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This Bill Sucks

Jason Fischer's J-1 is a power grab

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On Nov. 1, the two state senators and six representatives who comprise the Duval Legislative Delegation will meet to discuss Florida Rep. Jason Fischer’s J-1. The controversial “local bill”—local policy decided partially at the state level—would change how Jacksonville’s school superintendent is chosen. The superintendent is currently selected by members of the school board, but Fischer wants the position to be elected. This proposal and the battle against the special tax referendum that Duval County Public Schools proposed last spring are tightly woven together in what at first glance appears to be a complicated plot with lots of players and moving pieces. However, when you distill this city government drama down to its basic elements, it’s not that complicated at all; it’s about money and control.

Specifically, it’s about who will control the school district’s money, and there’s a lot of it. DCPS has an annual budget of more than $1.7 billion—larger than the city’s budget. The district also employs more people and manages more properties. And, if approved via referendum, the school board’s proposed half-penny sales tax would bring in an additional estimated $1.2 billion over fifteen years. All this makes for a pretty large chunk of change. Right now, the school board controls its budget, but a cabal of city officials and their political donors want to change that.

Of course, Fischer, Curry and their friends don’t mention any of this when they discuss the J-1 bill. No, they say it’s all about making the position of superintendent more responsive to the public. This is more than a little disingenuous given the original language of the bill, which was first intended to give the mayor the power to appoint school board members (currently elected). It’s also rich considering City Hall’s record of ignoring public outcry on key issues. Think school board referendum. Think JEA.

No, this is about ideology, not democracy. Elected or appointed, it doesn’t matter as long as the official in question agrees with Fischer and his ilk on one issue: school privatization. The state representative is in the middle of his second term and has spent most of his time supporting legislation that benefits his employer, Florida’s school voucher king John Kirtley, and mega-donor Gary Chartrand, who has reaped millions for his charter school because of his relationship with Fischer.

The Duval Delegation is currently divided over the J-1 bill. Republicans Wyman Duggan and Aaron Bean join Fischer in supporting it while Democrats Audrey Gibson and Tracie Davis are adamantly against it. The other members of the delegation, Reps. Clay Yarborough, Cord Byrd and Kim Daniels have yet to commit. If the Duval Delegation decides the J-1 bill is a good idea, they will then ask the state legislature to authorize a referendum on issue. One problem: 112 members of that august body don’t live in or represent Jacksonville. If the Duval Delegation allows this discussion to move to Tallahassee, politicians from as far away as Miami and Pensacola will help decide this local issue.

The school board is obviously opposed, and several members of the Jacksonville City Council attempted to reassert local control as well. In early October, Councilmember Matt Carlucci introduced a resolution expressing opposition to J-1. On Oct. 22, nine councilmembers voted for local control; nine voted to give Tallahassee the final say. The resolution failed.

Let’s assume for a moment that this isn’t just about better controlling the school district, its budget and real estate assets. History shows there are many reasons not to support the idea of an elected superintendent. First, appointment assures that we have an experienced professional on the job. Elections often favor the best financed, not necessarily the most qualified candidates. Duval County had elected superintendents for most of its history. That came to an end when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools threatened to strip Duval’s accreditation.

Fischer likes to point out that many counties in Florida elect their superintendents, but these are predominantly rural. The 26 metropolitan counties that represent 2.2 of Florida’s 2.7 million students appoint their superintendents. Furthermore, only two states in the entire nation, Florida and Alabama, allow elected superintendents. Mississippi recently gave up on it. Fischer would have us do something that even Mississippi has determined is not in the best interests of students.

All this begs the question, “Why?” If J-1 goes to Tallahassee, and if it becomes law, Fischer and Curry will have succeeded in chastening the school board for its independence from the mayor’s political machine. I mentioned that the original version of J-1 called for direct mayoral appointment of the school board, and that would have been preferable—if it was politically possible. Curry must have sensed it was a bridge too far. Not long after he publicly expressed his preference for an elected superintendent rather than an appointed board, Fischer duly modified his local bill. The new and hardly improved J-1 still defangs the school board by stripping it of appointing authority, plus it allows Fischer to pretend he’s a reformist.

If he really supported elections on the merits, he might have proposed this type of change while he himself served on the school board. Yes, Fischer was a board member before he quit to run for the Florida House of Representatives, and the school board has the authority to request a referendum allowing the people of Jacksonville determine whether the superintendent should be elected or appointed. Fischer was there for over three years and never brought it up once. That was under Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, a white man who had a reputation for courting the city’s elites—including Fischer’s political donor, Gary Chartrand. (He has also contributed extensively to City Councilmembers Rory Diamond, Leanne Cumber and Aaron Bowman, who voted down Carlucci’s resolution against J-1.) Now, however, we have Superintendent Diana Greene, a black woman who hasn’t made courting the city’s elites a priority. It’s no secret that Chartrand didn’t want Greene chosen by the school board. He wanted a larger role in vetting Vitti’s replacement. Superintendent Greene hasn’t been very receptive to Chartrand’s ideas, either. Chartrand tried repeatedly to insert himself in the referendum process by telling the school board how they should do things. Greene’s resistance is why many people think the J-1 proposal is nothing but political payback. Simply put, Greene wouldn’t and won’t bend her knee to the city’s elites.

Still, DCPS is doing arguably better under Greene’s leadership than ever before. The district was less than one percentage point away from an overall “A” rating. The number of “F” and “D” schools has never been lower, and the graduation rate has never been higher.

This is a transparent power grab made by the city establishment. The Duval Legislative Delegation should kill Fischer’s J-1 bill when it convenes on Nov. 1.

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