“Too many changes, too fast”

It’s no secret that Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s relationship with three Duval County School Board members is — at least for the moment — on the skids. The argument over Vitti’s brusque communication style, however, may be analogous to the classic marital squabble over leaving the cap off the toothpaste: It’s never really about leaving the cap off the toothpaste.

The real issue is related to decades of repeated policy assaults on schools and communities in Jacksonville’s north and west areas, which comprise many African-American neighborhoods.

Jacksonville’s NAACP and Congresswoman Corrine Brown have weighed in on Vitti’s extensive list of proposed boundary and program changes, and the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, is investigating whether the district is providing equitable resources to its African-American students.

On Nov. 3, former chairman Becki Couch joined members Paula Wright and Dr. Connie Hall in signing a letter to Vitti, that addressed his “persistent lack of respect” toward board members. Hall drafted the letter largely in response to a tense exchange that occurred during a portion of the board’s Oct. 13 workshop. The subject on the table was the timetable for moving forward with Vitti’s far-reaching list of boundary and program changes.

Those changes, when combined with proposed new magnet programs, could directly or indirectly affect up to 30 schools, and 24 of them are north or west of the St. Johns River.

Jacksonville’s city governance since consolidation has prioritized growth on the city’s Southside, leaving crumbling neighborhoods, under-filled schools, decreased economic activity and heightened poverty in some African-American neighborhoods on the Northside.

Jacksonville’s NAACP said in its report on the proposed changes that Jacksonville’s minority communities are routinely targeted for “top down” changes.

“My main concern is that there are too many changes, too fast,” says District 4 School Board Representative Paula Wright. The Superintendent’s proposed changes could affect 11 schools in Wright’s district alone.

Becki Couch, who represents District 6, joins Wright in echoing the NAACP’s “top-down” concerns. They worry that parents have not had sufficient opportunity to provide feedback to the district.

“All of these changes have ripple effects,” Couch says. “The whole community needs to understand this.”

Those ripples include feeder patterns.

“Parents want to know, if this is done, where are we going to be in five years?” Wright asks.

Vitti’s original proposals include five new magnet programs, an autism center, separating the boys’ leadership academy from the girls’, and splitting six elementary schools into three lower and three upper elementary schools. Rezoning would occur for attendance zones surrounding the autism center and the would-be new magnet schools, and to relieve overcrowding.

Eleven school-based working groups have been meeting to discuss Vitti’s ideas since Oct. 26. The groups can accept, reject, or modify his recommendations, after which Vitti will present their reports to the board. He is expected to present his final recommendation in December, and the board will vote on them next May.

State pressures lead Vitti to reject status quo

Supt. Vitti has repeatedly told the press he’s concerned the state will force closure or charter school takeover at under-enrolled and “failing” schools. Folio Weekly was unable to connect with the Superintendent over the holiday weekend in time for publication deadline.

In his Oct. 26 presentation, Vitti offered these rationales to the aggregate working group meeting at Englewood High School.

First, he wants to ramp up early learning opportunities and “offer new programs to narrow the achievement gap,” while at the same time address under-used schools, which often coincide with low-performing schools.

When a school is less than full, it necessarily operates at a funding disadvantage because tax dollars are dedicated to schools on a per-pupil basis. That makes it harder to deliver the intensive resources necessary to turn around struggling schools.

Second, Vitti wants to “level the traditional school landscape,” which has been unleveled by a magnet program that, over time, has created a two-tiered system here. Offering diverse and “rich program options for parents,” under Vitti’s paradigm, would ostensibly enable the district to improve taxpayer real estate assets, i.e., schools, which in turn will help solve persistent equity issues.

Vitti has stated that he expects federal magnet grants will be forthcoming to help offset the costs of his recommendations. Those grants may, in turn, free up capital funds to be used for capital projects, instead of being transferred for operational needs.

Third, Vitti clearly wants the county’s schools to “win back” charter school students. Charter schools are quasi-public: They use public, per-pupil funds and private education management organizations to operate schools in tax-exempt, privately owned buildings. And, despite state constitutional provisions regarding public school efficiency, state rules permit charters to open anywhere, even down the street from an “A” school.

Charter schools’ duplicative practices make long-term planning for public school districts nearly impossible, as charter schools are given an advantage in high-growth areas of the city. Only after underutilized schools are filled or exempted through new programs will Vitti and the board be able to plan for new public schools in growth areas.

Failure to address under-use would leave the district financially vulnerable, according to Vitti’s proposal packet. While Gov. Rick Scott has introduced a record-level education budget, the increase in spending is due to increased property values, and the per-pupil expenditure amount remains below 2007 levels. Duval’s millage rate is the lowest of all large counties in Florida.

Duval schools have seen a five percent loss in student enrollments due to charter schools over the past eight years, but charter school enrollment has begun to flatten this year.

“Our students need hope”

Working groups across the city are pushing back on the Superintendent’s wide-ranging suggestions, and Vitti has told the Florida Times-Union that he’s open to the groups’ counter-suggestions.

With so many elementary schools being split into preK-through-second grade and third-through-fifth grade, observers predict that the number of D and F schools could naturally decline, because Florida’s accountability system, the FSA test, doesn’t kick in until third grade.

Wright is aware of the financial strain caused by under-enrollment. But, she says, the Superintendent’s proposed changes focus too much on utilization issues.

“Nothing in here,” Wright says, pointing to the printed stack of Vitti’s proposals, “speaks to the need to ensure quality programs.”

“Until I understand how these proposed changes are going to positively impact student performance, I see it as change for change’s sake.”

Wright is also worried about costs — not only the estimated $9 million needed to implement the new plan — but transportation expenses, as well as the monies spent on new programs just last year.

For example, the associate of science degree track for information technology began at Andrew Jackson last year. Vitti’s proposal, if approved, would phase in a dedicated “robotics and genetics” magnet instead.

“He [Vitti] never talked about existing programs,” Wright says, referring to Vitti’s Oct. 26 presentation. “He only talked about what he wanted to do at the schools.”

Wright also objects to the proposed changes for Northwestern Middle School. “We don’t need a performing arts magnet
at Northwestern.”

“We have to differentiate programs to meet the needs of students in that school,” she says.

Concrete paths for AA and AS degrees, leading to any number of gainful employment certifications from FSCJ, in areas like IT and health sciences, helps give families in her district hope, she says.

“Our students, our parents, our communities need hope. We need to put in front of them opportunities for their future.”

About EU Jacksonville

october, 2021