Bob Chilmonik on 'One on One'
Lee County School Board maverick
Why does he clash so often with colleagues and Superintendent James Browder? Does it have to be that way?
Will music and the arts have to be cut to balance the budget, or is the superintendent just scaring people?
Should Florida raise taxes to fund education?
Lee County School Board member Bob Chilmonik tackles those and other questions on the 30-minute "One on One with Jeff Lytle" program which airs on Comcast Cable’s My TV8 Sunday at noon and is available anytime at naplesnews.com/oneonone.
Lytle is the editorial page and Perspective section editor of the Daily News.
The interview was conducted Wednesday morning at Comcast studios in Naples.
Below is an edited transcript of highlights:
Lytle: Let’s get right to it. You’re here because you’re the maverick board member. You ask the hardest questions. You’re the tail-twister. We had James Browder, the superintendent, on the program a few weeks ago, and you contacted me and said, wow, he said some things that I’ve got to have a chance to respond to. We welcome that.
I guess the question is, where’s the beef and is there any potential for you to find a common ground with the rest of the board members and see more of your ideas get put into action? Because now it’s like you’re the voice in the wilderness and you’re easy to marginalize.
Chilmonik: Yes, absolutely. First of all, one of the key components of any elected official is, of course, communicating with the public, listening to the public and bringing back things that we feel are in the best interest of our students here in Lee County schools.
One of the areas that has always concerned me since I initially ran for School Board in 2002 is the oversight accountability in management of the School District and ensuring that dollars go to the classroom. And that student achievement has to be our number one driving goal.
As far as going back to saying that, well you have a beef and there’s common ground, of course there’s common ground. But the thing that we have to focus on as School Board members is accountability and making sure student achievement is at its top level. That’s what we’re there for and to represent the public.
Lytle: So what does the board and administration have to do to make you happy? It seems like they can never do anything that makes Bob Chilmonik happy.
Chilmonik: I think that may be a little bit of a stretch as far as happiness. The major thing is, we’re hired by the public to improve the system and get results, and if you look at our academic improvements over the past five years since I’ve been in office, we have several issues that need to be addressed. Let’s look at SAT scores. We were near the bottom of the state back in 2003 when I started, and we continue to be there. We only have one high school in the whole district out of 13 that’s meeting state and national average on SAT and ACT scores.
Lytle: What school is that?
Chilmonik: Fort Myers High School. And "good job’’ to them. That’s number one. Also, we have significant reading issues that need to be addressed.
For instance, in our 10th-grade reading program, 63 percent of our students are below grade level in reading when they take the FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test). We need to improve that. Look at science: 71 percent of our students are not at grade level, and 11th grade on science is according to FCAT. So we have some significant academic problems that we need to address as a board.
Unfortunately, a lot of times we caught up in the spin and propaganda in portraying something that may not exactly be happening. And that I have an issue with. You have to face problems right on, face on, and yes, the public may be disturbed by some of the news that may be coming down the line, but it’s our job to fix it and insure that Lee County schools — my vision for Lee County schools is to be the No. 1 school district in the state of Florida. If you look at the statistics that are out there right now, we have a long way to go.
Lytle: Let me ask you — we’re going to get there sooner or later — so let’s get there sooner. You have some specific, concrete, sharp issues with the superintendent’s contract.
Chilmonik: Yes, let’s talk about the superintendent’s contract just for a moment. In any crisis that occurs — let me put it to you this way: when you have a crisis it brings out the best or the worst in individuals. One of the disappointments that I had about the superintendent’s most current contract has been that first of all, the way it was put together — it’s certainly my opinion that everything was done to try to keep that out of the public eye and public discussion. I had a problem with that. But the superintendent to my view had an opportunity to really shine in the community in a time of crisis. And the very first action in this crisis on finances the came up is he decided to take care of himself first.
Lytle: The golden parachute.
Chilmonik: The golden parachute; the $342,000, the "no ethics’’ clause that’s not in his contract; and instead of leading and saying, OK, this is what we’re going to do to manage our way and to lead our way out of this crisis — the first thing that he did was take care of himself. And, of course, the other board members supported that.
Lytle: And he gets that money if he leaves for any reason?
Chilmonik: Any reason within notice of 60 days. There are no restrictions on the money. Quite frankly it’s my opinion that he will probably execute that contract just before it’s about to run out. At least that’s my opinion on the subject.
Lytle: What if he leaves office for — and again, I hope this doesn’t happen — if he does something bad and that the board would tell him to leave? He would still get the money, right?
Chilmonik: Yes, he would still get the $342,000.
Lytle: What sort of ethics clause should there be in the contract?
Chilmonik: Well, I think it should be what we had in the past, just replicate that line and insert that back in where he’s working under the same requirements as every teacher, support person in Lee County schools.
Lytle: But that means what?
Chilmonik: That means a change to the contract that he’d have to agree to.
Lytle: What terms?
Chilmonik: Well, the terms of the ethics clause, meaning —
Lytle: — But which ethics?
Chilmonik: As it applies to Florida educators. We have an ethics clause at the state level for every educator. We had language in that contract that state exactly what was expected.
Lytle: Help me out. Are you talking about conflicts of interest? Are you talking about gifts?
Chilmonik: I’m talking about all those issues, yes. Any of those things. And I’m not saying any of those things would happen, but I’m saying is that to my knowledge, he’s the only superintendent in the whole state of Florida that has no ethics language in his contract.
Lytle: Have you checked that out?
Chilmonik: Yes I have. I’ve looked. Now there might be something that I’ve missed out of the 67 counties, but there is nothing that I’ve found in the research that I’ve conducted.
Also, I sent a letter to the state of Florida asking for special legislation with regard to golden parachutes, and it looks like the state is actually looking at some of that now. There’s legislation in the House and the Senate that would limit buyouts of contracts of superintendents to just one year’s salary. Now I don’t know if that will apply in this case. But I think that I’ve made some difference by sending those letters with my concerns at the state level.
Look, the bottom line to all this is: You have 10,000 people working under a set of standards. What’s good for our employees has to be applied not only to the superintendent, but to School Board members, and anyone. And by the way, School Board members also have ethics requirements that we’re bound to do. Everybody should be working off the same page. It’s leading by example and setting the right example; not only for employees, but our students, parents and our taxpayers.
Lytle: The superintendent even at a public meeting went so far as to say that you should be replaced. You should be kicked off. This is after you’ve been elected. Now on this program, a few weeks ago, he said he probably shouldn’t have said that.
Chilmonik: And I agree. At that point I guess tempers were going up, and I think that it all kind of boiled over in that particular meeting, especially in regard to the ethics clause when I asked him to replace that and set the right example. And when he said that to me I didn’t think there, at least in my opinion, was a thought behind what he said. And it was unprofessional, and it was childish. Look, we’re all adults. We have the same mission, and that mission is to improve education in Lee County. Our mission is to insure that we’re spending the dollars where they belong, and that’s in the classroom. And it’s not coming up with these, quite frankly, ridiculous contracts that simply bring attention to the wrong things. We need to be focused on academics and money in the classroom.
Lytle: Another thing that you do that makes the superintendent and your colleagues crazy is the way you approach the news media. They would prefer that after a losing vote — oh, I shouldn’t put words in your mouth. It annoys them that you come to the news media, whether to reporters or to write guest columns, that express your view, and the superintendent at one point has gone so far as to refer to you as a "prostitute’’ in that respect. So what do you say to that? The fact that you’re even here is probably driving them crazy.
Chilmonik: Again, it goes back to representation. We’re elected as individuals, School Board members, and all of us should have our own opinions; and we should never be afraid to express those opinions. If you have issues that you feel you need to communicate to the public, the media is a part of American freedoms. And without the media being involved and communicating with the public, it opens up possibility of abuse of power. And I feel, and I don’t always agree with the media; and I don’t always agree with your newspaper on many issues, but it’s a public service of transparency. It has to be done, and you have to communicate with the media to get things fixed. You can’t do it otherwise.
To go back to Dr. Browder’s comment of calling me a prostitute to the media, that’s a pattern in meetings with him. He’s not only done that. He’s attacked my family members and so forth in the attempt to get me — as he would say: Bob, you need to come in on the team here. You need to be part of the team. You need to stick with us here. And I don’t have problems doing that. There’s many, many votes that I agree with my fellow board members. But there are significant differences between the two of us; and quite frankly for a superintendent to make a personal comment against an elected board member who happens to be, whether he likes it or not, his boss is unprofessional. It sends a wrong message to the community and our students.
Lytle: Does the Lee County School Board and school system have to go through the process called accreditation?
Lytle: Are you guys accredited?
Chilmonik: Yes, we did a fine job in that area.
Lytle: I ask because the Collier County Public Schools has an accreditation issue facing them now, and those issues, we’re told, revolve around how the board members deal with each other and how civil they are with each other.
And I take a look at some of the conversations that go on in the Lee County Board and I wonder, how do you pass accreditation where the Collier County Board seems to have issues and have the same standards?
Chilmonik: That’s a good question. I would assume that they have the same standards. I’m not familiar with their accreditation agency, but I would assume it would be the same thing. Again, it goes back to board members, first of all respecting each others opinions. It goes back to a superintendent that’s being properly supervised, which, in my opinion, is not happening. We have School Board members that rubber stamp pretty much anything that gets put in front them, including the contract.
There has to be at least someone asking some questions, and that’s where I try to position myself — as being the opposition to some things. But I’m trying to speak for the public. I’m trying to speak and ask questions that someone on the street would want to ask. And I don’t see anything wrong with that, and it’s part of transparency and oversight. Since I’ve started my job as a School Board member, I have continuously asked for oversight of the school district and its finances. And we do have some significant issues there that I think I’ve made a difference on in getting those addressed through my constant — and quite frankly — editorials, constant public comments.
What is the old saying? "The squeaky wheel gets the grease." And that where I’m at right now.
Lytle: The funny thing is that sometimes some of the things you say that makes all of your colleagues and the superintendent crazy eventually wind up getting done. It takes a long time, but they get done.
Chilmonik: And that’s the purpose. Really it doesn’t matter who’s getting the credit as long as it happens. And if it happens, and they want to take whatever credit, that’s fine. I support that wholeheartedly. Let’s remember what we’re there for. We’re there for the students, and I know that sounds sometimes cliche, but that’s the only thing that we’re there for is to ensure they get a great education. And how we get to that — of course we can do it much more civil, I agree to that. But as long as we get to it, that’s the key.
Lytle: In hindsight, is your scrutiny of the operations money that was spent for computer software — we’re not supposed to spend operations money on bricks and mortar. The computer software seems like kind of a gray area to me.
Chilmonik: Well, being a computer teacher, I have a little familiarity with that. I think it’s one of those things that’s kind of complex. There’s a lot of ifs, ands, buts and therefores in it, but it’s quite clear that software is software. In fact I teach that in my classroom. Here’s software and here’s hardware. Anything that you can pick up and bang on the table, that’s hardware. So it’s pretty specific.
We got caught up in an issue with some timing and law changes, but again it goes back to a fundamental issue that the law is there for a reason, and we need to comply with it. This has happened in other areas also that if we don’t like something then we turn out disagreeing with it. Well, If the law is the law, you follow the law. If you want to make exceptions, that’s what lobbying effort is all about. You go to Tallahassee and you ask them to change it.
Now hopefully that’s going to be changed where we don’t have to take it out of the classroom. That’s my major concern.