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Friday October 24th 2014

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The Buzz 4/3/14

Cries for Justice in Public Schools The Escambia Youth Justice Coalition (EYJC) staged a rally Tuesday, March 25 at the Escambia County School Board meeting, calling it “Visions and Solutions.”

Keyontay Humphries, regional organizer of the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Florida-Northwest Region, called for supporters of EYJC to attend and speak.

About a dozen EYJC members did attend and called on Superintendent Malcolm Thomas and the five-member school board to work with them to end the “school to prison” pipeline.

Superintendent Thomas defended the district’s record, pointing out it started the Civil Citations program this year and plans to begin a special program this summer for at-risk students who are entering high school. The new program allows them to earn credits to get a head start on high school graduation.

Thomas had no facts to measure the Civil Citations program’s effectiveness, because he said they haven’t been collected.

“Nobody is denying there are issues in our public schools,” Thomas said. “We are willing to partner with people in the community. It really isn’t just a school problem, it is a community problem.”

Thomas also defended the school district’s graduation rate, saying it was 62 percent in 2012 and 67 percent in 2013. He says that’s just the four-year rate and doesn’t include students who complete their high school diploma after that span.

“Those are not numbers we are proud of, but we are heading in the right direction,” Thomas said.

In August 2012, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed civil rights complaints with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. It described how African-American students in the Escambia, Bay, Okaloosa, Flagler and Suwannee county school districts were suspended, expelled and arrested at school for relatively minor and non-violent conduct. In Escambia County, African-American students account for 65 percent of all out-of-school suspensions, but they represent only 36 percent of the student population.

Humphries accused the school district of failing to work with the community or the Office for Civil Rights, which is currently investigating the system.

“The SPLC and EYJC have offered to meet and talk about solutions,” Humphries said. “We have been met with, ‘Nos.’”

School District attorney Donna Waters contested Humphries characterizations, saying she was not aware of any offers or refusals to meet and said Escambia officials are working with the OCR to provide information they have requested.

Dr. Shirley Lewis Brown said the League of Women Voters supports incentives proposed by the EYJC.

Rev. Rick Branch with the EYJC told the school board: “We desperately want to work with you rather than just complain to you. First, you must admit there is a problem and there is work to be done. When you do (School Board), we will be there to work with you.”

Longtime civil rights leader Rev. H. K. Matthews pointed out that African-American’s graduation rate in Escambia County is 51 percent. He said 78 percent of all student arrests were misdemeanors and 73 percent were first offenders.

“However, when children are arrested, regardless of the charges, it is a tremendous promoter of this school to prison pipeline,” Rev. Matthews said. “They’re having to go into adulthood with a record, and that’s not a good thing.”

School Board Chairman Linda Moultrie and school board member Patty Hightower touted a volunteer task force working to come up with one solution to end the “achievement gap” of African-American students.

“We are working to see what we can do to close the achievement gap,” Hightower said. “We want to see what we can do to not just provide adequate education but excellent education.”

County Gets Into Utility Business Escambia County officials are stunned that the Emerald Coast Utilities Authority, a local government agency formed in 1981 to own, manage, finance, promote, improve and expand the water and wastewater systems of Escambia County, rejected taking over the Innerarity Island Utilities System.

“ECUA provides water to the system on a wholesale basis and takes back its wastewater,” said Larry Newsom, interim county administrator. “It seemed only logical for them to take it over since that is its mandate from the Florida Legislature.”

The Innerarity Island Utilities System is part of the Innerarity Development Corporation, originally owned by Fayette Dennison and now by a family trust, according to Newsom. It was built four decades ago to handle the water and sewer for 602 lots of Innerarity Island and Russell Bayou. The system currently has 205 customers.

The corporation notified the county in January of its intention to abandon the utility by March 28. Circuit Judge Jan Shackleford had to decide who would take over receivership of the system without any interruption of service.  Escambia County had hoped that ECUA would be appointed the receiver.

However, the ECUA board rejected taking over the Innerarity Island utility by a 5-0 vote after its staff said the cost to upgrade the system to its standards was north of $7 million. ECUA staff recommended that a private corporation be the receiver, but did not make a specific recommendation to Judge Shackleford whom that entity should be.

An evaluation report prepared in January by Kenneth Horne & Associates, Inc. offered lower cost estimates.  The engineers calculated that water-related improvements were approximately $1.6 million, but that figure could be reduced to less than half a million dollars if fire flow enhancements were “deemed unnecessary at this time.”

The sewer improvements were dependent on whether the operator decided to upgrade its conventional gravity sewer at cost of $4.5 million or install a low-pressure system on the island for $2.3 million.

Using the least expensive improvements, the total cost of the upgrades would be $2.8 million. The capital expenditures could be divided over the 602 lots and repaid using a Municipal Services Benefits Unit.  If the lots owners were given 10 years to pay off the debt, the cost would be roughly $465 per year.

On March 21, Judge Shackleford appointed Escambia County the receiver of the island utility system. On March 28, the county began operating the system.

The irony is ECUA has been concerned that the Escambia County Commission has discussed asking the Florida Legislature to dissolve the utility and let it be consolidated into county government.

“One of their arguments (against consolidation) has been that they have 33 years of experience in water and sewer, and we have none,” Newsom said. “Well, we are in the business now.”

Faith & Donations Needed The 2014 Winter Storm that hit the Pensacola area hit the Belmont Cultural Center & Truth for Youth facility hard. The freezing weather caused the sprinkler system to explode, drenching the rooms of the historic building on the corner of Belmont and DeVilliers streets.

Such a disaster may crush the dreams of some men, but not Rev. John Powell, founder of Truth for Youth. He bought the building in 2010. While it has been a struggle to pay the mortgage, utilities and minimum overheard, Powell has strived to create a safe haven for inner-city children and provide a cultural center for the Belmont-DeVilliers neighborhood.

“We teach Christian values, respect and conflict resolution,” Powell told the Independent News on a Saturday morning. He was standing in the building among water puddles created by heavy rains the previous night and a leaky roof.  The facility is completely usable until the roof, ceiling and sprinkler system are repaired.

Truth for Youth has joined forces with St. John Missionary Baptist Church to raise money for critical repairs for the building. Their “Envision the Vision, Commit 100” campaign asks churches and the community to pledge $100 for 24 months. The campaign ends on May 3.

Donations can made online at truthforyouth.org or can be brought to Belmont Cultural Center & Truth for Youth Facility located at 432 West Belmont Street on Saturdays between the hours of 8 a.m. -5 p.m. All contributions are tax deductible.

“We have a long way to go,” Rev. Powell said. “But I believe we can get there.”

Not Independent Yet The Greater Pensacola Chamber has moved tourism and economic development out of its operations into newly formed corporations. The stated purpose is to allow its membership to be independent of government funds and thereby avoid Sunshine law issues.

The moves were also supposed to allow the organization to be independent of political influence of elected officials and more freely work for improvements in the city, county and public school system.

That change is going to be harder to achieve in comparison to how it has been sold to the general membership. On March 18, Chamber President and CEO Jerry Maygarden wrote an editorial for the daily paper on the need of separation of power in city government and the danger of abuse of power when separation does not exist.

It didn’t take long for a CEO of large corporation and a big contributor to the chamber’s Vision 2015 campaign to call and threaten to cancel his company’s chamber membership. Apparently he thought the editorial was too critical of Mayor Ashton Hayward, even though Hayward was not mentioned directly in the article.

ECUA-County Secret Offer Escambia County and ECUA have been locked in a battle of solid waste collections and whether the utility can be required to dispose of the waste at the county-owned Perdido Landfill.

At its February meeting, the ECUA board heard from Executive Director Steve Sorrell on the progress of negotiations with the county. Sorrell told the board he had yet to hear back from the county on a proposal that he made the prior month.

While Sorrell did not give details of the proposal in the public meeting, the Independent News was able to get a copy of the details through a public records request of Escambia County.

The document, titled “Solid Waste Considerations,” is unsigned and not on ECUA letterhead. The utility offers to separate the solid waste into two streams, clean-stream recycling and dirty-stream garbage. ECUA wants the clean-stream and wants the county to take the dirty-stream at the landfill.

Under the offer, ECUA would continue to collect the clean-stream recyclables and dispose of them. It would have the authority to construct and operate its recycling transfer facility. The utility would construct its own waste-to-energy facility at its Central Water Reclamation Facility, located near Gulf Power’s Crist Plant, to process biosolids, septage, grease and yard waste collected by ECUA.

On the dirty-stream side, ECUA commits to deliver all residential and commercial solid waste to the Perdido Landfill for approximately 15 years.  There is a differential of $9 per ton between the tipping fees charged by the Perdido Landfill and what ECUA pays under its contract.  ECUA is willing to split the difference 50/50. Future tipping fees increases will be based on the Consumer Price Index for the region.  ECUA is also willing to purchase the county’s transfer station on Palafox Street.

Escambia County is still reviewing the proposal and will be discussing it with the county commissioners.