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School Board Candidates Lay Out Plans And Priorities For District 4

Rhema Thompson

Two candidates vying for the School Board seat in one Duval County’s most challenged districts made their pitch to a lively crowd Tuesday night.

Sitting board member Paula Wright and challenger Darryl Willie shared their goals and exchanged a few jabs throughout the night during the second 2014 School Board Candidate forum at Ribault High School.

“You have the opportunity to choose more and I believe I can provide more innovation, more accountability, more preparation,” Willie told the audience.

The District 4 seat oversees much of the so-called “transformation region” of Duval County, home to some of the district’s lowest performing schools.

Wright has served as the area’s school board representative since 2010, at a time when several failing schools were in danger of closure.

“I was elected on a mission and that mission was to ensure that Raines, Ribault, Jackson High and North Shore would not be closed…You sent me to ensure that the schools were not closed, and I do believe we’re sitting in Ribault today,” she said.

Wright has served as a teacher and administrator in the district for about 30 years. Willie has worked as a teacher, administrator and education recruiter for about 10 years.

During the two-hour candidate forum, the two discussed how they would tackle the plethora of issues plaguing the area from low reading scores to high poverty and dropout rates.

“It’s an area where there’s been tremendous investment by community organizations of both programs and dollars,” said Trey Csar, President of the Jacksonville Public Education Fund, which hosted the forum.

The region is home to most of the 36 low-performing schools being targeted by the multimillion dollar Quality Education for All Initiative. The initiative is a series of privately-funded efforts to turn around the struggling schools.

At one point, Wright and Willie were asked their thoughts on the QEA initiative and its advisory board, made up of private donors.

“Do you feel the QEA advisory board takes away local control and governance from the school board representative?” read a question from an audience member.

Willie said he supported the QEA initiative.

“I believe the board has a lot of say on how those dollars are going to be spent, so they’ll be able to take those dollars and push to do things with those community dollars if we just put them in the right places,” he said.

Wright said she also backed the QEA but had reservations about the lack of input the school board had in the plans.  

“I am in favor of the QEA,” she said. “But I am also concerned as a board member that we did not have much conversation and collaboration in terms of the process…but here’s how we do it, we work and we work and we work, and we make sure that our students learn and our students grow.”

Many of the comments made by the two drew applause and a few outbursts from the audience of a few dozen.

The two were also questioned about the QEA-backed Teach for America (TFA) program, which recruits college graduates and provides them with a five-week course in education in exchange for a two-year teaching commitment.

Through a contract funded by QEA dollars, the district will bring in at least 300 new TFA recruits over the next three years. Many of them will work within the hard-to-staff schools of District 4.

An audience member asked the candidates whether or not schools should notify parents if their child's teacher is a TFA recruit.

Willie, a former TFA member, said he would not support such a measure.

“True, some of our Teach for America recruits don’t have years and years of experience, but the screening process they go through to stand in front of those students is quite intense,” he said. “…We shouldn’t be thinking about the divisiveness of these teachers versus those teachers. We’ve got quality teachers across the board.”

He added that it was his time in the program that led him to a long-term career in education.

Wright expressed a less favorable view.

“I don’t know what the screening process for Teach for America is, but I don’t believe it is more rigorous than the process we use in Duval County Public Schools,” she said.  

She pointed out that she voted against a recommendation to place Teach for America recruits on a separate hiring list than non-Teach for America teachers. However, Willie noted that she voted in favor of the contract to bring in the 300 TFA recruits.

Willie and Wright were also asked about their stance on charter schools. Both said that the job will involve some cooperation with the existing charter schools. They also said it will involve focusing more on the quality of education offered in traditional public schools.

“We have to have more charter schools, but we also have to hold them more accountable,” Willie said.

The candidates were also asked how well they understood the poverty in District 4.  Wright used her own upbringing in a low-income household as an example.

“It’s important that we look at poverty, but we don’t make our students feel that they are doomed because of their economic status,” she said.

Tuesday night was the first and only debate between the two candidates. That race will be decided August 26.

You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter @RhemaThompson.

Rhema Thompson began her post at WJCT on a very cold day in January 2014 and left WJCT to join the team at The Florida Times Union in December 2014.