One of the problems with being at the top is that there’s nowhere to go but down.
The Nassau County school district had claimed the state’s top grade each year for the last decade, but the Florida Department of Education reworked testing requirements and, earlier this summer, announced the results of first-year implementation: The district had dropped to a ‘B,’ missing the mark for ‘A’ level standards by one point. Rather than alert moms and dads and publicly vow to hit the books harder this year, local officials added to their preparation work for the 2016-’17 academic year a scramble to re-examine the numbers with the hope of finding another couple of points that would bump up the district to an ‘A’ again.
Nassau County School District Superintendent John Ruis said principals and staff “thoroughly reviewed the electronic files” for discrepancies but did not find the information they needed for an appeal. According to Ruis, the district still has grades worthy to post on the family refrigerator, including eight ‘A’ schools, two ‘B’ schools and two ‘C’ schools, as defined by the DOE grading system. “I believe we earned the highest percentage of ‘A’s of any school district in the state,” Ruis wrote in an email.
The state grading system is an important measure of student achievement but it’s also a high-stakes calculation with an economic impact on local housing prices and business development plans. A superintendent faces continued pressure to stay on top; it’s one of the more worrisome aspects of the job. Ruis, a respected leader who has held the post for 24 years, has his retirement scheduled, so this election will determine who will become the next Superintendent of Nassau County School District.
Three women say they want the job to oversee the district’s approximately 11,000 students, 1,500 employees, and $170 million budget. As a practical matter, only two candidates are considered viable: Florida Rep. Janet Adkins and Nassau County school board member Kathy Knight Burns, who will compete in a closed Republican primary on Aug. 30.
No Democrats filed to run for superintendent, but there is a Libertarian candidate: Cheryl Reynolds James, a resident of Bryceville who works in property management. James has not done much campaigning or fundraising (there’s a paltry $890 in her war chest and it was collected in September last year) and most do not expect her to be a factor. James’ candidacy seems to have been about sealing the election to Republican voters.
Nevertheless, if she doesn’t leave the race after the primary, James will face Adkins or Burns in the Nov. 8 general election.
Democrats and Independents were free to jump into the voting pool. And they did. Nassau County Supervisor of Elections Vicki Cannon says that 3,140 voters switched party affiliation to Republican in order to vote in the Grand Old Party primary.
Though neither has previously run a school system, both Adkins and Burn have experience and ties to the community that could serve the district well. Adkins is a four-term legislator with 10 years of Nassau school board experience; Burns is a longtime elementary school teacher, with 18 years on the Nassau school board.
CAMPAIGN COFFERS SET TO FULL
The superintendent’s race is the county’s most-watched campaign. It is also the most expensive. As of Aug. 22, Adkins had raised $172,546; Burns $85,381.89.
It’s the first time fundraising for the local superintendent spot has topped $100,000.
Both Adkins and Burns have received significant donations from political committees and lobbyists from outside of the district and both are reporting thousands of dollars in contributions from Tallahassee to South Florida.
Early in the campaign, Adkins had been criticized for collecting money from outside of the district, including supporters of charter schools, and some have questioned why anyone outside the county’s borders would want to be involved in a local school board race.
Now Burns can be asked the same question. The political committee Citizens for Florida Prosperity has sent two rounds of mailers for the candidate, one in July and one in August. And Burns reported $20,075 in contributions in July, including $19,000 from political committees in Tallahassee with names like Jobs For Florida, Strong Communities For Southwest Florida, Gulf Coast Builders Exchange, and Innovate Florida.
Burns has also received donations from Rayonier executives and their spouses. School officials have said that the district will need several more schools in the company’s planning area, known as East Nassau Community Planning Area (ENCPA), which covers a 24,000-acre site between S.R. A1A and the Georgia state line. It wouldn’t hurt for those involved to have an ally running the school district.
ON THE ISSUES
Last year, Adkins rejected Rayonier’s request to secure a stewardship district for the ENCPA because, in essence, it sets up a private government for a for-profit company. Adkins said the plan needed more study. Local officials may go along with the plan because it removes obligation — and funding commitments — for infrastructure, such as roadways. But critics point out that such districts amount to a corporate takeover of local government.
Adkins, 50, spent the last eight years representing Nassau and parts of Duval County in Tallahassee and must exit her District 11 seat due to term limits. Adkins says she has served on “virtually every education committee” and chaired the K-12 education subcommittee. Adkins, a mother of two teens, is married and living in Fernandina Beach. She served on the Nassau school board from 1998-2008 and worked for 12 years in the technology field. She also works with her husband Doug, who owns a nursing home in Hilliard.
Adkins is against the common core curriculum and said she would push for less testing, if elected. “We need to expand music and art and we need to deal with the math crisis,” Adkins said in a phone interview late last month.
SAT scores have been dropping a bit each year since 2011, and average math scores posted at the state DOE website show that in 2014, Fernandina Beach High School posted the district’s highest average math score of 485 and that Hilliard Middle Senior School posted the lowest average math score of 423. (For comparison, consider that St. Augustine High School posted an average math score of 556.) According to the Nassau County school assessment and accountability office, Fernandina Beach High School, the district’s top performing high school, reported in 2015 a mean SAT math score of 443 and said that the state average for math in 2015 was 468.
Regarding SATs, Kaplan Test Prep, one of the nation’s leading preparation services for college testing, said that a math score less than 510 is “below average.”
“We do a great job at the elementary level but there are issues in the higher grades,” said Adkins.
Adkins said that she supports charter schools and a “parent’s right to choose” and recognizes that not all students are heading to a four-year university after they receive their high school diploma. Adkins said that she would support additional vocational training and that she’d like to see computer coding classes offered at all of the district’s 12 schools, including elementary schools.
Adkins, whose campaign slogan is “Believe in Better!”, describes herself as a fiscal and social conservative. She has been critical of sixth-grade textbooks that, she says, offer the basic tenants of Islam. “This is world history, not world religion, and the books do not offer the 10 Commandments,” said Adkins.
Adkins is also critical of the district’s funding for a new $4.5 million roadway to a new elementary school under construction in Yulee, scheduled to open in August 2017. The school is going up in a pine forest owned by Rayonier and, rather than use impact fees from local development, the school is fronting the cash with the expectation that the money will be paid back as the development is built. This is not a traditional approach, and Adkins has questioned the validity of such an agreement. In another unusual twist, the school board also has a contractual agreement with Rayonier, a real estate investment trust (REIT), to have a say in the curriculum, technology and school design. Several Rayonier executives, including those involved in inking the deal with Rayonier, have donated to Burns’ campaign, according to Nassau Supervisor of Elections records.
“They’re building the Cadillac of schools,” said Adkins. “There are portables at other Yulee schools.”
Adkins believes that teachers need higher starting salaries and said there is a 46 percent turnover rate for new teachers with fewer than six or seven years of experience. She also supports additional teacher planning time.
The Nassau Teachers’ Association has endorsed Burns for superintendent and so has Ruis. Burns, 56, has continuously served on the Nassau County School Board since 1998 and is a fourth-grade teacher in Camden County, Georgia.
In May, the NTA said that Burns was the only candidate to attend a candidate meet-and-greet called “Picnic in the Park” and “show her support of NTA.” Her background includes work as executive director for Ark of Nassau, a nonprofit organization that serves adults with developmental disabilities.
Burns, who did not respond to requests for an interview, says on her website (KathyBurnsforNassauSchools.com) that she is a “champion [for a] parent’s ability to choose the best educational path for their child” and that students should be ready for college and/or career. Burns also says on her website that testing “provides valuable information” for improving instruction but that “test fatigue” can have a negative impact on student achievement.
Burns told the Amelia Island Fernandina Beach Yulee Chamber of Commerce in a written Q&A that she wants to form a “career shadowing program” starting in middle school, for students to work with businesses to explore “future employment opportunities.”
Burns said she wants to establish a “State of the Schools Council” comprising community, business and other leaders who will review “compliments as well as concerns, ideas and plans for the future.”
Burns also told the chamber that the school district has an adequate amount of money from local taxpayers and that a “pay as you go (and grow) is an excellent plan.”
Regarding curriculum, Burns said that the curriculum must be “rigorous and relevant” and have standards that are “rigorous and understandable.” But, in her words and her emphasis, “NOT COMMON CORE.”
Burns said she supports all efforts for Nassau County schools to again be in an ‘A’ district. On her Facebook page, she vowed to work to preserve the district’s ‘A’ status.
WHAT IT TAKES TO BE SUPER
Ken Dragseth, president of the national search firm School Exec Connect that has handled executive searches for school districts since 2005, said that a track record in improving student achievement is an important qualification for school superintendent.
“But it’s not just about the classroom. How will the candidate improve the overall district? What’s the plan?” asked Dragseth.
Dragseth told Folio Weekly Magazine that a superintendent must be a strong communicator.
“The other big beast is community engagement,” he said. “This person is going to be talking to the community, business leaders and they’ll need to work with local government and the legislature. There are budgeting issues and they’ll need to communicate need and find resources.”
Dragseth said that superintendents have a “very political job” and must know how to navigate the system.
“Local politics are huge,” said Dragseth.
The closed primary election posed concerns for Michael Binder, an associate professor of political science and the director of University of North Florida’s public opinion research lab. He said that the closed primary process disenfranchises voters because many have no say in who represents them. He called that — and a temporary switch to another party — “democracy with a little ‘d’.”
It may surprise some that Binder said that high-dollar campaigns are good for voters because money allows candidates to spread their message with signs, direct mail and advertisements. According to Binder, messaging is important.
As campaign signs pop up along the roadsides like thistles, it seems likely that voters will have at least a passing knowledge of the candidates’ names, possibly even their actual positions on the issues. Given the candidates’ record war chests, this year voters will have more familiarity with the candidates than in previous elections.
“The first time you see a candidate’s name shouldn’t be when you’re pulling a lever,” said Binder.