Folio Weekly has learned that three of Duval County’s seven sitting board members have been targeted for public records requests by Robert H. Fernandez, a litigation attorney who once served as Deputy General Counsel to Gov. Jeb Bush.
Fernandez, a partner in the Coral Gables-based Zumpano Castro Law Firm, has issued two separate public records requests to Duval County School Board members Becki Couch, Dr. Connie Hall, and Paula Wright.
Who is Robert H. Fernandez?
As Deputy General Counsel in the then-Governor’s office, Fernandez served as a top lieutenant in Bush-brand education reform, particularly on school privatization efforts. Fernandez and one other attorney represented Jeb Bush in Florida’s landmark school voucher case, Bush v. Holmes. The Holmes case ended Bush’s plan for tax dollars to be used for private school vouchers. (Now, pre-treasury, “tax-credit” dollars are used for private school vouchers through the 501c3 organization, Step Up For Students.)
According to his firm’s website, Fernandez “… is considered one of the leading lawyers in South Florida on representation of elected officials and candidates on election and ethics law issues.”
Fernandez also once served as a reference for the cousin of charter school lobbyist Ralph Arza.
Hugo Arza listed Fernandez and one other Bush-affiliated attorney when he applied to serve on the Florida Schools of Excellence Commission in 2007. The commission, which was designed to take charter school decisions out of the hands of local school districts, became defunct in 2008, when the First District Court of Appeal found it unconstitutional. Folio Weekly left a message for Fernandez on his office voicemail, but the call was not returned in time for our publication deadline.
Who is Ralph Arza?
Ralph Arza, a former member of the Florida House of Representatives, turned himself into the police for witness tampering charges in 2006. He admitted to leaving an obscenity-laced voicemail message for fellow lawmaker Gus Barreiro, and to using a racial slur in that recording. Barreiro had previously filed a complaint against Arza for calling a sitting schools superintendent a racial slur. Arza pled guilty in the criminal matter, served probation and community service, enrolled in anger management classes, and apologized publicly for his actions. He also withdrew his name from consideration for re-election to the House.
Prior to the scandal, Arza was regarded as an important point-person in the Florida House for implementing Bush’s education reform initiatives. Arza, quoted often in the media as a longtime friend and adviser to presidential candidate Marco Rubio, now lobbies for the Florida Charter School Alliance. FSCA is one of several school-privatization advocacy organizations that are organized under the umbrella “Florida Alliance for Choice in Education,” or FACE.
A vocal champion of school privatization, Arza told CBS affiliate WPEC-TV Channel 12 in South Florida, “The parents decide where the money goes, not the school district.”
Charter schools have become more controversial in Palm Beach County recently, where, on Nov. 9, the school board voted 6-0 against opening a new CharterSchoolsUSA operation, citing a lack of innovative programming, which state statutes require. Charter schools are privately run, publicly funded organizations. Charter schools operate in privately held real estate assets, which receive public dollars for capital improvements.
Palm Beach County is also challenging an appeal of its previous denial of a charter school application. The Florida Board of Education reversed the PBC board’s December 2014 decision to deny a charter application — Palm Beach County fired back in September 2015 by appealing to the Fourth District Court of Appeal. The Palm Beach County board says that it, not the state Board of Education, has the final say when it comes to regulating local PBC schools.
Republican lawmaker Manny Diaz (District 103) has all but acknowledged that the Palm Beach County School Board is right, by filing a proposed amendment to change the constitution. Diaz’s amendment would hand over local control of charter school approval to the state.
In an interview with The Palm Beach Post, Arza dubbed Palm Beach County as “ground zero” for what he calls an “open war” on charter schools. In a story run on WPEC-TV Channel 12, Arza said that his group will file an ethics complaint with the state regarding how the board handled the charter school applications. Arza did not specify in that interview how a vote against a charter school application could be construed as unethical.
Folio Weekly tried contacting Arza through his consulting firm, but Arza was unavailable for comment.
Three School Board Members in Palm Beach County also Targeted for Public Records Requests
One day after Arza told WPEC-TV12 he’d be filing an ethics complaint, the Palm Beach County School Board received a public records request from Fernandez, singling out Board Vice Chairman Frank Barbieri for his communications with 16 individuals and The Palm Beach Post. Those listed in the emailed Nov. 10 request included five of his six fellow board members, their local superintendent of schools, three members of the district’s legal staff, choice and charter school officials, and several other district officials.
On Nov. 16, Fernandez sent a second public records request targeted at the three PBC school board members who have indicated that they will be running for re-election: Barbieri, Board Chairman Chuck Shaw, and Mike Murgio. In that request, Fernandez asked for travel and travel-related reimbursement information, salary and benefit information, and non-travel-related reimbursement documents.
Ethics complaints against public officials are often based on public records regarding travel expenses. Jacksonville’s former mayor Alvin Brown was the target of an ethics complaint in June 2013, regarding donor-paid airline travel that was improperly recorded. The Florida Commission on Ethics later dismissed the complaint against Brown. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Alaska’s former governor Sarah Palin have also been called on to defend ethics complaints based on travel expenditures discovered through public records requests.
Has Arza’s “Open War” moved north to Duval County?
In his capacity as charter school lobbyist, Arza was in the audience of a Duval County School Board meeting during which the board voted to approve the area’s eighth Charter Schools USA operation. District officials had recommended denial of the CSUSA application twice before, noting that the company’s governance structure conflicted with state statutes.
The vote to approve the CSUSA school was held on Oct. 20, and Couch, Hall and Wright were on the losing end of that 4-3 decision.
Folio Weekly has learned that Arza requested a private meeting with Becki Couch, who once served as chairman of Duval’s school board. When Couch offered, via email, to meet with him in a noticed, public setting and to include Hall and Wright in the meeting, Arza politely declined.
The email exchange requesting a private meeting between Couch and Arza began on Sept. 9. On Sept. 15, Arza expressed that while he’d be willing schedule an open meeting with charter school stakeholders and the district, he wanted a meeting “between you and me.” Arza wrote further: “I have heard a lot about you and wanted to speak with you directly about some issues that have recently come up.” Couch responded, declining Arza’s invitation.
Folio Weekly is submitting a public records request to all seven board members regarding communications with Arza and other school-privatization proponents.
Fernandez’s Public Records Requests
On Nov. 10, Fernandez emailed the first of two public records requests, both of which regarded only Couch, Hall and Wright. Addressed to Duval County Schools Chief of Legal Services Karen Chastain, Fernandez’s first request asks for three items regarding those members:
1) Travel: All travel in-district and out-of-district reimbursements with copies of original receipts for the past 12 months
2) Salary and benefits information for each
3) Any non-travel reimbursements provided to each.
Fernandez’s second request was emailed on Nov. 16. It similarly takes aim at the same three board members, seeking communications between and among the three members, as well as with nine others. Here is Fernandez’s second request, in pertinent part:
Please provide these documents for School Board members Becki Couch, Paula Wright and Connie Hall in electronic form if so available, and if not so available, in hard copy:
Any and all communications, including but not limited to text messages from any private cell number(s) and private email(s) being used for public business or public communications, between these School Board members and the following individuals for the last 60 days related to any and all School District issues/business:
The last two on the list are former school board members.
Cole is the board’s former secretary, and Chastain is an attorney with the district.
Bradford Hall was thought to be slated to run against Paula Wright and Darryl Willie in Duval County’s District 4 School Board race in 2014, but withdrew from the race before filing.
Asking for communications with a laundry list of individuals who may have communicated with Couch, Hall, or Wright may be an attempt to trap officials in Sunshine law violation claims, based on the idea that third parties could act as proxy communicators with school board members on particular votes. Sunshine law prohibits two or more public officials from communicating on public business without a noticed, public meeting.
When asked about the public records requests, Couch told Folio Weekly, “There’s nothing to see because we all follow the law. It just takes up staff time.”
A History of Hardball
School privatization proponents have been known to play political hardball against local school board members who disagree with “choice” initiatives. In the year leading up to 2014 school board elections, Florida Federation for Children, a pro-charter school and voucher school electioneering and communications organization, or ECO, collected $1.3 million to use in campaigns of its choice, which may have also included legislative campaigns. John Kirtley is founder of Florida’s private school voucher program, Step Up For Students, and chairman of the Federation. He took credit that year for unseating local school board incumbents — across the state — who voted against the Bush-brand privatization agenda.
Kirtley, a venture capitalist who lives in Tampa, is a partner in the equity firm KLH Capital, and is a named director for one of KLH’s investments, Uretek Holdings. Duval County School Board member Jason Fischer works for Uretek and denies any conflict of interest in voting on charter school matters. Fischer’s direct supervisor at Uretek is Kathleen Shanahan, who served as Board of Education Chairman under former governor Jeb Bush.
Fischer voted to approve the Charter Schools USA application on Oct. 20. He is currently running for a seat in the Florida House, in the elections to be held next year.
*Correction: the First District Court of Appeal was incorrectly identified as the First District Court of Appeals in a previous version of this article