CITIZEN MAMA

PURE DISTRACTION

School Board and Superintendent squabbles cloud real issues

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We were scheduled to talk about charter schools. Lawmakers in the Florida House have proposed a budget item that would give the lion’s share of available capital for improvements to 650 charter schools, leaving 3,620 public schools to share the crumbs. And Duval County has some of the oldest, capital-needy buildings in the state.

Instead, we talked about the elephant in the room. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti addressed Duval County School Board member Connie Hall’s unfortunate text: “Special Ed in action.”

“It’s pure distraction,” Vitti says. But as a person with a disability who has dealt with these kinds of painful slurs all his life, he can’t quite let it go.

Not without a personal apology from Hall.

“There has to be reconciliation,” he says.

The Harvard-educated superintendent publicly shared his experiences with dyslexia in a Folio Weekly Magazine cover story in 2013, “A New Way to Read.”

He wanted to inspire students by telling his personal story of overcoming a learning disability. He says he was simply floored by Hall’s text.

“You start to look at it in a personal way, because you’re a human being.”

Folio Weekly Magazine reached out to Dr. Hall by phone and email, but as of this writing, she had not responded.

A CHARTER SCHOOL LOBBYIST'S REVENGE

On Feb. 11, Hall’s texts were released in response to a public records request made by Miami attorney Robert H. Fernandez last November. That emailed request appeared in district officials’ inboxes a day after charter school lobbyist Ralph Arza televised his threats to raise ethics complaints against board members who voted against charter schools. Arza is a former member of the Florida House of Representatives who pled guilty in a witness tampering case following his own ethics scandal. Fernandez was deputy general counsel for Governor Jeb Bush, and fought in court for Bush’s school privatization agenda. (Cover story, “Play Ball?,” Dec. 9.)

It’s no coincidence that the public records requests in Duval were aimed at Hall, Paula Wright, and Becki Couch, who voted against a charter school application in October.

And there’s no question that the relationship between Vitti and board members Couch, Hall and Wright has been contentious. (Citizen Mama, “Boundary Issues,” Dec. 2)

As educators, the three board members naturally have relationships with other district employees, and they may share a different vision for how school boards and superintendents are supposed to interact. And their districts, along with Board member Cheryl Grymes’, are heavily affected by Vitti’s proposed boundary and program changes.

ROLES, RACE AND RIFTS

Vitti acknowledges he was an outsider who, upon arriving in Duval County, “instantly” started tackling issues in Jacksonville’s urban core: He changed principal assignments, addressed technology deficits, and started to deal with the graduation rate, he says.

He contends that modernized school districts in large, urban areas don’t micromanage day-to-day matters like personnel decisions anymore.

But the shift from working in the trenches to working on policy is even more difficult for school board representatives who have to shoulder an extra burden because of their race; African-American school board members have always had to fight for equity and demand accountability for their constituents.

“We’re talking about poverty. We’re talking about institutional racism. We’re talking about limited resources. Really, the state is not supportive of traditional public schools.

“You talk about tough issues that naturally lead to passionate voices,” Vitti says.

He takes responsibility for the times when his own intensity has overwhelmed and offended board members. “That’s on me.”

He knew what he was getting into when he started, he says. Two of the seven board members, Paula Wright and Betty Burney, voted against hiring him in 2012. The other candidate, like Wright, Burney, and Burney’s successor, Hall, was African American.

“It was vicious,” Vitti says. “It was personal to Paula and Betty not to have [hired] Dr. Cash. It became an issue of race.”

But Vitti says the racial tension and the educator versus non-educator axis on the board aren’t its only problems.

THE PARTISAN PROBLEM

He feels the ideological positions to which board members Scott Shine and Jason Fischer consistently default don’t help matters. Rather, their political reactions serve only to further polarize the process.

Fischer, a Republican, is running for House District 16 against former house member and city councilman Dick Kravitz.

In reaction to Hall’s text, during a meeting she did not attend, Fischer called for her immediate resignation.

His tag-team fellow conservative on the school board, Scott Shine, called for the district’s internal auditor, who received the text, to be fired.

Shine also recently left a comment on educator Chris Guerrieri’s blog referring to the latter’s “liberal friends” on the nonpartisan board — Wright, Hall, and Couch. Guerrieri, who is known for his bombastic and hyperbolic style, often criticizes Vitti and board members in his blog.

Shine was ostensibly celebrating the
board’s decision to renew training for its teachers on social media policy, but according to Couch, the policy targets teachers’ statements about and interactions with students, not teacher blogs.
Limiting government employees’ speech would run afoul of the First Amendment, after all.

It’s a constitutional protection that has been squandered this week on grievous private texts, abuse of the public records process, and partisan rants.

“I’m still optimistic that this group can put aside personal and political differences to focus on the work,” Superintendent Vitti says. And by “this group,” he means all seven board members.

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Disclosure: Julie Delegal contributed to Scott Shine’s school board campaign in 2014.

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