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March 25, 2004

FSDB proposal closer to a vote

From: St. Augustine Record - St. Augustine,FL,USA - Mar 25, 2004

Staff Writer

House Bill 1059, a proposal to regulate the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind, passed the State Administration Committee on Wednesday, which brings it closer to a vote on the House floor expected in April.

The bill is sponsored by state Rep. Doug Wiles, D-St. Augustine, who said the bill would clarify the school's relationship with the state and local governments and provide more accountability for the board of trustees. State Rep. Don Davis, R-Jacksonville, co-sponsored the bill, and he represents the North City area where the school is located.

The committee's action follows within days of a memo from FSDB President Elmer Dillingham that criticizes Wiles and urges school employees to contact lawmakers.

Wiles' bill answers a state audit released in 2002 that found 13 state law violations in the business practices at the state school located in North City. The violations occurred in operational areas such the way in which property next to the school was purchased for expansion, according to the audit.

Dillingham couldn't be reached for comment Tuesday or Wednesday. Mary Jane Dillon, chairwoman of the school's Board of Trustees, had no comment.

Dillingham's memo to employees March 18 said the school is trying to change the language of the bill.

"House Bill 1059 has been introduced under the disguise of statutory clarification," Dillingham wrote. "Despite this rhetoric, the primary purpose of this legislation is to prevent FSDB from growing and/or acquiring any new land in the city of St. Augustine."

The House's State Administration Committee's analysis of the bill is that it addresses operational and accounting problems by limiting the powers of the school and requiring an annual audit.

The school's expansion into the Nelmar Terrace neighborhood was controversial, and expansion is addressed in the bill. It would require the school to work more closely with the city of St. Augustine.

Dillingham wrote to employees that the state Joint Legislative Auditing Committee, which helped write the bill, wouldn't have discussed the audit without Wiles' request.

"His insistence on getting the audit before the committee is based on the Nelmar Terrace neighborhood's opposition to FSDB's purchase of the Alfred/Genopoly property," Dillingham wrote.

Wiles rebuffed the letter and said each section of the bill addresses specific findings in the audit.

"The letter is not only inaccurate, it's inappropriate," Wiles said.

Wiles said he met with residents of the neighborhood like he would have done with any constituents. He added that he would have met with the board of trustees if he was invited.

The school created its own conflict when it sought opinions from the Attorney General and the Department of Community Affairs on whether it needed to coordinate with the city of St. Augustine, Wiles said. The opinions conflicted.

"That is a clear mandate for immediate legislative action," Wiles said.

The bill passed the House State Administration Committee with a 5-2 vote.

Wiles said there wasn't much discussion. The committee made technical changes that ensures the school remains a viable part of the state education system and clarifies that it will always remain in St. Augustine, Wiles said.

The bill passed the K-20 Education Committee with a 22-3 vote March 8. It is scheduled to be heard by the Appropriations Committee, but it hasn't been placed on the calendar.

"It's an issue that to some extent is rather complicated, and I'm confident once again this thing will continue to move," Wiles said.

When discussing the audit, school officials have maintained they corrected problems listed in the findings or were following state law in the first place.

The Legislature has until April 30 to pass the bill, Wiles said. If it passes the Legislature, then it goes to the governor. The governor has three options: he can sign it into law, he can let it become law without his signature, or he can veto the bill.

© The St. Augustine Record