Horvath switches decision on Echo House in less than 5-minutes

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ROXANNE HORVATH

St Augustine City Commissioner Roxanne Horvath admitted to the audience during the Monday night commission meeting that she did not know what took place in the negotiations that allowed St Paul AME Church to take possession of the estate of Dr. Andrew Anderson II, but two fellow commissioners were on the board in February 2010 and recalled exactly what happened.

Commissioner Leanna Freeman explained her personal experience directly with Ronald Rawls Jr, pastor of the church, who she said told her point-blank that the church had the funds on hand to pay the costs of rehabilitating the structure if they could take it over. She said she remembered the telephone call to Rawls the night the issue was decided and specifically asking questions so that she would not have to be dealing with the very embarrassing situation she faced tonight.

“We didn’t go looking for the cream of the crop,” Rawls said in a 2016 press interview. “Our design was to take the struggling students – and we’ve learned that’s not a great business move.”

LEANNA FREEMAN

The school’s contract was approved for four years in 2012 and in the final year of that contract, on January 29, 2016, Rawls withdrew the Letter of Intent to renew their charter from the St Johns County School District. They completed the 2016 school year but would not re-open the doors for the 2016-17 school year. St. Paul School of Excellence was to be a public, charter school with 60 students in grades K-4 and a student-teacher ratio of 30 to 1.

“There have been purchases with Title I dollars, there have been purchases with general operating dollars, and we have inventories of all those items,” a school district employee told Historic City News. “Whatever is salvageable of the school’s property, including computers, furniture and supplies, will go back to the School District.”

Commissioner Nancy Sikes-Kline also recalled the “sales job” that Rawls made to the City seeking their support to take over the property that, at the time, consisted of three serviceable buildings. She made clear that she felt a keen sense that the remaining building could and should be preserved as it is a contributing structure to the architecture of the National Register Historic Lincolnville Community.

NANCY SIKES KLINE

Kline said that Rawls reported that 75 percent of St. Paul’s students came to the school struggling academically and that most students came from African-American families in West Augustine.

When Freeman and Sikes-Kline realized that Rawls had lied to the commission and that he lacked the financial backing he had represented, lacked the ability to pay and keep veteran teachers, was having to switch principals each year because the school couldn’t pay what the position demanded, they felt regret for being part of the charade.

“We had a lot of new teachers who were very good at their job, but we were missing that mentorship aspect,” Rawls said when he finally closed what remained of the School of Excellence. “They needed the right type of leader.”

It was the lack of resources, Rawls said, that prevented the school from “closing the achievement gap”. He said low enrollment led to low budgets and that was to blame for the schools’ failure. In making the decision to close, Rawls told local reporters, “Our resources are so limited, and we can’t keep our children in a situation that is not what we envisioned.”

RON RAWLS

Commissioner Horvath was moved to agree after hearing the recollections of the two senior commissioners who were on the commission at the time Rawls took over the property. She went on to say that as a licensed architect working on preservation projects it’s a mistake to demolish serviceable buildings. She did recall the last fiasco involving Rawls and the Echo House property in 2012. Ormond Beach developer George Arnold reportedly paid the church $2,000 for “20 to 30 pallets of vintage red terra cotta tiles, removed from the roof of Echo House”. The manufacturer of the tiles told a member of the Citizens for the Preservation of St Augustine that the value of the missing, used tiles is about $4 each; placing the value of the tile removed at roughly $25,000. There was never an accounting for the money.

TODD NEVILLE

Next was lame-duck Commissioner Todd Neville who has already announced that he will not seek re-election in November. He decided to stand on the theory of private property rights and supported his friend, Ronald Rawls, saying that the government can’t and shouldn’t be looking at taking the property, either through the reverter clause, or eminent domain. He said it could be a long expensive process for the City and he wouldn’t go along with its approval.

Finally, the mayor, Nancy Shaver, gave an explanation that the City screwed up when they made the deed with the reverter clause. Had the clause included a reference to a specific date upon which the reconstruction had to be completed or a specific use that was required to quiet title to the property, she, Neville, and City Attorney Isabelle Lopez, expressed an opinion that the result might have been different. As it sits, though; she sees no easy remedy at hand that might save the historic 1920’s complex that at one time provided indigent African-Americans with nursing care.

NANCY SHAVER

It looked like the vote would go 3-2 denying Rawls and St Paul Church the ability to purchase the over-the-counter demolition permit, when the mayor had the City Clerk call the roll. The vote was split two-to-two when it reached Horvath, who caved, reversing her initial vote and finally voting to approve the demolition permit to be issued.

The issue passed 3-2 with Freeman and Sikes-Kline dissenting. As the gavel fell, in a sharp, clearly audible voice, Commissioner Freeman directed a remark to the AME Church board members who were on the front row that she hoped they got a new leader.

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