Rodney Jones, former president of the Manatee NAACP, left the Manatee County School Board meeting in handcuffs on Tuesday evening.
Bridget Mendel, a school board candidate and critic of Superintendent Cynthia Saunders, was speaking on an item about attorney fees when a shouting match started between district officials and audience members.
“Taxpayers would like to know how much of our hard-earned tax dollars have gone toward the legal defense of fraud and corruption, and how much more will you continue to ask us for,” Mendel said, referencing the Florida Department of Education investigation into Saunders.
“We strongly urge that you do not approve any additional funding for the legal defense of this superintendent, but rather you accept her resignation as soon as possible,” Mendel continued.
District attorney Mitchell Teitelbaum quickly objected to her comment, arguing that her statements were unrelated to the item at hand. The board was considering a $150,000 increase in the contract for Johnson Jackson LLC, and while the law firm represented Saunders in the case previously, district officials said Tuesday’s item was unrelated.
“That’s public comment,” Jones said from his seat, addressing the interruption to Mendel’s statement. “Are you all going to let that slide?”
Jones has continually criticized the school board for what he and others see as restrictive public comment guidelines, including a provision that prohibits attacks on “individual school system employees or board members.” He often voices such criticism from the audience.
“Mr. Jones, you know the protocol and you know the consequence,” board Chairman Dave Miner said on Tuesday evening.
“I haven’t seen the consequence yet,” Jones responded, sitting next to his daughter in the front row.
Several officers with the Bradenton Police Department then approached Jones, who remained seated. The officers cited Jones for disturbing a lawful assembly before lifting him up, escorting him outside of the board chambers and handcuffing him.
Police arrested Jones on the same charge — along with a charge of resisting without violence — on May 8, when he refused to leave the podium at a Bradenton City Council meeting.
Authorities also escorted Jones out of a July school board meeting when he contested the public comment guidelines. A week earlier, he was nearly escorted from a school board meeting after yelling out from the crowd, but a group of supporters blocked the door and prevented his removal.
The unrest dates back to July 23, when the school board voted to terminate Lincoln Memorial Academy’s charter and assume the school’s operations. Jones and other LMA supporters have since attended board meetings and protested district leadership.
Board members pointed to concerns with the school’s finances and leadership, and their decision was upheld by an administrative law judge in late September, but Lincoln Memorial supporters feel much of the evidence was fabricated and ill-intended.
“We firmly believe with a high level of confidence that these efforts were a deliberate effort to undermine LMA and the Black and Brown communities from controlling their own educational institution,” Jones said in an Oct. 19 email to board members.
The group is also frustrated that action was taken against Lincoln Memorial and its former leader, Eddie Hundley, while the case against Superintendent Saunders continues to drag on.
Pam Stewart, the state’s former education commissioner, found that Saunders inflated the district’s graduation rate after she joined Manatee as its executive director of secondary education. And though she negotiated a settlement agreement, Saunders had the agreement rejected earlier this month, when the Education Practices Commission found that the proposed punishment for Saunders was too light.
At Tuesday’s school board meeting, during the time for general public comment, Mendel circled back to her statement on Manatee’s superintendent.
“I call for the resignation or the firing of Saunders as soon as possible,” Mendel said without interruption.
As the meeting came to an end, the superintendent joined several school board members in calling for a peaceful resolution to the controversies surrounding Lincoln Memorial Academy.
James Golden, the school board’s only black member and a supporter of the Lincoln Memorial takeover, has been labeled a “sellout” by Jones and his supporters. Golden was less certain about the prospects for peace on Tuesday night.
“You’re not going to find peace with people who only want to make war with you,” he concluded.