Schools push back against city

Published 9:11 pm Saturday, March 9, 2013

Suffolk Public Schools is pushing back against a recommendation from the city that city staff help manage the school system’s capital improvement projects.

The recommendation, deemed a “service to all city government organizations, authorities, boards and departments,” was included in the city’s approved capital improvements plan.

But Suffolk Public Schools Superintendent Deran Whitney believes the School Board may be in violation of the law if it allows such an arrangement to occur, according to a letter he wrote to City Manager Selena Cuffee-Glenn last week.

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“The School Board has not given permission to have its capital improvement projects managed by the City’s Department of Capital Programs and Facilities and, by law, may not be able to do so,” Whitney wrote. “Should the School Board assent to such an arrangement, the School Board may be abrogating its responsibilities with respect to its core responsibilities under Virginia law, which is to supervise schools and to care for, manage and control property of the school division.”

City Council members discussed the issue during their meeting last week and voted to send back a letter of their own. City Attorney Helivi Holland told the City Council the city does not believe the arrangement would be unconstitutional.

“There are other localities that do that all the time,” Councilman Charles Parr said.

Mayor Linda T. Johnson added her input.

“There was no intent to build and hand over,” she said. “The intent was to work together.”

In response to inquiries on the matter, a school division spokeswoman sent a copy of a 2011 official opinion from the Virginia Attorney General’s office that seems to support the School Board.

“The Supreme Court of Virginia and numerous prior opinions of the Attorney General have recognized the statutory authority of local school boards to control the construction of public schools and the expenditure of funds for that purpose,” the opinion reads. “This statutory language and the case law and opinions interpreting the language indicate that, absent clear authority, a governing body may not assume control over the construction of public schools or the expenditure of funds for that purpose.”

The city is relying partially upon State Code 22.1-126.1, which states “Any county, city or town … may acquire for educational purposes by gift, purchase, condemnation or otherwise, real property and any improvements thereon within the county, city or town … and may construct buildings thereon to be used for educational purposes.”

City Chief of Staff Debbie George said Friday the city had no comment on the matter and said a reply to the superintendent’s letter had not yet been sent.