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Duval County School Board Gives Superintendent ‘Effective’ Score

Lindsey Kilbride

Duval County School Board members gave Superintendent Nikolai Vitti an evaluation score Thursday for the 2015-16 school year.

The board evaluates Vitti’s performance each school year with a rubric tool in areas, including student performance and his relationship with the board. Overall rating categories include “highly effective,” “effective,” “needs Improvement” and “unsatisfactory.”

Vitti received a composite rating from board members of “effective.”

Board members Becki Couch and Paula Wright gave Vitti an overall score of “needs improvement,” Connie Hall and Ashley Smith Juarez scored him “effective,” and Cheryl Grymes and Scott Shine scored Vitti “highly effective.”

Board members had just evaluated Vitti in March, based on the 2014-15 school year, giving him an overall “effective” rating.That evaluation came late because the state released grades late.

For 2014-15, board members Couch, Hall and Wright gave Vitti the lowest scores, while Grymes, Juarez, Shine and Jason Fischer had given him higher scores.

Fischer, who rated him the highest in March, stepped down from school board in June to run for state house. Board member Scott Shine asked members to include Fischer’s evaluation in Vitti’s overall scores Thursday, but members voted 4-2 against it.

In March, board members said they wanted to see improvements in student achievement, particularly in middle schools, higher-level math and literacy.

Members said they’re still concerned with students behind in reading and math, particularly where gaps are widening among black and white students in some areas.

Board Chair Ashley Smith Juarez noted in her evaluation 31 percent of African-American students in grades 3 through 10th are reading on grade level. District data shows in many grades around 50 percent of students are reading below grade level.

Smith Juarez said she isn’t seeing the progress she expected.

Three board members —  Hall, Couch and Wright — voted against the most recent annual literacy plan, but it passed.

Vitti evaluated his progress prior to Thursday’s meeting. In the area of student achievement he noted improving grades for D and F schools. He also said the bottom 25 percent of students improved in reading and math. But he added literacy and higher-level math still need to improve.

At Thursday’s meeting he said board members should  recognize where progress has been made and Shine agreed.

Shine gave Vitti slightly higher scores than on his last evaluation, putting him in the “highly effective” category.  

“I’ve worked in the field of research and statistics and it’s not very common to see big jumps in data like this,” he said. “Quite frankly some of the data I’ve seen the superintendent produce in the past few years, I did not think he’d get the improvement that he’s shown. So I think these numbers are very, very good.”

He said when compared to six similar Florida districts of size and demographics, Duval ranks No. 1in the African-American graduation rate, up from fifth place a few years ago, along with a district-wide improvement in the graduation rate.

And board members praised Vitti for his work expanding partnerships with the business community and linking those partners with students in technical education class. Hall said she’s happy to see the training and preparation assistant principals are getting.

And Wright said she’s pleased with the district's use of a “secret shopper” program, to ensure schools are delivering good customer service.

But overall Vitti was scored low for his teamwork with board members this school year and last.  

In November board Member Hall sent Vitti a letter signed by other board members calling his communication style disrespectful and asking him to improve it. And in Smith Juarez’s evaluation notes Thursday she said he’s “stubborn and does not incorporate feedback until insisted upon by the board.”

Board member Wright, who gave Vitti lower scores, said there’s a lack of trust among board members and also between board members and the superintendent. She says better relationships could translate to better student plans.

“We want him to come back with a plan that’s more aggressive and more realistic and that help us to understand how you’re going to make these happen,” she said.

She added the message to Vitti is, along with Thursday’s feedback, the board is supporting him in order to make progress across the district.  

Vitti addressed his relationship with the board in his pre-evaluation feedback. Vitti said, despite ongoing challenges, the superintendent and board need credit for implementing significant reform that was needed in the district. Issues related to communication, roles, and trust will always need to be addressed, refined and reflected upon when issues arise.”

Shine, who said he has a good relationship with Vitti, said some of the issues board members have with Vitti are personal and if they can’t put those issues behind them they need to step aside.

Lindsey Kilbride can be reached at, 904-358-6359 or on Twitter at @lindskilbride

Lindsey Kilbride was WJCT's special projects producer until Aug. 28, 2020. She reported, hosted and produced podcasts like Odd Ball, for which she was honored with a statewide award from the Associated Press, as well as What It's Like. She also produced VOIDCAST, hosted by Void magazine's Matt Shaw, and the ADAPT podcast, hosted by WJCT's Brendan Rivers.