Interview with Betty Burney

Channel 4's Jason Law interviewed Duval County School Board Chair Betty Burney. The interview was done over the phone while Burney was at the Daytona 500 race, so portions of it were inaudible and have been noted.

Channel 4: We haven't talked to you yet, so I was interested to, just if you can, walk us through what happened with the board's decision. Can you start from the beginning and tell us how we got here.

Betty Burney: As you know the board has disclose that we (inaudible) for the 2011-2012 school year. One of the goals in our session planning, 'What will do with regards to ensuring we have the organization tight from top to bottom. The other goal was to make sure that our superintendent evaluation was one where we could make sure we were doing what we need to do to have a valid evaluation of our superintendent. We also were looking at all of our goals, and as such, we know that our superintendent, December 2012 ends our superintendent's contract. We have to decide whether or not we were going to extend the contract, and he also had to decide whether or not he wanted the contract extended. As the board met, we met in one of our development workshops, we talked about it, we thought that one of the things we wanted to do was get some transformational leadership. We know where we want our district to go, with regards to being a world class (inaudible) and...the last few years we've really been...

(Interference, inaudible)

Burney: We thought it would be good if we brought some fresh new eyes into the district. We knew the superintendent had been with us for quite some time. After a certain time in an urban district, you kind of get the wear and tear.

Burney: We decided that it was time for us to make a change and that's what led up to us deciding not to renew the contract but instead to start now so that we could search for the new superintendent.

Channel 4: I think it's easy to say you weren't happy or you wouldn't have made the change. You weren't happy with the performance. What was it about what Ed Pratt-Dannals had done, or didn't do that you weren't happy with?

(After bad interference in phone call)

Burney: A lot of parents seem to believe that there are only two or three schools that they can send their children to get a high quality education. But that is simply not the case, and we wanted to make sure everything was systemic so that neighborhood schools, magnet schools, career academies, all of them were providing the type of education we want for all of our children. So it's not that we were unhappy. It's just that we know we can get a lot more.

Channel 4: So is it a perception thing? I know you've been dealt a bad hand from the state and just the economy overall. So a lot of the financial problems weren't necessarily the districts fault, was they any kind of "management" issue that you weren't happy with? Or is this just purely a perception thing?

Burney: I shouldn't say perception. That may have been not the word that I want. We want systemic.

Channel 4: What does that mean?

(Bad interference, we pause the interview and talk about the third party in the phone call.)

Burney: Systemic for us means it is throughout the system. That excellence is throughout the system, from top to bottom, that all schools have the same level of excellence. That's what systemic means to us. That from year to year, whatever it is we have our plans and procedures and our methodology and all of those things transfer from the top straight down to the bottom.

Channel 4: I want to ask you about the discovery of this 100 million dollars. It was described as a reserve fund?

Burney: Yeah, and...

Channel 4: Did you know about it? Did the board? It seems--when we talked to W.C. Gentry yesterday, last night, he alluded that he didn't know about it.

Burney: Okay, let me go back because I really want this clarified, if you could really do us a favor to clarify. We don't know exactly what the amount is. The reason I say we don't really know what the amount is because we have our auditor. The board has an auditor that we employ. I asked our auditor to take a good look at our finances from top to bottom just to see, because we made some drastic cuts last year, just to see if there was anywhere, anywhere that we could find some money that might be able to help.

When our auditor took a look, she had some questions. Those questions have yet to be answered with our auditor and with the school district. We're going to find out if what she found is correct. We won't know that until March 13th. Actually, when the paper printed that 100-million, the reason that many of us were saying, 'Can you please wait to print that?' is because we want to make sure. You know, we don't want to make parents unnecessarily or anyone else unnecessarily thinking there is money if there's not.

Jason: But that's the number they came up with? That's the number the first auditor came up with?

Burney: That was one of the numbers that she thought. But there are so many different kinds of questions we have to ask. That's where it is. Now if that money is available...and the reason the board may not know is because a lot of it is will be in the salary and benefits section. The salary and benefits section, that money is allocated based on the number of positions, etc. And the benefit dollars. So if those positions were unfilled, then that may be where that money is and we could simply fill those positions and use that money.

So that is where we are right now. All we're trying to do as a board and especially as chairman, what I'm trying to do is to go through this budget, and make sure that if there is a penny, that we can use, we use that penny to NOT make any drastic cuts.

Channel 4: The question I think a lot of people have is, if you found you were sitting on all this extra money, first off, why didn't you know you had this extra money? And could you have used it instead of making all the drastic cuts we've seen in the last year?

Burney: Okay, now one of the reasons that the board would not know we had the extra money is because we get our board information and when we get our board information, we see the dollars and the amount that we have. The board itself looks at the categories: salaries, benefits, etc. It would take an auditor to go through line by line and that's why we have our auditor who went through line by line to find it. So salaries and benefits, if that was the amount that was budgeted, then that is the amount the board will see. At the end of the year, we will see what was expended. So this time, at the end of the year, we asked her to go in and take a look at what was expended to see where we might have any extra money.

If the district had that amount of money, and did not let the board know it had X-money in reserve, then the board should have been told, 'Yes, we have this reserve amount, and you as the board decide how much you want to keep in reserves and how much you want to use for other things.' That is where we are now, you know, trying to get through that process.

The process that I know will not be finished until March 13th when we have our next budget meeting.

Channel 4: Was the board upset to find out about this? Or is this something, I mean, has it happened before? It seems like such a large amount of money.

Burney: No, we've never, we've never seen it before. The board was concerned. As a board member, it is our judiciary responsibility to handle the public's money in the right manner. So the board has to, the board, us, we wanted to make sure that that money is being used in anyway possible. I was very concerned. That's why I want to make sure our auditor gets everything we need.

Channel 4: I'm certain the two events...did this lead to the board not renewing Mr. Pratt-Dannals?

Burney: No. The board had this done Monday before the article ever came out. Before we even talked to our auditor.

Channel 4: Wow. So these two events just happened in the same time?

Burney: They just happened in the same time.

Channel 4: The relationship between the superintendent and the board: you still have about 10 more months to work together. Can you describe the relationship now?

Burney: Of course it was, we've always had a very amicable relationship between the superintendent and the board, and I know it will remain that way. The board wants Mr. Pratt-Dannals involved in whatever it is we're doing. We want his input with regards to our superintendent search. So we're going to work together going forward because actually, it is not about the board, it's not about the superintendent. It's actually about those 125,000 students we have.

Channel 4: Have you gotten any feedback from any angry people, or any kind of feedback at all about this extra money? Have people been wondering, 'Hey, what's going on here?

Burney: Let me tell you, the two people I've gotten feedback, one saying, 'Thank you board for going in with a laser focus, and taking a look at the budget.' And the other saying, 'If there is any money, please make sure that it is spent on the students,' and that's what we plan to do.

Channel 4: Yeah, I'm surprised because given everything, the cuts and everything, I'm surprised you hadn't gone in with a laser focus, a laser eye, earlier.

Burney: We did. We did.

Channel 4: And is this something that was missed?

Burney: Well, it may be a practice that we can un-practice. It's not something that was missed. Um, some of it is in salaries and benefits. Like I said earlier, we don't know if that is the right amount of money. It may turn out to be $2 million. It may turn out to be none. We just need to know and I'm just kind of hesitant to say that money is there, until (BEEP) I get the report from the auditor. It is something that would take an auditor to find out.

Channel 4: And that's what we're going to find out March 13?

Burney: 13th.

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