School Board Sabotage

Much has been made recently of thebroken air conditioners in Duval County classrooms, with people of a certain age noting that, in their day, sweltering classrooms were the norm. I’m one of them. Went to DuPont, briefly, in eighth and ninth grades. Those overheated rooms had fans. The lessons I learned were not nearly as memorable as the heat: an inescapable broil. People didn’t talk about proper hydration much in those days, and there was air conditioning in portables at that point. That said, no one worried about broken ACs in classrooms. There were none to break.

Florida Times-Union columnist Nate Monroe has emerged as a leading advocate for the school board’s push for a half-cent sales tax, assuming it makes the ballot this year or next (or ever). On May 31, Monroe produced text messages spotlighting Duval County Public Schools’ battle with faulty air conditioning systems during a recent heat wave. Referendum advocates are lucky to have Monroe making the case because otherwise there are plenty of headwinds. For one, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran. Corcoran, whose wife is in the charter school business, is a natural supporter of privatized, for-profit education. And he is turning the state’s sights on Duval. At a recent hearing in Tallahassee, Corcoran called some of Duval’s schools a “travesty of justice,” expressing little confidence that the district has any turnaround plan.

In an internal memo I obtained last week, Corcoran laid out ways that school districts can build new facilities on the cheap. All it takes: a “resolution with a majority vote at a public meeting that begins no earlier than 5:00 p.m. to implement an exception to one or more of the following SREF (State Requirements for Educational Facilities) requirements.” Wood studs in walls, for example. As well as “paved walkways, roadways, driveways, and parking areas; covered walkways for relocatable buildings” and “site lighting.” Or really, “any other provisions that limit the ability of a school to operate in a facility on the same basis as a charter school.” As long as there is sufficient hurricane shelter capacity nearby, a district can build on the cheap.

The Jacksonville Civic Council took the cue. Its members panned the school district’s infrastructure plan, saying it wasn’t fleshed out enough and cost too much. In a letter signed by Gary Chartrand, a St. Johns County mega-donor and charter school chairman, the JCC said the DCPS plan was “excessively expensive … fails to anticipate reductions in district-operated public school enrollment … does not adequately contemplate the increase in charter school enrollment or the role that charter schools will play in creating the highly effective school system of the future.” Indeed, the JCC notes that people with the option to pick charters for their children are doing so.

If DCPS were to build on the cheap, the JCC might be more favorably inclined. Even better, if the school board were to adopt the JCC’s pet charter program, its members are in. It’s like a cheat code in a video game. Give the charter lobby what it wants, and get the buy-in from institutional money. Easy-peasy.

Corcoran isn’t doing anything without a sign-off from the governor who appointed him. In Jacksonville last month, Governor Ron DeSantis held a presser at a charter—for the third time since his inauguration.

“Your success shouldn’t be limited by income … which ZIP code you grew up in,” DeSantis announced. In gaggle comments, he said that educating children through charter schools is actually less expensive per capita than the public school system. (Public school advocates suggest that’s because, despite receiving public funds—often diverted from public schools—charters operate without oversight or accountability. A recent Palm Beach Post investigation titled “Underpaid, undertrained, unlicensed” found that 20 percent of teachers at Palm Beach County’s largest charter school chain weren’t even certified to teach.)

“With [charter] schools like this, they’re doing a lot with less,” DeSantis declared. “If the parent wants to use a scholarship at a place like [this], the state doesn’t have to pay any overhead at all.”

Privatization provides a simple answer to the question of legacy costs: If a school is more trouble than it’s worth, close it.