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Gainesville school board approves $7.5 million loan
Resident says racism plays part in controversy about budget, superintendent
Bill Morrison speaks to the Gainesville school board during the public comments portion of Tuesday’s meeting at the system’s Oak Street offices. Morrison requested the board meet with the public and answer their questions about the system’s budget crisis.

A $7.5 million loan could be available to the Gainesville City Board of Education as early as next week, board member David Syfan said.

The board voted 3-0 Tuesday for a tax anticipation note that will cost the system about $80,000 in interest by the end of the calendar year.

Willie Mitchell, Maria Calkins and David Syfan voted in favor of the note. Kelvin Simmons is on vacation and was not present. Sammy Smith was absent while attending the funeral of local poultry leader Joe Hatfield.

Tread Syfan, a local bond attorney, said the note will give the school board access to $7.5 million to cover an estimated shortfall of cash flow and to pay employee salaries at the beginning of the 2009 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Syfan said the note will be adopted through Wachovia Bank at a 2.23 percent interest rate.

He said the note will be repaid with ad valorem tax revenues as they are collected at the end of the calendar year. The bond and interest must be repaid in full by Dec. 31, Syfan said.

David Syfan said the document will become effective when Simmons signs it. The chairman of the school board rotates each month, and the board authorized Simmons to be its agent for signing legal documents.

"Once the documents are signed, I think we can access the money that day," he said.

Simmons should return to Gainesville from his vacation Thursday night and could sign the document shortly after, Syfan said.

The board entertained various requests and statements during the public comments portion of the meeting.

Several residents voiced complaints to the board that members have not answered questions asked in public meetings.

Bill Morrison, a Gainesville optometrist, said he also sent e-mails to board members asking questions regarding the budget and the status of Gainesville city schools Superintendent Steven Ballowe, but has received a response to only one of his questions via e-mail.

The board is dealing with a multimillion-dollar deficit that officials have said could take more than two years to erase. Some residents want Ballowe fired.

"Some of us are just way out here looking in," Morrison said. "We just want some basic information. ... If you could answer (questions) for all of us, then people may not be as frustrated.

"We haven’t heard any apologies. We haven’t heard any explanations," he continued. "Sitting out here, I feel disrespected. I’m paying bills and I’m not getting answers."

Calkins said she completely agreed. She said she supported an open meeting with the public involving city school staff and principals.

Mitchell, the board chairman of the month, said the board would consider a question-and-answer meeting.

"I think we need to sit down with the public, maybe at a neutral site and hash it out. ... I think we owe you that," Mitchell said. "We need to feel good about (the budget). I apologize personally for not responding, because I said I would."

Tensions regarding racial factors also arose during the public comment portion of the meeting.

The discussion of race came to a head when resident James Brooks spoke at the city school office’s board room podium.

"I’m going to use the word nobody is going to use — racism," he said. "It appears there’s an undercurrent there of racism."

Brooks did not specify how racial undertones play into the current fiscal problems of the school board, but he did say the school system has come a long way from the days of segregation, and said, "We don’t forget, and we won’t go back."

After the meeting, parent Brian Hicks said he was appalled that race was becoming entangled in the school board controversy.

"My child is a minority in the school system," Hicks said of his two white children, who attend Gainesville Middle and Gainesville High schools. "The idea that getting rid of Ballowe is racially motivated is ridiculous. I could afford to send my kids to a school where they all look like me, but I choose not to."

Thomas Lampkin, pastor of Bethel AME Church at 900 Mill St., said he is holding an open forum regarding the status of the Gainesville school system at 7 p.m. Thursday. He said he wants to hold a meeting for community members to discuss the school board, the budget and Ballowe’s position as superintendent.

Calkins, Mitchell and Syfan said they might attend the Thursday forum.

The board also voted 2-1 to appoint Susan Culbreth the new principal of Enota Multiple Intelligences Academy.

Mitchell voted against the appointment, which was recommended by Ballowe. Mitchell said he would like more time to review Culbreth’s qualifications.

Sally Meadors, the current Enota Elementary School principal, announced her retirement in February, said Elfreda Lakey, director of human resources for the city school system.

Lakey said Culbreth is presently the principal of Buchanan Elementary School in Buchanan.

Ballowe said Culbreth will assume the position soon. He did not attend the meeting because he took a prescheduled vacation day Tuesday, but he responded to the hiring in a phone call following the meeting.

"She’s been a principal, and she’s highly knowledgeable of the multiple intelligences academy," Ballowe said. "She’ll add a lot to that community."

Ballowe said he had multiple vacation days he must take before July 1, or he would lose the vacation time. He said he plans to use the remainder of his vacation time by working several half-days throughout the month.

"Unfortunately, while the board made this late board meeting, I’d already had a conflict in my vacation leave schedule," Ballowe said. "But I will be at all the rest."