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Alachua County School Board eyes changes to Camp Crystal Lake, former superintendent calls for external investigation

The school district serves more students of color than white students. Camp Crystal Lake is subsidized with taxpayer funds, and a workshop commenter questioned why the large majority of its campers have been white. (Photos courtesy of Alachua County Public Schools)
The school district serves more students of color than white students. Camp Crystal Lake is subsidized with taxpayer funds, and a workshop commenter questioned why the large majority of its campers have been white. (Photos courtesy of Alachua County Public Schools)

Following an internal investigation into the camp's management and use of taxpayer funds, the school board is advising changes and raising questions about equitable access.

Scott Burton has served as director of Camp Crystal Lake – owned and funded by the Alachua County School Board – since 2013. Though a recent investigation cleared Burton of violating any existing school board policies, questions it raised have spurred changes by camp management and ongoing discussion by the school board.

At a school board workshop Tuesday, Chief of Finance Alex Rella presented possible changes to make the summer camp self-sufficient and isolate district funds for the school year educational programs only. Board members advised the camp to raise both summer camp and out-of-county camper fees.

Former superintendent Carlee Simon was fired earlier this year but not before raising the concerns that spurred the investigation. She is now facing a potential lawsuit for defamation by Burton and accused the camp of mismanaging taxpayer funds during public comment.

She said scholarships had not been distributed based on need in the past, but had been given to affluent families, a former superintendent on a six-figure salary, and out-of-county families who don't pay taxes to the district.

Simon alleged the internal investigation included investigators whose children also received camp scholarships, and that though no probable cause was found, policies that were violated were not listed in the investigation.

She read a text message she said was from Burton to a camp staff member.

"'Remind me to have a private conversation about my' – I won't identify – 'guys,'" Simon read, omitting wording that could potentially violate federal privacy regulations. "'I am giving them a partial scholarship as a thank you for being business partners with us. Camp Hazelnut is getting bigger and bigger and it looks great having their kids here. This is not a scholarship in the sense they are financially struggling, but more, like I said, a thank you. Make sense? . . . I don't want anyone to know. We are also moving the student to a two-week session. They know not to talk as well."

Neither the school board nor Burton responded directly to Simon's comments at the workshop.

Simon called for the current district superintendent to request an external investigation of the camp. Her mic was muted after the three-minute limit for public comment while she argued for an extension of time.

Currently, the camp’s revenue doesn’t cover its expenditures. It operates year-round, between free educational visits during the school year – day-long field trips for second graders and three-day overnight trips for 5th graders – and the summer camp.

Camper fees and interest brought in just over $847,000 in the 2018-2019 fiscal year, before COVID. The camp spent almost one and a half million dollars. The difference was covered by nearly $600,000 in taxpayer money. (District funding dipped to $450,000 for the 2020-2021 school year after the camp reduced activities due to the pandemic.) This subsidy includes funding for Burton's position, currently $111,348.

That funding helps the camp to operate year-round and provide free educational visits during the school year. These visits would not be affected by the changes being proposed.

The points Simon raised during public comment echo concerns in her Nov. 5 email to school board members:

  • Dish television satellite coverage at approximately $182 per month was being paid for by the district, including a Big Ten football package subscription. This subscription has since been canceled.
  • Summer camp spots were given to out-of-county students despite historically long waitlists.
  • The amount of scholarship money given was exceeding the number of scholarship donations received. No need-based metric was used to allocate scholarships. It appeared "gifts" of camp tuition were given to friends of the director. Scholarship recipient names are redacted in the investigation.

Rella told the investigator he’s been raising the same concerns over the funding of the camp and the allocation of its scholarships to every superintendent since he began in the position half a decade ago.
When the school district’s staff attorney asked Burton to explain why it appeared that “gifts” of camp tuition were given to his friends, he said he was unable to disclose the reasoning due to federal privacy regulations.

The camp currently charges $545 per week to Alachua County residents who want to attend, with an additional $75 fee for out-of-county residents.

A scholarship committee was developed following the investigation, with representation from the camp’s equity department.

The scholarship application was since changed for the upcoming summer. The amount is capped at 90%. It now includes checkboxes to indicate whether the family receives Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits, and whether the child is in the foster care system. It requires every person in the household and their income to be listed, and tax returns to be attached. It says preference will be given to Alachua County residents.

Scholarship process reform is one step toward increasing access to the camp, something board members and Alachua County resident Anne Koterba advocated for at the workshop.

"I have looked at Facebook and I've seen a whole lot of kids having a really wonderful time at Camp Crystal," Koterba said. "But I see mostly white children at that camp."

Koterba said while there are Black children at the summer camp, it doesn't reflect the demographics of the school district, which serves more students of color than white students. She questioned why the demographics of the camp didn't change over the years despite the camp creating an equity department.

Burton's lawyer, Bryan Boukari, responded on his behalf for this story, prior to the workshop. Boukari said Burton doesn’t control who applies for attendance at Camp Crystal Lake, so he is not positioned to comment on why most campers are white.

Scholarship allocation is just one of several policies that may be preventing the camp from reflecting the school system’s demographics, and which school board members are now reviewing.

Before COVID, the number of camper applications consistently exceeded the number of spots. Rella said they see a little less than a thousand campers each summer. A 2018 article said more than 400 remain on the waitlist every year.

Burton said at the time that he wished “every child in Alachua County could come to camp for a few days.” Some present at the workshop, and a parent who lives in East Gainesville, said the camp’s registration policies may not support that goal.

The camp long operated on a first-come, first-served basis. In the days of paper applications, registrars used the post office’s date stamps to prioritize them. When registration went online and the digital time stamps came into use, the camp spots sold out in minutes. So many people were clamoring for the camp’s limited slots that it crashed the servers.

In 2015, the camp developed a tiered system for placing campers, “in an effort to keep our camp family unified and reward loyalty,” the announcement said. First slots are now assigned to returning campers and their siblings.

This legacy-oriented system contributes to an odd fact: though the camp is subsidized by Alachua County taxpayers, its website says only 85% of its campers are from the county. The rest come from other counties, states, and even countries. Camp staff said it’s because families who move away still want their grandkids to come to camp.

At the workshop, Burton said one of the current legacy campers is the great-grandson of Howard Bishop, for whom an Alachua County school is named.

“You will learn that Camp Crystal Lake is like a private school,” a former camp registrar told the investigator. “They [sic] legacy of past campers COME EVERY YEAR.”

Returning campers are prioritized for spots, and most Crystal Lake campers have been white.

The camp first launched in 1949, after the school board bought the property for less than a thousand dollars, an extreme bargain even after adjusting for inflation. 

“Applications for summer camp were sent to Alachua County schools,” one history of the camp reads, “and the word-of-mouth buzz that has characterized Camp Crystal since its inception had begun.”

Black students weren’t allowed to attend until the summer of 1965, after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 mandated the integration of all public spaces. Still, multiple longstanding obstacles remain.

“Word of mouth buzz” continues to be the main way people hear about the camp, School Board Member Tina Certain said. Her own children attended Camp Crystal Lake about two decades ago, she said. Certain, who is Black, heard about it while assisting with her son's Cub Scout pack, when he was asked to room with a white child. She said her family hadn't even known the camp existed, and they weren't able to obtain a spot until their second year applying.

Certain said many Black families don't know about the camp. And besides cost and transportation, online registration can be prohibitive, as many families don’t have internet access.

Gainesville resident Tina Days said she wanted to send her children to Camp Crystal Lake, but assumed it wasn’t an option when she saw the price tag. She didn’t know about the scholarships and she had heard that there was always an impossibly long waitlist.

Days lives on the east side of Gainesville and said her daughter’s friends that are minorities “don’t even consider Camp Crystal an option at all.” Days attributes this to the price and the lack of diversity both in camp staff and the campers themselves.

“Minority kids won’t feel comfortable if they’re the only ones there,” Days said. “I feel like Camp Crystal really needs to go out into the community over at Eastside to let people know about Camp Crystal, do outreach so they can get more minorities.”

This need for outreach was echoed at the workshop by Certain, who wants the camp leadership to come back to the board with a clear process for how they are going to advertise the revised scholarship.

Black households in Alachua County earn roughly halfthe annual median income of white households. The camp currently costs more per week than the majority of Black households in the county earn.

The fee hikes for the camp may have been necessary. It has long faced financial challenges, but coalitions of community organizations consistently fought to keep it open.

As of September, the camp has a little over $330,000 in its internal account.

Rella said any scholarship applicant for the 2022 summer season who marked that they received Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits was immediately given a 90% scholarship. Certain voiced concern that more scholarship money has been promised than has been raised.

Certain brought up an already existing system to increase access to programs some may not be able to afford; after-school programming is scaled based on whether students receive free or reduced lunch. That system could be applied to Camp Crystal Lake.

The scholarship still requires the camper to be placed in a session at camp, and the website still says returning campers and their siblings are given priority over any new campers.

To get a scholarship, Black students must first know about the camp to begin with, then register online for the camp and obtain a spot despite the prioritization of returning campers.

“Mr. Burton's objective is and has always been to include any and every student and family who wants to attend Camp Crystal Lake,” Boukari wrote in an April 8 email. “Mr. Burton supports any policy or procedure that will extend the reach of the Camp Crystal Lake program to new participants.” 

Boukari said Burton is responsible for operating the camp, but any policy or procedural matters are wholly in the control of district administration and the school board.

The job description says the Camp Crystal Lake director must “work cooperatively with the district staff and school personnel in the areas of policy development and program direction.” It places budget management and camper recruitment in the purview of the director.

Certain said previously, Burton unilaterally announced the scholarship program requirements and the priority registration policy without any vote from the school board.

In contrast to Camp Crystal Lake, Certain said Camp Cuscowilla opened with an equity lens from its beginning last year, and as a result, is more reflective of the district’s demographics. Thanks to a Children’s Trust of Alachua County grant and private fundraising by the Friends of Cuscowilla, the 2021 summer camp season was offered to 400 children free of charge.

“It may be Alachua County school children’s most popular classroom,” a Gainesville Sun reporter wrote about Camp Crystal Lake in 1993, “a classroom where sand and rock and streams are the floor, where the sky and the stars are the ceiling and where there are no walls.”

Seventy-three years after opening, equal access to this classroom remains under discussion.

Katie Hyson was a Report for America Corps Member at WUFT News from 2021 to 2023. She now works for KPBS in San Diego.