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Duval School District Urging Gov. Scott To Veto ‘Devastating’ Education Bill

Lindsey Kilbride
Duval County School Board members, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and Duval Teachers United President Terrie Brady urge the community to ask Governor Rick Scott to veto HB7069.

Several Duval County School Board members, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and Duval Teachers United President Terrie Brady spoke out against a bill’s effects on Duval County Monday morning.

They said the district will lose millions in capital dollars, have to cut multiple Title I programs for the district's poorest students and possibly have to close several schools.

The mammoth bill was created in closed-door budget negotiations Friday. It combines several different pieces of legislation, and some new language. Lawmakers had just two-and-a-half days to review the package before voting.

Vitti called the last-minute lawmaking “corrupt, anti-government and anti-public education,” saying he, with a Harvard degree, and several staff members hadn’t been able to digest the whole bill after hours of studying it.

“This is a series of gimmicks,” Vitti said. “If you really look at the substance of this, it will radically, negatively transform funding streams, infrastructure and overall systems and processes to support traditional public school.”

Former school board member and current Republican state Rep. Jason Fischer (R-Jacksonville), who voted for the bill, doesn’t agree and calls it an exciting new direction in public education.

“[House Bill] 7069 gives our hardworking teachers a much needed bonus, requires that public money used to educate a child will actually follow them to the school they choose to attend, and incentivizes charter schools and school districts to turn around failure factories,” Fischer said in an email. “I am proud to have voted yes on this innovative piece of legislation; this bill puts our students first.”

Vitti said the bill’s allocation of millionsin teacher bonuses is not enough to offset its harmful effect on his district.

Capital Outlay

One element of the bill requires thedistrict to share a portion of property taxesreserved for school building projects and technology with charter schools, which are public schools run by private companies.

The district would have $45 million left for projects after paying $32 million in debt for past projects and bonds, and sharing with charters. Any future debt won’t come out before the money is split with charters. More than half of Duval’s schools are at least 60 years old, so the district has a $120 million backlog of maintenance projects, like roof replacements.

“Can we do the things in our buildings that make them habitable for our students?” asked board member Becki Couch. “I think the answer to that question is going to be no.”

Charters don’t have to adhere to all the same building standards as traditional schools, and the district is capped at taxing more to make up for the deficit.

Couch said it’s not fair to taxpayers that their money will be invested in privately owned buildings.

“When that school closes, none of that revenue comes back to the taxpayer,” Couch said.

The board put some school renovations on hold last month because they don’t think they can pay for them if the bill becomes law.

Title I Funding

The bill also stopsdistricts from reserving federal Title I money for district-level programs.

Duval funds field trips, City Year Americorps members who help in classrooms, graduation coaches and other initiatives by pooling together about $15 million in Title I money. Schools that serve large numbers of students living in poverty qualify for Title I funding and the programs.

If the bill becomes law, districts will be required to give all Title I money directly to schools, except for a portion that will be allowed to fund full days of voluntary pre-kindergarten, administration costs and a couple other uses.

Board members said they can positively affect more children by using the money to fund district-level programs.

“We will not be able to provide additional resources, in particular, that Title I schools need. That’s just fact,” school board Chair Paula Wright said.

Board members said while some schools might be able to pay for many of the initiatives on their own, others would be lucky to scrounge up enough for one academic coach.

Fischer, who voted for the measure, said this is the right call because money should follow students directly.

“The revision to the distribution of Title I funds is to get more money and resources directly to the school site and allow principals to determine the best use of funds for their students,” he said.

Fischer said another element he’s proud of is the expansion of the Gardiner Scholarship, which allows more disabled students to pay for services like speech classes, or private school.  And, he added, he sponsored HB 3827, which allocates $2 million for Communities in Schools. But the board isn’t sure if it will be able to fund it, a Title I program, locally.  

Duval schools that currently receive Title I  funding will have to decide if they can afford teachers who run STEM Pitsco labs and academic or graduation coaches. They’d all be guaranteed reading coaches.

The board isn’t sure if schools will be able to pool money together for other programs like City Year contracts. Board Vice Chair Ashley Smith Juarez said she doesn’t want principals' being lobbied.

Board members talked about cutting funding for administering parent surveys, equalling about  $275,000, while others wondered Tuesday if bus routes could be merged.

‘Schools of Hope’ Charter School Changes

Credit Duval County Public Schools

Another measure included in the bill has been nicknamed “Schools of Hope.” It largely encourages failing public schools to close and charter schools to open in areas near them. Traditional public schools will have less time to turn around and earn at least a C grade before they’re forced to close.

“More than 20 (Duval) schools would be affected by this,” Vitti said.

The bill does budget for 25 traditional Florida schools a year to receive money meant to help them improve by offering up to $2,000 per student, to pay for wrap-around services.

Vitti argues charters don’t performbetter than neighborhood schools. And charters that open up in place of closed schools also wouldn't have to provide transportation, which concerns board members.

But Fischer said the drastic measuresare necessary.

“This bill gives kids trapped in failing schools the chance at a better life,” he said.

Some critics call into question Fischer’s motives, after he received campaign dollars from charter school companies. When asked to respond to criticism about the campaign donations, Fischer declined comment. 

Charter Application Process

Credit Duval County Public Schools

Board members feel charters are getting unfair advantages with the legislation. For instance, charter schools would now contract with the district using a standard application, without negotiation. Vitti said in the past it’s been important to negotiate contracts with charters.

He said, for example, the national company Charter Schools USA, which has several schools in Jacksonville, had complaints from parents saying it was hard to get ahold of someone from the company.

“So we stipulated that there had to be someone on the ground in Jacksonville to address parent complaints and concerns,” Vitti said.

He said if the bill is made law, the board wouldn’t be able to require that anymore.

Recess, Testing, Teacher Bonuses

The bill would also guarantee mandatory 20-minute daily recess for students, but charter schools would be allowed to opt out.

Brady, with the teachers’ union, called for testing to be cut across the board, but lawmakers eliminated  one test, the Algebra II end-of-course exam.

Teachers would also be eligible for $800 or $1,200 bonuses for earning evaluation scores of “highly effective” or “effective,” and bonus caps would be repealed.

LISTEN | This story is airing on Redux

Reporter 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.