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In a surprise move, the Volusia County School Board voted May 14 to negotiate an early exit for Superintendent Tom Russell.

The vote was 4-to-1. Only School Board Member Linda Cuthbert dissented.

Freshman School Board Member Ruben Colón, elected in November to represent Deltona-area District 5, made the motion, citing what he said was a lack of communication between Russell and the School Board, particularly over an ongoing federal investigation.

“One of the things the superintendent is held to is to inform the board of issues, needs and operations of the school system,” Colón said.

He said a lack of information about a proposed sale of part of the old Pierson Elementary School property in April, and about the district’s health insurance, was also a factor.

“The health insurance contract … we knew at the time that the Auditor General had cited us for not going out to bid; however, that was never brought to the board,” Colón said.

Colón also was upset about a lack of communication regarding cuts to federal Title I funding for some poorer schools. Perhaps most alarming, however, according to Colón, was a lack of communication about an ongoing investigation into Volusia’s school system.

“The most concerning thing to me was an email that we recently received regarding something that our district has been involved in that we had no idea about,” Colón said. “Our teachers received the notification and, again, we had no clue. It’s something that involves a government agency, so it is very, very serious in nature. I reached out to our School Board attorney to ask him what’s up with this, and he had no idea about this.”

Colón said he put a lot of thought and prayer into his decision to suggest the move toward severing ties with Russell.

Russell’s contract ends Sept. 1, 2020, but Colón’s motion called for the School Board’s attorney to begin negotiating an early exit for Russell as soon as possible.

Jamie Haynes, another freshman board member, who represents the DeLand and Northwest Volusia area in District 1, seconded Colón’s motion.

The School Board would owe 20 weeks’ severance pay to Russell, which would total around $75,000, if the board severs the contract early.

School Board Vice Chairman Ida Wright asked if it would be wiser to simply not renew Russell’s contract when it ends. That, Wright said, would give the School Board more time to find a replacement, and avoid the need for an interim superintendent.

Colón said the matters at hand are too serious.

“We’re talking about the [U.S.] Department of Justice. We’re not talking about the PTA,” Colón said. “My challenge is that he didn’t even feel the need to tell us that we’ve hired an attorney, and that 70 teachers got an email [from investigators]. I’ve spent hours on the phone with him and not once had he mentioned it.”

Colón said the board only found out about the investigation through Elizabeth Albert, president of the Volusia United Educators union, which represents teachers and paraprofessionals.

It was not mentioned at Tuesday’s meeting exactly what the Department of Justice is investigating, but one news-media report indicated it has to do with the treatment of students with autism — specifically, regarding teachers not following students’ individual education plans in the event of a disability-related episode, but turning the students over to law enforcement instead.

The Beacon reported in February 2017 that at least 11 Volusia County families of children with disabilities — primarily autism — were preparing a complaint against the school system, in cooperation with a children’s-rights lawyer from Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida.

Volusia County Schools spokeswoman Kelly Schulz declined to comment when asked about the investigation.

Katie Kelly, the lawyer with Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida representing the families of students with disabilities in the complaint, was surprised by how the meeting went.

“I was surprised [May 14] to hear that the district staff had not been informed about the complaint. I find that shocking,” she said. “They’ve been aware since 2017 that we filed the complaint.”

A longtime educator before getting into the legal field, Kelly said she and her clients are pushing for teachers to get more support and training in dealing with children with disabilities — ideally, without involving law enforcement.

“We had seen a lot of Baker Acting and law-enforcement involvement with kids with disabilities, which is really concerning for us,” she said.

Kelly said she sympathized with the teachers.

“I was a teacher for 20 years. I understand what it’s like to feel that you don’t have support in dealing with kids,” she said. “That was part of the reason for the complaint.”

Kelly, who is now head of the children’s-rights unit at CLSMF, added that other parents with concerns that their children with disabilities may have been mistreated should email USAFLM.VCSInformation@usdoj.gov, a special email account for the complaint against Volusia County Schools.

Russell pushed back against many of Colón’s criticisms.

“The members that were on this board previously did know about this DOJ case,” the superintendent said. “When it was implemented and DOJ came in, we had our attorney at that time, so it was not like I’ve just hired an attorney. He’s been — he’s worked on other federal cases and state cases.”

Russell said the Department of Justice hasn’t actually informed the district about the substance of the complaint they’re investigating, despite school officials pressing the DOJ for an explanation.

“We just know an area that they have focused on. The only communication we had from them was to print voluminous volumes of records and policies for them over six to seven months,” he said. “We did hear from them that they wanted to interview principals, teachers and staff.”

Russell and his staff were slow to learn about the DOJ wanting to interview school employees, he said.

“I will take full responsibility. I was going through emails. I did not send that to you, and I apologize,” Russell said.

He maintained that the district did have a plan to communicate the information it received.

“We did not want someone from our general counsel’s office to explain this to the principals and teachers, because it would come across as cold. So what we did is we had the paralegal and [administrative secretary] Amber Ryan … she communicated with each principal,” Russell said. “Her thinking was if she communicates to the principals, they’d share with the teachers, and it would be much easier for them to understand, and they would feel comfortable asking questions.”

Colón told The Beacon the school district was notified April 10 that investigators wanted to interview school personnel.

Board Member Cuthbert, who voted against the early termination, said some of the communication mishaps may have happened due to a key vacancy.

School Board General Counsel Michael Dyer left in December, and was replaced only recently by attorney Stacey J. Manning.

“I think some of the misunderstanding might have occurred because we didn’t have a district attorney for a long period of time,” Cuthbert said. “There was a large vacancy of keeping track of things at that time.”

Cuthbert was more forgiving of recent communication difficulties.

“I’m concerned about the DOJ who did not contact us or keep us informed, even though the district pressed for communication,” she said. “So, I think there’s some breakdown of misunderstandings, somehow, someway. I’d hate for anybody to take the blame for something that they’re not responsible for.”

She also mentioned that finding a new superintendent would be an arduous, monthslong task.

Haynes also shared some of her own gripes about the apparent lack of communication between Russell and his staff and the School Board.

“I’ve said it out loud here at the board meetings, what keeps us as a district from being effective is no communication or poor communication,” she said. “Every single thing that I feel like I’ve had to write an email about, that I’ve had to make a phone call about, that we’ve done a phone conference … every bit of it comes back to that piece.”

The Department of Justice issue was “the final straw,” Haynes added.

A draft agreement for Russell’s departure will be brought back to the School Board at its next regular meeting, at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 28, in the boardroom of the Volusia County Schools Administrative Complex, 200 N. Clara Ave. in DeLand.

In an interview the day following the meeting, Colón told The Beacon he was surprised by the response to his motion.

“Any time you throw that kind of a motion out there, you never know if you’re going to have a second,” Colón said. “You never know if you’re going to get support when that happens.”

The freshman board member said his move against Russell wasn’t personal, and that he’d like to see him stay with the district in another capacity.

“I have a lot of respect for him. I would like for him to stay in our district,” Colón said. “I truly believe he has a lot to offer our children, our students, and I mentioned that yesterday.”

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