A citizen journalist who published his reports anonymously was just outed at a Hillsborough County School Board meeting.
He might have been, anyway.
Responding to a tirade from resident Jason Ferger, board member April Griffin announced that Ferger is the author of the Hillsborough School Board County Whistleblower Facebook page. She also accused one of her colleagues, board member Melissa Snively, of being involved in the creation of the watchdog site more than two years ago.
Ferger finished his remarks and left the meeting room.
Snively was not at the meeting.
Whistleblower is one of two Facebook pages that appeared shortly after the January 2015 firing of the last superintendent, MaryEllen Elia. The first was called “We Love Our Superintendent.” It was short-lived.
The second, “Whistleblower,” caught on and remained active, even though some of its early reporting was quickly disputed by district officials.
The four board members who voted to fire Elia — Griffin, Susan Valdes, Cindy Stuart and Sally Harris, are frequent targets of the Whistleblower reports. Its author uses the name “Mike Schmoronoff” in his correspondence with the district. His sources include teachers and dissatisfied district employees, some of whom are retired.
Tuesday’s heated exchange began during the audience comments period, when Ferger questioned numerous expenditures at a time when the district cannot afford to keep school air conditioners in working order, or pay its teachers their scheduled raises.
“Why is there nothing for the public to see concerning the ROI (return on investment) for the government relations department?” he asked.
Citing a $100,000 contract for the Office of Stategy Management, he asked, “Is there no one here in the district who can do this inhouse? Seriously. I see the word grant in here, but is that really where the money’s coming from? There is no way the public is going to support a penny tax when you all keep spending money on consultants. You need to start building capacity.”
Then it got personal.
Ferger alluded to a video he had seen of member Valdes throwing a copy of Roberts Rules of Order in the trash. Valdes shook her head at the description.
He accused Harris of wasting district money and staff time on the slide shows she presents at the end of every board meeting. “You are wasting public tax dollars,” he said. And when she smiled brightly, he added, “it’s not funny. You’re wasting my tax dollars. Literally no one cares about it. It’s become a joke among many.”
He recalled a remark Harris had made in November as Stuart was stepping down as chairwoman, describing calls she had received from Stuart late at night and early in the morning. He said he requested her cell phone records to see if the two were really communicating directly after hours, which could be considered a violation of Florida’s sunshine law.
The records he received showed Stuart had made only five calls on her district cell phone during about six weeks when she was chair.
“Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me?” Ferger said. “Or is it that you’re using your personal cell phone to conduct district business?” he said. “I hope that you’re not.”
As for Griffin, Ferger took her to task for insisting that the district administer an extensive student survey about high-risk behaviors such as smoking, alcohol use and sex, and then not releasing the findings publicly or sharing it with the board.
That’s when Griffin took her shot.
“I would like to ask you a question,” she said. “Because I have had a lot of people contacting me in reference to the Whistleblower site which you operate.”
Griffin accused Ferger of censoring some of the discussion comments on the site.
“So as far as hours wasted,” she continued, “I’d like to get a number, Mr. Superintendent, of hours that Mike Shmoronoff, aka Jason Ferger, has wasted on his public records requests.”
Ferger: “Would you like me to respond to that? I’d like to see the proof.”
Griffin: “Ms. Snively admitted to the superintendent that you and she came up with the Whistleblower, and it came from her mouth.”
At that point, the conversation moved to Ferger’s request for all of Stuart’s phone records, including those of her personal phone. He threatened to sue the School Board if they do not comply. Griffin repeated her request for an estimate of time spent on Schmoronoff’s request.
They then moved on to other business.
Reached in Tallahassee, where Snively said she had travelled at her own expense to attend the Legislature’s Children’s Week, Snively had this to say:
“Herein lies another reason why citizens in Hillsborough County have lost faith in the district. Members should be focusing on the many serious problems that need to be addressed. I don’t see watchdog groups as the problem.”
Snively did not contradict what Griffin said about her possible role in Ferger’s website. Nor is it clear if, as Ferger described in his remarks, he once met with Eakins at Snively’s house.
Another postscript: Harris, at the very end of the meeting showed her slide show, as usual. By way of explanation, she said she laughed when Ferger berated her because she was flattered that he thought her slide shows were the work of district professionals.
“I take every one of those pictures on my cell phone everywhere I go,” she said. “And then I put the slide show together all by myself. What a compliment! I’m just going to go home feeling good tonight.”
Griffin told her, “You just keep doing you, Sally.”