As the Duval County School Board considers dipping into its emergency reserves to fund the next school year, a group of local donors is threatening to withhold $5 million unless specific funding requests are granted.
The Quality Education for All Fund advisory board detailed its demands in a letter to the district’s superintendent last week, saying the district isn’t prioritizing some programs that work in its proposed budget.
The advisory board consists of philanthropists, business and community leaders. They control private money in the QEA Fund, which was setup to pour resources and programs into Duval’s most vulnerable schools.
The fund has paid out nearly $34 million so far, with $5 million still available. But now its board members are saying their private and philanthropic donors will cut ties unless the district invests $4 million split up among teacher and principal incentives at hard-to-staff schools, the Teach for America program and the Jacksonville Teacher Residency training program.
“If you are not willing to invest in those programs that have proven successful, we must consider that this bond has been broken,” the letter states. “And we will have no choice but to step back our part of this arrangement until a new understanding can be established.”
Quality Education for All board member Gary Chartrand said the programs are working, as proven by high scores on the district's own recent program audit.
The group of donors believes Duval is on track to becoming an A district if these programs are funded at higher amounts than what’s budgeted. For instance, the QEA board is asking the district use $400,000 to fund 50 new Teach for America teachers. But this year’s proposed budget wouldn’t allow for hiring new TFA members, just paying out existing contracts of last year’s hires.
In the district’s audit, TFA scored as “questionable,” ranking between “founded” and “unacceptable.” It received high marks for supporting teaching and learning, but low marks for its necessity. Incentives and the Jacksonville Teacher Residency program both scored as “founded.”
The school budget is tight for a few reasons. About $12.5 million less than expected, meant to pay for retirements, transportation and exceptional student services, is rolling over from last year.
“We will now (most likely) be sitting at 4 percent in reserve versus 5 percent in the reserve.” School board Chair Paula Wright said.
Wright said there’s not much wiggle room in the budget.
“I know it’s tight,” said QEA board member Chartrand, but “in a budget of over a billion dollars, $400,000 is not that hard to find if you want to fund it.”
School board member Scott Shine agrees and said he’ll suggest making cuts elsewhere to find the money.
“I want to see us have a good relationship with the philanthropic community and with the business community,” Shine said. “I think what’s really important in this discussion is these initiatives are things the school district asked the community to do and to fund and participate in.”
He said the board could dig into federal Title I and II money and also cut the lowest-performing reading coaches and deans. Shine pointed out those programs scored lower on the district's program assessment than TFA, JTR or incentives.
Wright said she’s hoping QEA will agree to meet before final decisions are made.
“It is not the best interest of the QEA board or the Duval County School Board to air this in the public,” she said. “I appreciate all the dollars that have been given via the QEA, but more importantly I appreciate their commitment and dedication to educating children in Duval.”
Duval Superintendent Patricia Willis echoed Wright’s thoughts in an emailed statement. She said community and stakeholder feedback is highly considered when prioritizing a budget. However, she doesn’t say if she’ll be reconsidering the budget.
“During times when budgets are tight, legislative directives are causing uncertainty, and tough decisions must be made, it is imperative that Duval County Public Schools and its partners continue to work together to improve resources in our schools, and support teachers who provide educational excellence in their classrooms every day,” Willis said in her statement.
Over the last decade, through a broader QEA initiative, private donors have given about $94 million to district programs like teacher training, bonuses and Teach for America, plus $29 million directly to Kipp and Tiger Academy charter schools.
Chartrand said private QEA money may come to a halt if the district isn’t on the same page as the board. But he said a meeting won’t be necessary because the concerns and conditions are laid out in the letter.
Editor's note: Gary Chartrand is the chair of the WJCT Foundation board.