Busin Votes Against Spending $3,600,000 to Buy Pasture for Future Site of LaBelle High School
I read an article published this week by the Caloosa Belle regarding the proposed future site of LaBelle High School which noted that I voted against the superintendent’s recommendation to purchase the site. The article heralded the perceived virtues of this purchase and omitted examples of concerns I referred to as common sense red flags (🚩) during the board discussion, and prior to casting the lone dissenting vote on a proposed $3,600,000 contract for 80 acres of pasture that was negotiated by Supt. Swindle.
Florida law requires that all legitimate offers and counteroffers be in writing for the state-funded acquisition of land. 🚩 No supporting documentation was provided that indicated negotiations occurred outside of accepting the initial contract from the seller’s agent for $45,000/acre. There was no counteroffer to the initial offer presented by the seller’s agent. Even if a counteroffer were declined, at the very minimum, it would have indicated a good faith effort to negotiate in the best interest of taxpayers
If an individual was seeking to purchase property and didn’t have the cash on hand to buy it, one would typically seek a loan from a financial lending institution. This is essentially what Hendry County School District (HCSD) is attempting to do through the Florida Dept of Education (FLDOE) by applying for special facilities funding designated to help poor, rural counties lacking the tax base to generate sufficient taxes to replace and/or build new schools. It was a no brainer to apply for this funding to build a new campus in order meet the seemingly ever growing enrollment at LaBelle High School. It’s the same program Glades County School District has used to build West Glades School, as well as replace Moore Haven Jr/Sr High School, and Moore Haven Elementary.
In order to apply for this special facilities funding, Florida law required HCSD to obtain two appraisals to determine the value of the 80+/- acre property, as a taxpayer protection against wasteful spending. These appraisals have standards and protocols that financially protect the lender (taxpayer funded FLDOE) as well as the buyer (taxpayer funded HCSD).🚩 The superintendent sought three appraisals of the property. The appraised values are listed below and linked to the appraisals received by the Board for review:
Wegscheid Appraisal: $3,600,000
It would be incredibly unrealistic to expect three separate appraisals to yield the same appraised values but multiple appraisals should fall within a reasonably justifiable range. 🚩 Wegscheid’s appraisal, valued exactly at the contract price, exceeded Carlton Norris’ by $1,600,000 and Calusa’s by $2,150,000.
If this were an ordinary citizen’s personal or business transaction, the lending institution would likely disqualify the highest of three appraisals due to the fact that it’s such a significant outlier. The ordinary buyer would either have to renegotiate the contract price or find another way to raise the $1,875,000 difference. 🚩 Superintendent Swindle said he averaged the highest appraisal (outlier) and the second highest appraisal to come up with an “appraised value” of $2,800,000; $800,000 less than the contract price. His proposal to fund the $800,000 difference will utilize future funding generated by the new 1/2 cent sales tax on residents of a county that meets the challenged economic criteria to qualify for special facilities funding.
The final 🚩 for me was discovering that the seller’s agent, who would collect a commission based on the sales price, is the superintendent’s former brother-in-law and the co-manager of the real estate brokerage is the superintendent’s nephew.
Special facilities funding from the FLDOE will not provide all of the funding for this project. If it is approved by the FLDOE, every dollar of special facilities funding used for the purchase of land over appraised value will divert state funds from being directed to the construction of spaces for students to learn and grow academically, socially, and athletically. The funds generated by the 1/2 cent sales tax will be applied towards paying the balance of the total cost for completing the project, and the higher that total is, the less funding will be available to be applied to other critical needs areas/projects in an expeditious manner.
My individual understanding of the basic principles of government and economics didn’t justify my support of Supt. Swindle’s recommendation so I voted against it. The superintendent’s recommendation received the super majority vote (4-1 vote on a five person board) required by Florida law to approve a contract for purchase of land over appraised value. 🍏
Hendry County’s Grad Rates Plummet to 4th Lowest in Florida
The Florida Department of Education (FLDOE) released federal graduation rates on January 13th. As of the close of business on Friday the Board has not been provided with a report from the administration, so I have compiled the following information from the FLDOE’s website. https://www.fldoe.org/accountability/data-sys/edu-info-accountability-services/pk-12-public-school-data-pubs-reports/students.stml
FLDOE reports that Hendry County’s graduation rates experienced the largest decrease in the state, dropping from 90.4% in 2020 to 86.6% in 2021, and further spiraling down to 75.7% this year.
While CHS’ and LHS’ combined performance was 85.8%, their graduation rate was diluted by the poor performance of two online schools affiliated with the Hendry County School District and for which the superintendent and Hendry County School Board are responsible.
One of the online schools is the Hendry Online Academy. Students who have committed a behavior infraction that would qualify them for expulsion have the option of enrolling in the online educational platform in lieu of participating in an expulsion hearing. Hendry Online Academy’s graduation rate was 67.9%.
Digital Academy of Florida (DAOF) is an online charter school that enrolls students who reside throughout Florida. The Hendry County School District collects an administrative fee to serve as the host district for this online school. Regardless of where the enrolled students reside, their academic data and graduation rate of 64.8% is included with Hendry County’s outcomes, in turn driving down the collective graduation rate and overshadowing the outcomes achieved by Hendry County’s resident students attending brick and mortar schools. Furthermore, an online school (and the district hosting) doesn’t receive funds (or administrative fees) for students who fail to complete.
A county’s graduation rate is one of the public information points that site selectors employed by businesses seeking to start up, expand, or relocate take into consideration. Site selectors are ultimately seeking communities for their clients with a workforce that can help grow their business. A county with a graduation rate of 75.7% does not fare well in this selection process.
It begs the question of whether the administrative fee the district receives to sponsor a charter school that seemingly poorly educates students residing in other counties is worth receiving the lowest FTE funding in the state for Hendry’s resident students in addition to the economic stigma placed on Hendry County. It also begs the question of why the HCSD contract with DAOF was recommended for approval prior to graduation rates being released and why the school board still hasn’t received ANY information from the district administration about Hendry’s performance.
Independent Investigator Chosen by Superintendent Provides Findings of FACT, Conclusions, and Recommendations to Board.
State Attorney Declines Charges Against Deputy Superintendent. Board Approves Independent Investigation by 3-1 Vote.
The Hendry County School Board voted 3-1 on Tuesday, February 5, to approve Superintendent Puletti’s recommendation to hire Alex Del Russo of Carlton Fields to conduct an independent investigation into the presence of fingerprints, identified by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), on unwanted mail received at my home as belonging to the Deputy Superintendent of Human Resources, Operations and Continuous Improvement of the Hendry County School District. Dr. Sally Berg, Rev. Dwayne Brown and Amanda Nelson voted in favor of the investigation. Jon Basquin voted against it. I abstained from voting.
Approval of the independent investigation comes on the heels of notification from the State’s Attorney’s Office 20th Judicial Circuit that the agency was declining to press charges for what was cited as a lack of evidence to prove stalking beyond a reasonable doubt, according to Sheriff Whidden.
At the request of my colleagues, I presented public records from the Hendry County Sheriff’s Office pertaining to the complaint and investigation prior to the 3-1 vote. For the sake of transparency, those documents are included below.
The estimated cost of the investigation was estimated between $6,000 – $12,000. Board member Amanda Nelson asked for it to be capped at $12,000. All board members were in agreement. Superintendent Puletti amended his recommendation to include the cap of $12,000 with the caveat that the investigator would have to come before the Board for approval if the costs were anticipated to exceed $12,000.
The board approved investigation will look into whether the six separate unwanted mailings were created or mailed during district time or using district resources, as well as any patterns of harassment or retaliation against the Busin family, and any negligence by the superintendent in dealing with this matter after being notified by Sheriff Whidden on November 15, 2018 of the FDLE’s determination.
I would like to encourage any members of the school community to report any and all instances of bullying or harassment at http://www.HendrySafe.org.
Setting the Record Straight. I Will Not Be Silenced.
The fight for justice against corruption is never easy. It never has been and never will be. It exacts a toll on our self, our families, our friends, and especially our children. In the end, I believe, as in my case, the price we pay is well worth holding on to our dignity. ~Frank Serpico
Throughout this past election season, I have been under attack by cowards who hide behind fake social media accounts and anonymous websites, and who mail deceitful anonymous letters to people throughout the community in a desperate attempt to influence the upcoming election. Anyone who knows me knows the agenda this coward, or possibly group of cowards, is pushing is untrue.
I am accustomed to defending others so it’s been a rather strange experience to have to defend myself, especially against someone too cowardly to reveal their identity. I prayed the author of the anonymous letter and website would muster the courage to file an ethics complaint as they alluded to in the anonymous letter.
I asked and I received… and I’m going to share that complaint with you for the sake of transparency and so you are aware of the retaliation that is guaranteed to anyone who puts students first and speaks truth to power in this district. Regardless of what has happened in an attempt to silence me, rest assured I will not be silenced.
It’s important that you know that anyone can file an ethics complaint against any elected official for any reason. Hundreds are filed each year, particularly in the weeks prior to elections, and thrown out. Complaints are NOT the same as investigations. For the record, I AM NOT UNDER INVESTIGATION though I am the recipient of a complaint filed by Frank Michael (Mike) Giarrantano.
Considering, as the letter below states, this complaint was confidential prior to being shared online. One can only come to the conclusion that Mike Giarratano shared it. I will share the entirety of Mike Giarrantano’s complaint as what was posted on the internet was only a portion that was clearly posted with the intention of making people believe it’s an active investigation. As I stated before, that’s not the case.
Now you have had the opportunity to read the complaint in its entirety, I’d like to take the time to refute the claims made by Mike Giarrantano.
- Since being elected, I have sold autism awareness shirts in my community in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2018. I do this as a parent and private citizen. I do not advertise this on my professional Facebook page as alleged by Mike Giarrantano and I have not ever used any district or school resources in this endeavor. I have, on the other hand, been able to donate $13,673.05 to the Hendry Public Schools Foundation; $3,000 to Raising Cane Rodeo to benefit the Hendry Exceptional Equestrians program; and $500 to Clewiston High School’s Key Club for a total of $17,673.05. Records of those donations are on my desk and I would gladly show them to anyone who would like to stop by and see them, and I am looking forward to sharing them with the Ethics Commission to prove Mike Giarratano’s continued accusations are knowingly incorrect and malicious.
- While I do maintain two Facebook pages, both a personal and professional one, I don’t sell advertising on either. For one, you can’t sell ads on Facebook. I think Mike Giarratano meant to allege as he did in the anonymous letter that I’m selling ads on this website which is also untrue as it’s a free account. I do, on the other hand, own the domain name, www.stephaniebusin.com, which I pay $13/year for out of my personal funds to provide a low-cost resource for communication to my constituents.
- Mike Giarratano is actually telling the truth about me being married to Anthony Busin. It’s no different than the Superintendent or other board members being related to district employees. The only time someone on the board would be required to recuse (not excuse) themselves from an appointment or reappointment vote would be if the vote was solely in regards to the relative. Agendas, as well as meeting minutes, from the meetings in question reflect that those votes were part of en masse personnel recommendations that were part of a consent agendas. You can access the agendas and meeting minutes at www. hendry-schools.org.
I hope this has provided clarity to the intentionally muddied water and the insight you need to confidently cast your vote for me. Now, more than ever, we need leadership that will not cower to the status quo and who will fight the good fight for our students, teachers, parents, and community regardless of retaliation. I am that person.
Thank you for the opportunity to provide the truth regarding this matter. It is my honor and privilege to serve you.
P.S. Please take a look at the endorsements on my campaign website, www.VoteBusin.com, to see what legendary educators and community leaders have to say about my record of service.
* Since I asked for your vote and shared my campaign website, I should state that this is a political advertisement paid for and approved by Stephanie Busin for Hendry County School Board District 4.
I See You! An Open Letter to Hendry Teachers.
Dear Hendry County Teacher,
I see you and I see you for what you really are…a genuine freedom fighter and activist for equality. I see you running hard and fast towards the challenges so many in this world turn away from. I see the options you have, and I see you choose to remain in the trenches of rural education and devote your life to serving a vulnerable population.
I see the resolve in your eyes when you’re working with students who are struggling. I see the joy in your eyes when your students have breakthroughs. I see the hard work and creativity it requires to help that struggling student, as well as the thriving students, achieve their highest potential each day.
I see you rise to the occasion time and time again to meet needs that are far beyond what the curriculum or your job description requires. I see how much of your own personal life, time and resources you devote to your profession. I see you being a role model in our communities and leading by example, and I see the positive impact that has on your students.
I see you doing all this with sparse resources and overflowing hearts. I see you as the proverbial David bravely facing a new legislative Goliath around every corner. In spite of those obstacles, I see your unwavering faith in your purpose and your Christ-like love for the children you serve. I see an example of what’s good, true and right about the world when I reflect on what you do each day to create opportunities for all children to have a bright future.
As the mother of two of those children, as a product of the Hendry County School District, and as a school board member…THANK YOU. I appreciate the blessing you are today and every day. Happy Teacher Appreciation Week to my heroes!
Academic Improvement Workshop Recap 9/22
Just over a million dollars. That’s the budget the Board has to address academic improvement in our D-rated district, and was the subject of an academic improvement workshop preceding the regular business meeting on 9/22.
The new audio system was in place for the workshop. The board members and superintendent were mic’ed up and the workshop was our first public meeting recorded on the new system.
The Board was presented with a list of previously discussed potential allocations totaling $153,005 during budget hearings. They are as follows:
Student Tutors (Formerly AVID) $10,000
Professional Development $3,885
Performance Pay (Estimated) $60,000
Heartland STEM Scholars Program $9,120
Virtual School (Estimated) $40,000
Science Labs $30,000
District administration brought these additional allocations totaling $402,016 before the Board for discussion:
IEP Substitutes $27,000
Data Systems Support $63,008
Professional Development for Science $15,000
Ed Options Academy $139,300
Academic Deans (2) $157,708
$555,021 is a lot of money. State funding has been more “generous” this year than in years past. We’re being told that funding should look favorable next year, but a lot can happen in a year. It’s of the utmost importance that the money we have in our hand is spent in the most effective ways possible. The objective is academic growth and achievement for close to 7,200 students through out the county. The Board’s job is the align the resources to achieve these goals.
The discussion among board members was vigorous and meaningful. Basquin expressed concern about spending trends and his desire to work on whittling down the deficit created from spending more than our revenues the past several years.
My concerns centered around the projected effectiveness of the presented strategies and if we, as a District, are investing our resources into managing the symptoms of low academic performance rather than directing resources to address the causes like truancy, virtually non-existent parental involvement, poverty and language barriers. (I’ll elaborate more on this concept in my next post.)
Thank you so much for taking time to read my blog. I appreciate your engagement and I’m humbled to serve Hendry County.
8/25 Meeting Recap
The highlight of an otherwise typical business meeting during which the board voted unanimously to approve the 2015/16 Master Inservice Plan, 2015/16 Digital Classrooms Plan, and consent agenda, was a visit from District 80’s State Representative Matt Hudson.
Speaker Pro Tempore Hudson praised Superintendent Puletti’s engagement and persistence in Tallahassee in addressing the needs of Hendry County’s schools and students. Speaker Hudson also fielded questions from the Board and audience.
I had questions regarding what options Hendry/Glades Counties are left with after the sudden closure of the mental health facility that was serving approximately 425 students at the time it disbanded. No agency or provider bid on the $1 million contract to provide mental health services for our area, so we are still without accessible mental health care in one of the most impoverished areas of the State.
Though Speaker Hudson could not give me the answer I would have liked, I appreciate his honesty in telling me the status of progress on addressing this problem that is so intertwined with the generational poverty experienced within our county.
Thank you for the opportunity to serve this county and these best students in the world! The next board meeting is the day after Labor Day, September 8. You can find the board packet and agenda online: http://hcsb.schoolwires.net/Page/4936
8/11 Meeting Recap
Thanks to my readers for taking the time to catch up with me! I apologize for being so delinquent in delivering new posts lately. Between full-time motherhood and a host of projects I’m involved with, I’ve been moving and shaking, and unfortunately putting this blog on the back burner. Today I was blessed with a chunk of time in which to write, so here it goes…
The 8/11 Hendry County School Board saw a large turnout from Clewiston residents for the 5:30 pm workshop to discuss district administration’s Academic Improvement Proposal that carrying an estimated total price tag of $519,716.
District administration recommended the following to the board:
ED OPTIONS ACADEMY – Seniors who have been unable to pass required state assessments but otherwise have completed all their necessary credits can be offered the opportunity to enroll in the Ed Options Academy. Upon successful completion of EOA credits, the student will qualify to meet the state requirements and receive a high school diploma from an accredited institution. District administration projects approximately 30 students will enroll during the 2015/16 school year. Estimated cost: $159,300
ACADEMIC DEANS – Hire four individuals, each specialized in K-12 instruction of one of the following academic areas: English/Language Arts/Reading, Mathematics, Science, and Technology. The academic deans would report directly to the Director of Staff Development. The proposal states the team will function much like the State Differentiated Accountability Team and follow their protocol for visiting schools, observing instruction, helping with review of data, and assisting in formulating quality interventions to improve instruction and student achievement. Estimated cost per allocation (including benefits): $78,854 x 4 = $315,416
PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT – To combat the district’s falling Science scores, administration is proposing Science teachers in grades K-8 will benefit from receiving a professional needs assessment administered by the Director of Staff Development that will determine specific professional development to support effective instruction. Estimated cost: $15,000 Administration proposes to provide each elementary school and middle school in the county with $2,500 for basic lab materials to conduct project based learning opportunities as part of the science lessons. Estimated cost: $30,000 TOTAL Estimated Cost: $45,000
The workshop wrapped up early at approximately 6:00 pm. The regular business meeting was advertised to begin at 6:30 pm so Superintendent Puletti recommended to the Board that in order to keep business moving forward, we could go ahead and listen to a presentation regarding capital improvement revenue bonds presented by Ford & Associates, Inc.
After the presentation wrapped up, Superintendent Puletti invited the unusually large crowd of audience members to speak regarding something that was not on the agenda. The majority of the audience members were there to show their support for an on-campus exercise class. Numerous audience members shared how this class and instructor personally benefited them.
Superintendent Puletti clarified for the audience that the instructor had recently complied with federal and state laws regarding working with students, as well as board policy regarding liability insurance, and would be able to continue using the district’s facilities without obligation to pay rent. The instructor has begun and will continue to seek the certification over the next year to become an athletic coach for the district in an official capacity. Upon receiving the clarification the audience exited the board room and the business portion of the meeting began shortly afterwards, at the advertised time.
Superintendent Puletti began by acknowledging two Clewiston-area retirees for their dedicated service to the students of Hendry County:
Marilyn Brathwaite, CES Cook – 28 years
Elizabeth Kerr, CHS Cook – 34 years
The Board voted 4-1 to approve the consent agenda. (I voted nay for demonstration purposes for the AP American Government teacher in attendance.)
The Board voted unanimously to approve the Superintendent’s recommendation to appoint Ayman Kaki of K & M Drugs to serve as the Value Adjustment Board’s Business Representative.
I appreciate the opportunity to serve as YOUR school board member! Be on the look out for more posts coming soon!
Audio/Visual Streaming of Board Meetings Voted Down 1-4
Anyone who speaks to me for more than two minutes knows how passionate I am about Hendry County. Being a third generation native, my roots run deep and so does my sense of personal responsibility to influence the changes I feel are necessary to help our county be the place I know in my heart it can be. (Man! I get choked up just writing that last sentence.)
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m transparent. Painfully transparent at times. That’s why I write this blog. I feel like the District 4 seat isn’t just my seat…it’s OUR seat…and I write and post on social media to take you along with me on this journey I’m so blessed to be on as YOUR school board member.
I made a motion at the July 14 board meeting to spend $16,753.98 to further the goal of providing transparency and accessibility to local government more convenient to students, parents, employees, and tax payers. I moved to install an audio/visual system in each board room to record board meetings and make them accessible 24/7 to anyone with an internet connection. The vote was postponed to the July 28 meeting.
At the July 28 meeting, I made an impassioned plea to fellow board members to make this one time investment. I cited the benefit it would be to students studying civics and government. I cited the benefit it would be to our HCSB employees. I cited the responsibility we had to the public to make our meetings transparent and accessible. Despite support from the Hendry County teachers union (HCEA) my motion was voted down 1-4 (I was the aye vote) citing that it was the board’s consensus that it didn’t directly affect student achievement.
Immediately after my motion died, it was moved to spend $11,741.98 to install audio systems so people who physically attend meetings could hear us better, as well as provide an improved audio recording for those who choose to request a copy of these recordings from the district. That motion was passed 4-1, with Basquin voting nay.
I offered to personally pay the $5,012 difference to upgrade to include video recordings. I offered to fund raise to cover the difference but ultimately had to walk away from my original goal of online video recordings because the original motion was voted down.
I am reminded of Winston Churchill’s famous quote, “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another without loss of enthusiasm.” You can count on me to never lose enthusiasm for this job and those I serve. That’s something I can guarantee.
I’m pleased to report that I was nominated by Vice-Chair Sally Berg to serve as an alternate representative for Hendry County on the Florida School Board Association Legislative Committee, and unanimously approved by my colleagues. Mrs. Berg is the current representative. I enthusiastically look forward to learning and growing from this opportunity!
There’s a meeting tonight (8/11/15) in Clewiston at the sub-office building. A workshop on academic improvement begins at 5:30 pm with the regular board meeting following at 6:30 pm. School Board meetings are open to the public and I’d like to personally extend an invitation for you to attend.
Thank you again for the opportunity to serve as your school board member!