans [for students with financial needs]. My question to the board is do you trust the superintendent and these school administrators to provide for our students who don’t have, by working with community organizations – which we do all the time – to provide for the needs of our students. Either we approve the dress code because we think it’s a good thing – and obviously you have, you’ve allowed it at Emerald Coast—or you don’t trust us to make sure we stay within the law, check out our vendors, and help those students who need help.”
The board approved the Student Handbooks, and thereby the dress code change, 3-2, with Roberts and Laird opposing.
Another topic of conflict arose in the approval of the Student Progression Plan—whether to allow private school students to enroll in public school courses.
Superintendent Anderson recommended disallowing private school students to enroll in public school courses on the basis that those students then have to take the FCAT, thereby affecting school’s scores and score-based funding. However, Anderson recommended “grandfathering-in” four private school students, two who were previously enrolled and two who applied for enrollment this summer.
Concerning grandfathering in four students, Laird said, “My concern here is not whether or not this student is going to make perfect score on the FCAT or zero. I think if we’re going to let any private school student in, we should let all private school students in. We shouldn’t exclude anybody.”
Florida Department of Education has no policy on private school students like it does on home-school students, who can enroll in extracurricular activities and any course required for those activities (such as weightlifting to play football).
Roberts declared, “I have a real issue with saying that homeschoolers can come and take weightlifting, for God’s sake, but we’re going to restrict them from coming so they can excel academically. That’s ludicrous.”
Member Mildred Wilkerson said, “We are a public-school school board. We were elected to serve the public, our children in our district. I do think that if someone wanted to send their children to private schools, then that’s their choice. I think there is discrimination if you allow some to come, and then later not allow.”
However, despite reservations by school board members, the board moved to approve the superintendent’s recommendation to “grandfather-in” four private school students until the date of their graduation. Upon this motion Attorney Ben Holley stated, “I think there’s a potential equal protection of the Constitution violation, not now, but next year when somebody came and applied and you’ve got these students who are allowed to attend, and others aren’t, then they could raise and equal protection of the law claim.”
The motion was amended to “grandfather” the students in for only one year, and readdress the issue at the end of that year.
Roberts seconded the motion, saying, “I’ll second it because I want those four to get to go, but when we revisit this thing, I want to look at us being more fair.”
Member Mark Davis motioned to amend the pending motion to, “Private school students will not be allowed to enroll in any Walton County school classes on either a full or part-time basis, nor will they be allowed to participate in extracurricular activities.”
Davis’ motion did not receive a second.
The board approved the Student Progression Plan, including “grandfathering” in four private school students for one year, 3-2, with Laird and Davis opposing.
The board’s last act of the night was to approve the revisions in the Religious Neutrality Manual, which now states high school seniors can vote on their commencement speaker, but are no longer allowed to vote on whether the speaker prays. Whether or not to pray is left to the speaker’s discretion.
A budget workshop to approve the 2009-2010 reductions is scheduled for 4 p.m., July 14, at the District offices on Park Street in DeFuniak Springs.
Ashley Amason may be contacted online at email@example.com.