Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Shadow play

 

OUR OPINION: Broward Schools’ unnecessary Diversity Committee conflict highlights need for transparency

HeraldEd@MiamiHerald.com

It’s not the worst conflict ever to come to light. But the fact that two members of the Broward County School District’s Diversity Committee had contracts with the district while serving on the committee clearly was improper. The committee was never informed by school district staff that the two members were awarded contracts. The issue only surfaced after the fact, causing a noisy, public brouhaha among some committee members.

Former Diversity Committee Chairwoman Jeanne Jusevic and former member Jessica Herthel were each awarded $500-a-day consulting contracts. Ms. Herthel was hired prior to joining the committee, a 30-member volunteer group of School Board appointees charged with assuring that all Broward public schools and neighborhoods are treated fairly by the school district. Historically, schools, particularly those with high minority populations, were neglected in favor of fast-growing West Broward suburban schools.

In 2000, the district settled a lawsuit on the disparity issue. The court charged the 30-member Diversity Committee with inspecting schools and pointing out areas with substandard facilities.

The committee also has in recent years taken on advocating for fair treatment of gay and lesbian students. Both Ms. Jusevic and Ms. Herthel are active in other community projects to benefit gay students. The district hired them to write a training manual used to help administrators deal with sensitive issues involving gay and lesbian students. The two contracts, which began in 2012 and ended in early 2013, were for a set period of time. Each was capped with a payout limit in the $11,000-to-$12,000 range. Both women say the district approached them in offering the contracts, not the other way around.

This was the school district staff’s mistake. According to a memo from district Deputy General Counsel Robert Paul Vignola, the contract awards under the circumstances were in violation of state ethics laws because the district department signing the two contractors’ checks — the Diversity, Cultural Outreach & Prevention agency — also oversees the Diversity Committee. Definitely a conflict.

Mr. Vignola’s memo advised that the two hires could have been legally made if the department had gotten a waiver from the School Board through a super-majority vote. No such waiver was sought.

Unfortunately, Mr. Vignola’s legal opinion was sought after the fact, too. Since then, both women have left the committee after being subjected to much criticism by some other members once the two contracts came to light. What began as a well-intentioned — if uninformed — decision by the district diversity department turned into a caustic public spat among members of a group that is the public watchdog for equality on behalf of the county’s students.

Some believe there’s a tussle behind this brouhaha between Diversity Committee members who want to stay focused on improving conditions for neglected schools and those who want to broaden the group’s mandate to include gay and lesbian student issues. If that’s the case, the Broward School Board needs to get involved by clarifying the specific advocacy role of its Diversity Committee.

In addition, the School Board would do well to ensure that the imperative for transparency — not obscuring, not asking “May I?” after the fact — is understood throughout the district’s operations. Yes, the Diversity Committee contracts were a relatively small conflict, but neither the district nor the public it serves should be blindsided by a big one.

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