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Council launches a salvo

After receiving a long letter from the School Board full of legal challenges to their authority to intervene in the site-selection process for a new elementary school, members of Suffolk’s city council fired back on Tuesday with a letter of their own.

Signed by Mayor Linda T. Johnson, but appearing on letterhead that comes from the “Office of the Mayor and City Council,” the city’s response to the School Board’s challenge of meddling in the school system’s business includes its own share of legal references.

But the council response also makes note of the importance of “a collaborative, cooperative effort” toward providing quality education to Suffolk students.

City Council and the School Board have been playing tug-of-war for the past week over whose responsibility it is to choose the location for a new elementary school.

After the City Council directed the city manager to work with city planners to select a site, School Board Chairwoman Lorraine Skeeter, on behalf of the School Board, cried foul. She had asked for a response to her challenge by Tuesday. Johnson’s two-page reply is dated July 6.

“In my view the best course of action would be for the school and city staff to work together to investigate a site that complies with the law and prepare a recommendation to present to a joint meeting of the City Council and School Board,” Johnson wrote on behalf of the City Council.

In the School Board’s June 22 letter to City Council, Skeeter pointed out that it is the School Board’s prerogative to select school sites. Johnson replied that it is the Council’s motive to help facilitate the process, not usurp the School Board’s constitutional rights.

“Our only recent action was to offer our assistance in resolving the outstanding questions of identifying the potential site for the new elementary school,” Johnson wrote.

During their June 16 meeting, council members voted 5-3 to have city staff begin looking for a site that could accommodate a new elementary school to serve the southern portion of Suffolk.

Johnson’s letter acknowledged the School Board’s responsibility to select the site but emphasized that the governing authority must approve and financially back the building of the school.

“‘The local governing body may exercise its authority to approve or disapprove the expenditure of funds for the construction of a public school on a site selected by the school board,’” stated a 1977 General Attorney’s opinion, quoted by Johnson.

The letter also addressed the School Board’s confusion regarding whether the City Council might be entertaining thoughts to build one new school and renovate an existing school.

“City Council has taken no action that would require either the city or the school system’s capital improvements plan to be amended,” Johnson wrote.

The school site selection aside, Johnson addressed the issue of politics. She wrote that some people worry City Council and School Board members have politicized the site selection.

“It is by its very nature that any action taken either by the Council or School Board is a political matter,” Johnson wrote. “It is our obligation as leaders to see that substantial and meaningful factors are advanced in this political process and that those factors prevail over our differences.”

To overcome political differences and find a site the council and board can agree upon, Johnson stated that City Manager Selena Cuffee-Glenn has invited Interim Superintendent Deran Whitney to discuss the matter, to which Whitney replied he may be available after the board’s July 8 meeting.

“I am convinced that together we will do this, and I look forward to working with you and the Suffolk School Board to facilitate the construction of a new elementary school for the good of our citizens,” Johnson concluded.