It got a little snippy at the end of the Flagler County School Board’s discussion on the demolition of its old Corporate One building on Palm Coast Parkway Tuesday evening—snippy and improper, as School Board member Sue Dickinson cut off debate by “calling the question,” as she (and she alone) has on various previous occasions, under the inaccurate assumption that she could do so under Robert’s Rules of Order.
Colleen Conklin, who chairs the meetings and should know the rules (she later said she does, but was contradicted by the board attorney), allowed the interruption, and Kristy Gavin, who could have enlightened Dickinson, told Conklin that Dickinson did not need a second to end debate. (Conklin today said she was not in agreement with the interpretation.) So the 3-2 vote was taken after just 15 minutes of discussion, and with both Conklin and board member Andy Dance clearly still wanting to discuss the matter.
The board approved a $165,000 contract for Bunnell’s Environmental Site Services to demolish the 54,000 square foot hulk by the end of March. (A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the vote as unanimous, rather than 3-2, with Conklin and Janet McDonald in opposition.) The nearly 40-year-old building has become a too-burdensome liability for the district. It’s not usable as a district property short of a $3 million investment. The district doesn’t need it. It can’t sell (the board tried). And demolishing the building raises the value of the property by $200,000, to $1.5 million. So the old iconic thing, once the symbol of ITT’s development of Palm Coast, and for years the central office of the district’s Adult Education division, will soon be gone.
It was never a good district investment. The board bought it in 2001 for $3.5 million in a sweetheart deal for the then-owner of St. Joe’s Plaza, Robert Szymanski, who realized a 218 percent profit while the district ended up with a debt whose last $395,000 it will be paying soon. The building has been unusable for almost three years, condemned because of its lack of safety. It’s been vandalized six times in the past year. The fire alarm was destroyed by vandals. The air conditioning unit was running until November, when it crashed.
Grounds are still maintained by district maintenance crews and lit by district power. With insurance, and despite its limited use, maintaining the structure last year cost $52,638, and for seven months this year so far, it’s cost $39,172. The district expects post-demolition maintenance costs—basically, lawn care—to be $2,500.
Gavin, the board attorney, gave the board a 10-minute history and analysis of the building up to the point when the board decided to declare it surplus property.
“The other options that were available though at that time were also to make the repairs to lease the building to outside sources, which was going to cost approximately $1.7 million,” Gavin said. “But of course the school district is not in the business of going ahead and being a landlord and having tenants under them. We actually are in the business of education. Therefore if we wanted to go ahead and renovate the building for the purpose of utilizing it for educational uses, it was going to cost us approximately $3.1 million or $3.05 million.”
Even if the district were to lease the building, an appraiser found that it could not easily be filled with tenants given the difficulty other commercial spaces such as Roma Court and City Market Place are having to fill their storefronts.
Then there’s what Gavin called “the unknown cost that we can’t really put a dollar amount on, and that is the liability of allowing this structure to continue to remain in its current condition. There is an exposure to the district should a storm come by which would tear the roof off, we would then have to repair that roof just in order to maintain that structure. There’s the continued exposure and cost as a result of vandalism. There’s also a continued exposure for us and a potential injury to our employees as they are monitoring this structure.”
Board member Janet McDonald asked several pointed and clarifying questions about the demolition, the insurance ($10,000 a year currently), the projected savings, whether raw land has to be insured (no), and the upkeep on the land and the Adult With Disabilities portables on the site. Since the demolition would start within the next month, the students with disabilities would remain on that property, but they’d be fenced off. The plan is for the program to be moved for the 2016-17 school year.
“Are we at a place where we can fund moving them, relocating them and setting them up adequately and doing the demolition and doing the swimming pool renovations or needed repairs, capital repairs for the summer?” McDonald asked, referring to renovations at the Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club.
“When we approved the capital budget,” Superintendent Jacob Oliva said, “it included the moving of the Adult with Disabilities, it included the moving of custodial and maintenance out to the U.S. 1 facility. The capital budget did not include the resurfacing of the pool, but in our general maintenance allocation, we allocate $2.8 million total for projects that come up, like if a chiller plant goes down and needs a complete overhaul, sometimes there’s repairs we don’t anticipate, but we build in a pot of budget to make those repairs. So we actually have some rough estimates on the resurfacing of the pool. It’s going to be over $250,000, roughly, but we’re able to put that in this year’s capital budget.”
“Are we kicking off other priorities?” McDonald asked.
Oliva said the replacement of the air conditioning at Indian Trails Middle School had been planned this year, but was put off until next year “because of the way the budget allocation was working and the scope of the work.” In other words the delay doesn’t have anything to do with Corporate One or Adults With Disabilities, Oliva said.
McDonald was still asking a question about the timing of the demolition with the district’s finances, and Oliva was answering, when Dickinson jumped in: “Ms. Conklin, I’d like to call the question and see how the vote goes.”
“I did have one question, if I may,” Conklin said.
“I called the question, Ms. Conklin.”
“OK, the question has been called.” So Conklin called for the vote.
Dickinson was under the false impression—common among local elected officials, though she alone uses that maneuver regularly among all her colleagues out of the county’s five major government boards—that calling the question gives an individual board member unilateral power to end debate under Robert’s Rules of Order. It does not.
The “Official Robert’s Rules of Order” website addresses the issue directly: “It is a fairly common misconception that, after debate has continued for some time, if any member shouts out ‘Question!’ or ‘I call the question!’ debate must immediately cease and the chair must put the pending question to a vote. This is simply not the case. Any member who wishes to force an end to debate must first obtain the floor by being duly recognized to speak by the chair, and must then move the Previous Question. Such a motion must be seconded, and then adopted by a two-thirds vote, or by unanimous consent. It is not in order to interrupt a speaker with cries of ‘Question’ or ‘Call the Question,’ and even if no one is speaking, it is still necessary to seek recognition.”
None of that took place Tuesday evening, just 15 minutes into debating the matter (not including the 18 minutes or so Gavin and another school official spent outlining the history and options.)
“The thought of the day should have been patience,” Dance said wryly 35 minutes later, at the end of the meeting—when each board member gets to speak his or her mind. He was referring to the board’s practice of beginning each meeting with a board member offering a thought of the day. Tuesday had been Dance’s turn. He chose care and compassion.
This time, he wasn’t going to let Dickinson’s maneuver pass unmentioned.
“As I went through just doing some research, the awkward closing to our conversation with the call the question, may need us—and correct me if I’m wrong, Ms. Gavin—but after doing a little of checking, one member just can’t call the question and stop” the discussion, Dance said. “It is a consensus from what I read.”
“It’s happened before with my friend,” Conklin said, laughing as she referred to Dickinson, who’s been on the board–as has Conklin–since 2000 (both had voted to buy Corporate One).
“It was apparent not everybody was done with their comments,” Dance said. “And the one good thing about that item is that it’s probably the longest deliberated action that the board has taken since I’ve been on the board. It’s been going on since the middle of 2013. The whole process of getting to where we are. But it was just a little awkward with people still having opinions. We’re not in a big hurry, there wasn’t a big agenda, there wasn’t any need, in my opinion.” (The entire meeting lasted less than two hours, ranking it as a relatively short one for the board.)
“The only thing I’ll say,” Dickinson said when her turn was up next, “is if we don’t want to follow Robert’s Rules then we just need to take it away and not have it be a part of our agreement that we agree upon every year at the beginning of the year. It’s not the first time I’ve called the question, and I promise you it won’t be the last.”
But if she does so again—and her colleagues allow her to do so—it’s Dickinson who’d be violating Robert’s Rules.