Activist warns of lawsuit against Palmetto. It has to do with Lincoln charter school

Social activist Michelle Williams has announced plans to file a lawsuit against the city of Palmetto, accusing Mayor Shirley Groover Bryant of creating a “fraudulent utility bill for Lincoln Memorial Academy,” a charter school that was taken over by the Manatee school district in July.

Though it was not stated in her letter to Palmetto officials, Williams has also accused the mayor of working with Cynthia Saunders, superintendent for the School District of Manatee County, to create the shut-off notice and bolster the case against Lincoln Memorial, which was plagued by financial issues.

Officials from the city and the school district were quick to deny such claims, noting that Lincoln Memorial continually fell behind on its water bill, and that all parties had an interest in the school’s ability — or lack thereof — to pay its utility bills. The school was a public charter before its takeover, and the property is owned by the school district.

Williams is the founder of Ask-Shel LLC, a network of attorneys who serve marginalized communities, focusing on issues related to social, economic and political justice. She sent the pre-suit notice by certified mail, and she said the same notice would be hand delivered at Monday evening’s commission meeting.

“I’m not trying to put somebody’s grandma in jail, you know what I’m saying?” Williams said of the mayor. “I’m hoping we can mediate this, go behind closed doors, duke it the hell out and call it a day. But right now, her ethics and her misconduct are not serving of the citizens of Palmetto, Florida.”

In her notice, Williams was referencing the July 22 shut-off notice sent to Lincoln Memorial for its delinquent water payment, a document that was presented at the school board workshop one day later, just before the board voted 4-1 to terminate Lincoln Memorial’s charter.

The notice was also used as evidence in the Division of Administrative Hearings when Lincoln filed an unsuccessful appeal.

“The document was later used in court as evidence, which started the downward spiral of not only the school, but its most precious jewels have/are being affected,” Williams said in her pre-suit notice.

Williams’ notice followed inquiries by Lincoln Memorial’s prior leadership. In a recent meeting with Palmetto city staff, the school’s former principal and CEO said he first saw the shut-off notice during the July 23 school board meeting.

Eddie Hundley questioned why district officials — Superintendent Saunders and district attorney Mitchell Teitelbaum — would receive Lincoln Memorial’s shut-off notice, and why school officials never received the notice. The document entered into evidence had no signature on a line that read, “copy of notification received by,” fueling concerns that it was never sent to the school.

In response, city and school district officials said the notice was sent to Cornelle Maxfield, then the school’s chief financial officer. According to a chain of emails provided by the school district, the shut-off notice was sent by the city to Maxfield at 3:26 p.m. on July 22, and it was sent to Superintendent Saunders about 40 minutes later.

City employees said the notice was also hand delivered, but that point has led to further contention. Hundley recently obtained another copy of the notice from Palmetto, which included a signature but no date or printed name.

Palmetto officials could not immediately say who received and signed the shut-off notice, according to an audio recording of the meeting.

Calling it evidence of collusion, the school’s former leaders and their supporters have pointed to an email from city employee Lana Patrick to the school district superintendent.

“Hi Ms. Saunders,” the email reads. “Per the City of Palmetto’s Mayor request, attached please find a copy of the shut-off notice dated 07.22.19 for Lincoln Memorial Academy.”

According to Teitelbaum, the school district’s attorney, Saunders had a standing request with city officials — one that predated the shut-off notice — to keep her apprised of any potential disruptions to the school’s water service, an issue that affects both staff and students.

The timing of the notice, sent one day before the school board’s takeover of Lincoln Memorial, was also in question. While the shut-off notice said “the above utility account is now 45 days past due,” the school was actually 17 days late in paying the $3,216 water bill.

Lincoln Memorial supporters have said the notice was created and sent early, but the city attorney said it was nothing more than a “typographical error.” And while the bill was 17 days past its due date, it was 39 days past the original billing date of June 13.

The city can discontinue services that are not paid within “45 days of billing,” meaning Lincoln Memorial was about one week from the cutoff, according to a letter by city attorney Mark Barnebey.

“It is the city’s desire to have all of its customers pay for the utility services being provided and not have to shut off such services, if possible,” he wrote, addressing the school district’s attorney on Oct. 18.

“LMA was sent this notice according to Section 29-38 in an attempt to remind LMA of the upcoming disconnect date and provide LMA with an opportunity to remedy the situation. In that regard, the notice was effective and LMA paid the overdue balance prior to July 30, 2019.”

If the issue of Lincoln Memorial’s water bill were cast aside, it’s not clear whether the outcome would change. When administrative law judge Robert Cohen upheld the charter termination, he considered a host of factors, including Lincoln Memorial’s debt to the IRS and the Florida Retirement System, along with the loss of its food vendor, another result of missed payments.

Cohen also noted Hundley’s continued presence on campus, despite a decision by the Florida Education Practices Commission to revoke his educator certificate for five years.

But in his 95-page order, Cohen said the shut-off notice was “perhaps the most inexplicable failure to pay issue.”

Supporters of Lincoln Memorial are steadfast in their mission to uncover potential wrongdoing that took place during the process. The school, which was segregated until 1969, was a hub for the community, and it was celebrated for the opportunities it provided to minority students.

The recent charter conversion was meant to restore pride and community ownership at Lincoln Memorial, but its troubled finances caught the attention of the school district, along with Richard Corcoran, the state’s education commissioner.

The termination prompted a fervent outcry that seems to grow each week. Rodney Jones, former president of the Manatee NAACP, sent a lengthy email to dozens of people on Oct. 17, repeating the water shut-off allegations. He soon received a response from school board member Scott Hopes.

“Really, Mr. Jones, is this a threat, an attempt to change the findings of fact resulting from an administrative hearing as determined by a judge, or an attempt to redirect attention from the travesties of the mismanagement of LMA by its former Board and administration?” Hopes wrote.

“I personally know people who have killed due to someone who harmed their children,” Jones responded. “This is in no way a threat by me as I do not condone violence, but at times it is necessary. I simply offer you a warning.”

Giuseppe Sabella, education reporter for the Bradenton Herald, holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Florida. He spent time at the Independent Florida Alligator, the Gainesville Sun and the Florida Times-Union. His coverage of education in Manatee County earned him a first place prize in the Florida Society of News Editors’ 2019 Journalism Contest. Giuseppe also spent one year in Charleston, W.Va., earning a first-place award for investigative reporting.