Youth Center may lose alternative school, terminate director Heazlitt
The board of Furthering Youth Inc. appeared poised last Thursday night to fire Gerdon Youth Center’s executive director, but failure to properly advertise an executive session for the second week in a row led to a postponement until tomorrow night.
Meanwhile, the contentious meeting at GYC prompted an 8-1 vote by the Gerdon Alternative School Steering Committee, recommending the county’s school superintendents relocate the school.
The superintendents are expected to act on the recommendation during a special meeting in the Commissioners’ Room of the Harrison County Court House tomorrow at 1 p.m.
The FYI meeting last week was the second since the forced resignation of Brent Lewis, GYC’s popular program director, and for the second week in a row, improper notice left the board unable to act.
FYI is the non-profit agency that operates the youth center and its alternative school on East Chestnut Street in Corydon. The board’s past two meetings have become a battleground for critics and supporters of GYC Executive Director Debbie Heazlitt and her recent actions.
The meetings have caught the attention of members of the Harrison County Council and Harrison County Commissioners, several of whom attended Thursday evening. They allocate about $270,000 annually to GYC.
Also present were the directors of Harrison County Community Services and Harrison County Community Foundation.
Top issues continued to be the employment of Lewis and Heazlitt, and the role of the alternative school within GYC.
The alternative school’s steering committee met Monday, and President Doug Dodge said the Thursday meeting factored heavily in the committee’s recommendation that ties be severed between the alternative school and GYC.
‘There have just been a lot of things said, and not everything was based on facts. A lot of it was based on perception,’ Dodge said.
‘We just put a lot of time and effort in getting the alternative school off the ground and getting it running, and I think it has been a very successful program at this point, and we don’t want to see anything happen to diminish that program,’ he said.
David Dillman, who is both an FYI board member and alternative school steering committee member, cast the dissenting vote on the 8-1 recommendation.
Thursday night’s meeting at the center was controversial before the public session started.
While people stood outside the conference room, the board met in private for more than half an hour before members said they were unable to hold an executive session or take any action due to failure to post notice as required by the state’s Open Door Law.
This was to be the board’s first-ever executive session, said board member and Harrison County Prosecutor Dennis Byrd. He said all that was discussed behind closed doors was whether a meeting could be legally held.
This was the second time action was delayed on a written motion by Dillman calling for the termination of Heazlitt’s employment.
‘I assumed that motion would be carried out,’ Heazlitt said.
Dodge said in an interview yesterday that Heazlitt’s future is an eventual topic for the alternative school’s steering committee.
‘We only discussed the relationship between Gerdon’s and the alternative school. I’m sure it will be discussed. We will have to find somebody to run it,’ said Dodge.
Brent Lewis said he was told Feb. 10 by Heazlitt that he must immediately resign or be terminated. He resigned, and children, parents and colleagues rallied to support him.
Dillman first circulated his written motion Feb. 17. Heazlitt subsequently cleaned out her office but sat with the board at Thursday’s meeting and continues to perform her duties as executive director.
During the course of the meeting, Corydon chiropractor and FYI board member Chris Stock said, in response to a question, that should Heazlitt be fired, the action would be for reasons unrelated to Lewis’ resignation, but he did not elaborate.
Board members said they are bound by law not to discuss personnel issues, including why Lewis was asked to resign.
Stock, who spoke frequently at the Feb. 17 meeting, was seated in a chair at the center of the board where President Lola Ratterman sat a week earlier, and he appeared to conduct most of the meeting.
When Corydon Town Marshal Nick Smith asked who was the board president, Ratterman indicated herself.
Stock opened the floor to public comment regarding ‘the alternative school or whatever else,’ and though the majority of speakers and audience members said they had come to show support for Lewis, the meeting was again dominated by comments regarding the alternative school and Heazlitt.
Harrison County Commissioner James Goldman said at the meeting that when touring the facility earlier with Stock, Stock referred to the alternative school as ‘a dumping ground for North Harrison’s castouts.’
Stock said he did not deny making the statement.
Smith and Stock both said that political motives rather than the best interests of the children might be driving the agendas of some influential figures who spoke about GYC.
Smith said politicking in the room made him ‘sick,’ and he suspected a conspiracy among Harrison County Democrats.
Heazlitt and prominent Democrat and longtime Corydon Town Council President Fred Cammack have a close relationship. Cammack circulated a petition in support of Heazlitt after her job performance was called into question.
Stock said he had nothing to gain by being at the center. He said his interest was the best interests of the kids.
‘Yeah, but everybody has an ego,’ said retired businessman J. Gordon Pendleton.
Stock said he did not believe he had an ego problem; however, later when Pendleton asked why Stock appeared to be addressing him directly, Stock said he was still upset by the ego remark.
Pendleton said the alternative school would not be at the center without Heazlitt, ‘and that’s where half your funding comes from,’ he said.
Stock said that allocations by county government suggested favoritism toward the alternative school, noting that more money had been given to the alternative school than the youth center.
‘I’ve never seen one of you board members at a county council meeting when funding for the programs was being discussed,’ said Gary Davis, a Republican and president of the seven-member Harrison County Council, which has a Republican majority.
He said the council allocated the exact dollar amounts requested by representatives of GYC in both the cases of the center and alternative school.
‘I’m here because we funded these programs for almost $300,000,’ Davis said, adding, ‘What I don’t want to happen is for these programs to suffer because of internal squabbles. I want to see efficient and effective use of the taxpayers’ money.
‘None of your people sitting on the board were ever elected to anything that I’m aware (Davis later made an allowance for Byrd, the county prosecutor). I don’t want all these people sitting around badmouthing the politicians, because we didn’t cause any of these problems,’ Davis said.
Stock said he would attend all future county council meetings.
Discussion of Lewis was brief even after Tina Whittaker, a college student who won the Bell Award Youth Service Honor for her volunteer work in the Corydon area in 2001, appealed to the audience to speak out in his support.
‘We are mostly here about Debbie (Heazlitt),’ said Haley McFarland, a youth who uses the center. McFarland was critical of Heazlitt though she said she didn’t know who Heazlitt was until after Lewis resigned.
Harrison County Commissioner J.R. Eckart was one of the last to speak.
‘The only reason I put my vote behind this is because of the youth this place is serving. The center has been frugal in its use and good stewards with what they get,’ he said.
‘I came here tonight to learn and listen so that I could be more involved and ask the board to look past emotion to consider the facts and in your heart do what you know is right,’ Eckart said.
The board is to meet again Thursday evening. The executive session is scheduled for 6:30, and the public session is to follow at 7.