Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Duval Interim Superintendent’s Son, Niece Get Top Principal Jobs

Bob Self
The Florida Times-Union
Outgoing superintendent Patricia Willis

Outgoing superintendent Patricia Willis announced a series of 19 principal changes that include promoting her son from an assistant principal spot to principal and moving a niece from leadership of a neighborhood elementary school to a high-ranking, magnet middle school.

This is one of Willis’ final acts as interim superintendent, a post she assumed after Nikolai Vitti left in May 2017, according to our Florida Times-Union news partner.  She will leave this summer once newly hired Diana Greene is installed.

The board unanimously approved the principal changes without discussion as part of its consent agenda. All six members voted for it, but Board member Rebecca Couch was absent. Typically the board approves staff changes without comment.

Some community members asked privately how Willis could promote family members, especially just before she leaves.

“I don’t like the timing,” said Curtrina Brown, a Duval parent and member of the S.A. Hull Elementary school advisory council. “It’s like you’re leaving out the door and you’re making positions for family members .... If that was [Patricia Willis’] recommendation it should be done by the next person coming in. The ethics side of it is starting to look a little fishy.”

Willis answered questions Monday about the principal moves, especially those affecting her family members, through district spokesman Tracy Pierce.

Pierce said the moves do not violate the district’s nepotism policy, which mainly deals with family members supervising each other.

The policy doesn’t specifically mention what happens when superintendents appoint principals who are related to them.

“There is no prohibition against employment of a relative,” Pierce said in a written statement. “However, there are restrictions against directly supervising or evaluating a relative. In the case of the current recommendations, the superintendent does not directly supervise or evaluate principals. Rather, principals are directly supervised and evaluated by a regional superintendent, not the superintendent.”

Pierce noted that Duval County employs more than 170 principals, adding that each of the 19 principal candidates meets certification and experience requirements, including Willis’ relatives. Pierce said both have been employed in education for years.

Rashard Willis, a former assistant principal of A-rated Jacksonville Beach Elementary, will head A-rated S.A. Hull Elementary. Deshune Bush, former principal of A-rated Biscayne Elementary, will lead A-rated Kirby-Smith Middle.

Their future salary figures were not available Tuesday.

Rashard Willis made $56,000 a year as an assistant principal. He will be moving to a smaller school but as a principal, with a base pay beginning at $78,000 plus extra based on school performance, type and other circumstances. He was hired in Duval in 2011 and has been an assistant principal for three years.

Bush was making $95,000 a year. She will be moving to a larger middle school, which typically pays principals at least $80,000 plus additional money based on school type, performance, and other circumstances. She was hired in Duval in 2001 and has been an a school administrator for eight years.

Pierce said Patricia Willis did not make her principal selections alone. Each principal candidate was screened by a committee, including representatives of regional superintendents, the chief of schools and of human resources, he said.

“Hiring a principal is a multi-tiered process,” he said, “beginning with input from the immediate supervisor and a collaborative selection process involving human resources, the regional superintendent and the chief of schools.”

Several School Board members had mixed reactions to the appointments.

Vice chairwoman Lori Hershey said before the meeting that she was not aware that Patricia Willis was related to any of the principals on the list of new appointments. She declined to comment on the matter since the School Board hadn’t discussed it yet.

Two other board members said earlier that they trust that Patricia Willis’ hiring decisions, including those affecting family members, are the best for children.

Cheryl Grymes, who has served more than 14 years on the Duval School Board, said it’s not unheard of for family members of board members and superintendents to be employed in district positions. She mentioned, for instance, former superintendent Larry Zenke, whose wife and daughter were teachers.

“Unless it’s a direct report I don’t see a problem, if a person is qualified and has a good track record,” Grymes said.

She added that Florida statutes give superintendents the right to choose principals but limit the ability of board members to interfere.

“You almost have to have stolen something,” Grymes said. “It takes a lot to disqualify a principal.”

Warren Jones, another board member, said Patricia Willis told him her son was likely to be promoted to S.A. Hull, a school in Jones’ district. Jones said he is more concerned that Westide High’s principal is moving to Ribault High than he is about Willis’ relatives running schools.

“It’s the superintendent’s call,” he said. “If you’re going to hold the superintendent accountable for the progress of students, you’ve got to give them the opportunity to put their people in place.”

He added that there is nothing preventing Greene from making her own principal changes if she finds it necessary.

“I know that perception is everything,” Jones said. “I’m not really concerned since [Patricia Willis] won’t be there for the next year .... She wouldn’t be directly supervising them.”

A longer version of this story that includes a list of all of the proposed principal moves is on