Special to South Florida Times

RIVIERA BEACH — The facts seem to say one thing but those who know Ernest Brown tell a different story.

An internal audit report completed in October showed that Brown, the popular, long time  director of bands at the top-ranked Suncoast High School, took  six family members on a band trip to Paris in 2008 for “free or at little cost,” using $15,000 from school funds.

The audit of the school’s funds came after a change of principals in 2008 and it pointed to improprieties and budget shortfalls.

According to the report, a 2007 band trip to London left a $45,400 deficit and a 2008 trip to Paris left a $62,495  deficit. Most of the deficit for the trip to Paris was due to Brown’s family members and other “non-school persons” attending the international field trip free or nearly free of charge, the report said. The report said that $14,710 of the deficit was due to Brown’s family members going on the trip free or at little cost.

According to the report, the trip cost $2,545 per person and Brown’s wife, son, daughter and nephew went for free. Another daughter and a niece paid $25 and $535, respectively, toward the $2,545 fee.

Brown said there is a reason he took family members overseas for little or no charge. In his written response to the audit, addressed to current Principal Linda Cartlidge, he said he received four free trips courtesy of an organization called Youth Music of the World and they were used by himself as band director, his wife Regina as auxiliary director, one daughter as a college student performer and another daughter as a high school student performer. His son’s fee was waived, as were the fees of all band staff, he said.

His son was the percussion director. His nephew’s fee was waived, as were all college student participants. His niece, whom he listed as a drum major and performer, still owed money for the trip and was not meant to go free of charge.

Family members were granted waivers, he said, “not because they are relatives. They received the same consideration as other band staff and college students.”

According to the audit, others who went to Paris free included non-band related adults, college students, other high school students and band parents. Brown admitted in his response that he indeed waived the fees for college students, band staff, and trip coordinators.

Brown could not be reached for comment for this story.

Superintendent of Schools Art Johnson has recommended a seven-day suspension without pay for Brown and the Palm Beach School Board was to vote on the recommendation on Nov. 10 but abruptly cancelled the vote. Johnson said state prosecutors were asking about the matter. School district spokesman Nat Harrington said Johnson has not changed his mind. No new date has been set for a vote by school board members.

Sarah Alsofrom, a spokeswoman with the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office, confirmed that the matter is under review. State Attorney Michael McAuliffe, issued the following statement to South Florida Times on Tuesday: “There is an active investigation into the various matters at Suncoast High School.

We have no further comment on the scope of the investigation or any of the individuals involved. At this juncture, we also have no comment on where in this office the matter will lie.” 

Complicating the issue for Johnson is the fact the trips took place under the watch of Gloria Crutchfield, currently a district director whom he recently appointed to head an African American Male Task Force to study the dropout rate among young black male students, also went free on the trip.

Crutchfield was principal of Suncoast High and approved both the London and Paris trips, according to the audit report. To make up for the deficits in the band accounts, Crutchfield approved transferring funds from other accounts, such as Football Boosters, Advanced Placement Testing, Brain Bowl, Drama Productions and many others. The audit report said many of those transfers were “inappropriate.”

Asked if Crutchfield had acted inappropriately in the band matter and will face disciplinary action, school district spokesman Harrington had a one-word answer in an e-mail: “No.”

Crutchfield went on the Paris trip free of charge but her trip was paid for out of the school’s Advanced Placement budget. She conducted official school-related business while in Paris, visiting two International Baccalaureate schools.

The audit findings were released to the School Board’s Audit Committee on Oct. 15. They do nothing to shake the confidence Brown enjoys among some in the community.

Some former band students stand behind the man they say they revere, respect and adore for his knowledge of music, his dedication, and his commitment to the bands and students of Suncoast High. They paint a picture of a man who is a mentor and a father figure to band members for years.

“Mr. Brown is as close to a father as any man can get to you. That’s why a lot of former students call him ‘Uncle Brown.’ He is a father figure to a lot of people,” said Jonathan Abner, 29, of Riviera Beach.

Abner, currently the announcer for the Suncoast High Marching Band, met Brown 16 years ago, when he was a sophomore in the band. After graduating, he returned to Suncoast as a band alumnus and took on the role as percussion director before eventually becoming announcer.

“When I first met him, I had to fear him because he wasn’t going to let you just settle for what you wanted to settle for. He was going to pull the best out of you,” said Abner, who now owns his own video photography business. “He is very serious about work ethic, very serious about the bands.

Sonja Kelly, 32, agrees. Also a Suncoast band alumnus, she met Brown in 1992 as a freshman in the band. “It was just an awesome organization – structured, hard work. The band was the group that everybody wanted to be a part of,” she recalled.

Kelly said the experience inspired her to go to college and join the famous Marching 100 band at Florida A&M University, where Brown was once the drum major. But after graduating with bachelor’s and master’s degrees, she ended up teaching English at Suncoast and working under Brown with the band. She worked as assistant auxiliary director, under Brown’s wife, then the band’s auxiliary director.

Kelly went on to found Divinity Dance of West Palm Beach, of which she is the artistic director. She says Brown had such an impact on his students that many return to assist with the band, as she did.

Kelly and Abner assisted with the band on the trip to Paris. Abner said it was life-transforming for many of the students, many of whom had never left the state. The band’s performance in front of the famed Eiffel Tower, in front of thousands of people, was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The band also took part in several parades in the French capital.

But traveling on a plane for eight hours, learning about another culture and seeing another way of life formed an invaluable experience for students, he said.

“My main objective is to make all activities possible for all students,” Brown wrote in his response to the audit findings. “I based all my decisions on doing what was best for all stakeholders (especially the students) of the Suncoast Band Organization.”

Abner and Kelly agreed.

“These allegations are brought up by people who obviously have no idea what he means to the students at Suncoast High,” Abner said.