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April 7, 2017

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Cape Coral City Council continued to wrangle this week with issues related its municipal charter school system.

The latest contretemps?

Whether the Charter School Authority and the system's administration were responding properly to deficiencies raised in an audit released in February by including the city's financial services director and staff in its rectification plan.

Despite a memo issued in advance of the meeting by Superintendent Nelson Stephenson that the "absolute intention" of the school administration was to have ... "not only Finance Director (Victoria) Bateman but, also perhaps, procurement, audit, audit committee, information and other departments within the city assist..." Mayor Marni Sawicki -?for the third time - led a lengthy discussion fraught with not only political finger-pointing but, this go-around, allusions to ostensible malfeasance proffered by another member of Council.

Ahem.

Let us share a few salient points:

- Although required annually, this is the first internal audit since the city's first charter school opened in 2005. It was requested by Mr. Nelson, who was hired in December 2014. He said before its release that he was expecting issues and that the system would address any raised.

- Yes, the internal funds audit found deficiencies, 18 of them, as well as three "reportable conditions," matters defined as significant. Some were disputed. Some were minor. Others, quite frankly, give cause for concern.

- Council is absolutely correct in its position that any deficiencies must be addressed. Now. This is not in dispute. Not by the school governing board, which is chaired by a member of the City Council. Not by the school system's administration and faculty, which the city auditor's cover letter plainly states "are to be commended on their proactive response to each finding as it was presented."

- "Findings," are more common than rare in an internal audit.

The School District of Lee County, for example, conducts an annual audit of each public school. In 2015, there were findings in 68 of its 89 audit reports.

Closer to home, last year the city conducted at least five routine internal audits among its departments - Police, Public Works, HR and two within the Utilities Department, one for capital projects, the other for billing procedures. There were a combined 22 findings and five reportable conditions.

None of these city audits came to Council for discussion. None came to the Audit Committee headed by Mayor Sawicki for a recommendation to Council, the supposed reason the charter school audit was back on the agenda Monday night. There were no public airings that placed blame.

So why the ugly rehash redux this week?

Simply put, it was a continuation of a political power struggle that has its roots deep in a months' old dust-up between Mayor Sawicki and Mr. Stephenson, who, in the wake of this week's go-around, left the system Tuesday with a four-month severance package and a letter of recommendation in hand.

Elected officials, like the rest of us, often fall into three categories:

When there are issues on the table, there are those who see the glass as half full and contribute to fill the gap;

There are those who see the glass as half empty and focus only on the lack;

And there are those who poison the water so no one can drink.

Petty politics is usually the contaminant. It obscures the facts. It taints the discussion. It corrupts the conclusions.

So how to purify this well?

Mr. Stephenson, in that final memo to Council, had a suggestion: "Only in working together can we both become stronger."

We agree.

What this matter needs going forward is more glass-half-full leadership on the city side.

Otherwise, the dregs of this controversy are shaping up to be bitter, indeed.

- Breeze editorial

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