Broward schools

Pay for Broward schools’ diversity committee members sparks backlash

 

mrvasquez@MiamiHerald.com

The Broward school district’s Diversity Committee is supposed to be an equality watchdog — but some of its own members are being accused of getting special treatment.

In recent months, committee meetings have been dominated by finger-pointing, anger and even tears. At the heart of it all: Broward’s decision to quietly award lucrative $500-a-day consulting contracts to two committee members.

“This is outrageous,” committee member Doug Harrison, an attorney and former prosecutor, told The Miami Herald this week. “How dare you have these secret little contracts and not tell anybody?”

Broward’s own in-house legal staff has also raised concerns, calling the hires a violation of state ethics laws.

The two committee members who were hired, former Chair Jeanne Jusevic and former member Jessica Herthel, both left their posts amid the backlash. But both say their decision to exit the committee was not an admission of wrongdoing.

“I wasn’t going to be treated like crap anymore,” Jusevic said, explaining why she let her term expire without seeking a reappointment.

Herthel, a retired attorney, said she was hired by Broward prior to joining the Diversity Committee and that her status as a committee member didn’t lead to the part-time consultant work. Herthel said she joined the committee only because she was asked to by a school board member.

“I don’t think there was actually anything improper,” Herthel said.

A key job of the Diversity Committee is to hold Broward accountable for treating all schools and neighborhoods fairly. The district has a long history of neglecting schools on the eastern side of the county — particularly those with heavily-minority populations. The district in 2000 settled a lawsuit on this issue, and the court charged the Diversity Committee with inspecting schools and pointing out areas where there are substandard athletic fields, inferior computers, or other problems.

Jusevic said accepting money from the district did not hamper her ability to be an effective watchdog.

“I can separate the two,” Jusevic said.

Jusevic’s “consultant agreement” had a pay rate of $40 an hour — more than $7 higher than what a 20-year veteran teacher makes. Both Jusevic and Herthel were hired to help the school district write a training manual used to help administrators deal with sensitive issues involving gay or lesbian students. Among the issues that might arise: How to handle a student who identifies as the opposite gender and wants to use that gender’s bathroom.

The two contracts were for a limited period of several months, with each capped with a total payout in the $11,000-$12,000 range. The contracts began in 2012 and ended in early 2013.

Both women said they never asked the district for a job — the school system offered. For her part, Jusevic said she personally trained more than 100 school district staff members on LGBT issues, and she also put together a detailed Powerpoint presentation advising parents on how best to talk to their children about pregnancy, HIV/AIDS and other sexual health issues.

There were two parent training sessions, Jusevic said, though they only attracted about 30 parents in total.

“Unfortunately, it was not well-attended,” she said, adding that she had no problem with Broward staffers using her Powerpoint presentation in the future, free of charge.

For a long time, neither the public nor fellow committee members were aware that Jusevic and Herthel were being paid. The two women didn’t publicly disclose it, and the school district staff never brought it up at committee meetings.

Then the district, after the fact, asked its own attorneys whether everything had been done properly. In a Sept. 20 memo, Deputy General Counsel Robert Paul Vignola wrote that such hires were prohibited by state ethics law because the school district department signing the checks — Diversity, Cultural Outreach & Prevention — is the same one that oversees the Diversity Committee.

“No further compensated services should be requested of advisory committee members by your Department,” Vignola wrote to Mickey Pope, executive director of Broward’s student support initiatives.

The legal memo noted that Broward could have still made the hires — and complied with state law — if it had obtained a waiver from the School Board through a super-majority vote. That never happened.

In an interview, Pope said the district chose Jusevic and Herthel because both have been involved in other community initiatives to benefit gay students, such as the Safe to Be Me coalition. Jusevic is a longtime parent activist in the school district, and Herthel, who is also a parent, is a retired attorney who volunteers with Fort Lauderdale’s Stonewall National Museum & Archives, which promotes the contributions of gays in American society.

Jusevic is also a member of numerous other parent groups and district committees, and Pope said Jusevic’s extensive network of contacts was seen as helpful for community outreach.

“We wanted to be able to say, to the school leaders and everyone, that the work was informed by a large segment of the district population and our community,” Pope said.

Asked if the $500-a-day pay rate was excessive, Pope said: “We followed the procurement process for these types of contracts and the allowable rates … this is really the going rate for a consultant, so this is not out of the ordinary.”

Pope added that the hiring of committee members was in no way an effort to buy community support of the district’s new LGBT training manual.

Pope viewed the LGBT manual as a separate issue from what the Diversity Committee deals with — part of why she said she hadn’t felt a responsibility to disclose the two hires to the committee.

However, the Diversity Committee does deal with some issues regarding LGBT students and how they are treated. The training manual, in fact, was presented to the committee last year, though it did not require any formal vote of approval by committee members.

For years, a source of tension on the committee has been the tug-of-war between members who want to focus on improving conditions at long-neglected schools, and newer members who want to make LGBT causes more of a priority.

“It does seem that there is two schools of thought on the Diversity Committee,” Herthel said. “One is that diversity has a broad definition and the other was that diversity should be limited to race-based conversations.”

Herthel said that, because she and Jusevic are outspoken LGBT supporters, they’re being targeted for criticism by those who don’t agree with those views.

“It’s political,” she said.

But Roland Foulkes, who served on the committee for a decade — stepping down as chair in 2012 — said the two hires smack of unfairness. Over the years, he said, committee members drove to schools all across the county to make sure they were in adequate condition, and the district never even reimbursed anyone for gas mileage.

“At one point gas was almost $4 a gallon,” Foulkes said. “And that was coming out of our pockets.”

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