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Armed Guards, Reading Among Topics At NW Jacksonville School Board Candidate Forum

Lindsey Kilbride
Four of the six candidates running for Duval County’s District 4 School Board seat participated in a forum Monday evening at the Johnson Family YMCA on Cleveland Road. ";

Four of the six candidates running for Duval County’s District 4 School Board seat participated in a forum Monday evening at the Johnson Family YMCA on Cleveland Road.

The district includes much of Jacksonville’s Eastside, as well as downtown, Brooklyn and much of the Northside.

The group Friends of Northwest Jacksonville Schools headed up the event, with help from the Jacksonville Public Education Fund and local NAACP chapter. Friends of Northwest Jacksonville member Tameka Gaines Holly said the forum was especially important because the outgoing District 4 board member, Paula Wright, is the current board chair. Wright is challenging Rep. Kimberly Daniels for her state House seat.

“We need to make sure that the person that is coming behind her understands our community, understands our children, our schools and our challenges that we have,” Gaines Holly said. “So it’s important for us to put that before the people so that they know who are options for them.”

On Facebook, the group refers to District 4’s schools as “some of the most fragile” in the county. Three schools in the district — Lake Forest Elementary, Northwestern Middle School and Matthew Gilbert Middle School — could soon be managed by an external operatorif they don’t make C grades. Grades are expected to be released this summer.

In alphabetical order, the District 4 candidates appearing on the August primary ballot are Linda Butler, Erdine Johnson, Charis Scurry, Timothy Sloan, Cynthia Smith and Darryl Willie. Smith and Butler did not attend the forum Monday.

The Candidates

Linda Butler was raised on Jacksonville’s Eastside and has taught in both public and private schools. She’s a former Monticello, Florida, City Council member. She’s raised $4,711.

Erdine Johnson has a career in education spanning 40 years, first teaching and later becoming a principal in both traditional and charter schools. She’s raised $6,443.

Charis Scurry is the manager of education strategies for the nonprofit United Way of Northeast Florida. Her work focuses on the Achievers For Life Program with the goal of keeping students on track to graduate. She’s raised $11,952.  

Timothy Sloan is a Duval County parent who attends many school district-related events and meetings, speaking out about education issues. He doesn’t have a candidate statement on the Supervisor of Elections website, but he was recently profiled in a Florida Times-Union storyabout school safety. He’s raised $25.

Cynthia Smith has been with Duval County Public Schools for a combined 16 years working as a  clerk, bookkeeper, teacher, instructional coach and assistant principal. She’s raised $13,344.

Darryl Willie is a former teacher and current executive director for Teach for America Jacksonville, where he recruits, selects and trains teachers for Duval County Public Schools. He’s garnered the endorsement of the political arm of the Jax Chamber and has raised $32,954.

Candidate Responses

Candidates were asked about $62 million in cuts the Duval School Board is having to make from its originally proposed budget. They were asked what they’d prioritize.

Willie said staff would be the priority because they’re most critical piece of the system. He also said he’d make sure the district's emergency reserve is adequately funded.

“And in addition to that we have to ensure that whatever we prioritize, we’re not reducing the quality of services that are happening within our schools,” he said.

Scurry listed curriculum technology and safety as her budget priorities.

“When our parents send our children out to school, they expect their child or children to return home,” she said.

Credit Lindsey Kilbride / WJCT News
The group Friends of Northwest Jacksonville Schools headed up a District 4 school board forum Monday.

Sloan said literacy would be his main budget concern. He said he’s a big fan of reading interventionists who work with students.

“We have a problem with reading literacy,” Sloan said. “We have high school teachers trying to teach students at an elementary level.”

Johnson said safety and manageable class size would be her main priorities.  

“Having overcrowded classrooms affect discipline in the classroom as well as the academics,” Johnson said.

Candidates were asked their views on the plan to employ armed “school safety assistants” to patrol elementary schools. Board members say the district doesn’t have enough funding to hire sworn officers.

Sloan said he would have voted for the plan, but he added, a Centers for Disease Control anonymous student surveyshowed Duval students are already seeing weapons at school.

“I understand we have to stop that from getting on school grounds, but there’s stuff that’s going on inside the schools,” he said.

Johnson said she doesn’t agree with the plan because she doesn’t feel comfortable with armed people who aren’t police officers on school grounds.

“Too many things can happen,” she said.

Willie said ideally schools would be patrolled by sworn officers, but the state didn’t provide enough money for that.

“What we have is what we have,” he said. “We need to ensure that the training that we have for those folks is of the highest quality that we can.”

He said mental health resources are also an important proactive component of school safety.

Scurry said he too wishes sworn school resource officers could be employed at all elementary schools, but agreed it’s not possible due to a lack of state funding.

“The safety [plan] that they have mandated to go into our elementary schools is currently in the best interest of the safety of our students and our teachers,” Scurry said.

Candidates were asked how they’d work to increase reading scores after recent state data showedsome District 4 schools have less than 30 percent of students reading on grade level.

Johnson said in her experience as a school leader, she was successful in raising literacy and school grades. She said the keys are access to books and small-group guided reading.

“I’ve always had a full-time media specialist. We had books, books, books,” she said. “How can children read books if they’re locked away in the library?”

Scurry said early childhood education is important, as well as parental involvement.

“You can have the best reading teacher, but when those students go home, if our parents are not re-enforcing what being is taught at school, they are going to struggle,” she said.

Willie said the board should be promoting literacy from the earliest point possible.

“How are we addressing and making sure parents who are pregnant or having children actually are able to give their kids the type of proper knowledge they need before they even come into the world?” he asked.

He said setting expectations high is also important, and settling for minor gains isn’t enough.

Sloan said literacy in District 4 has been a problem for decades. He said he visits schools in other parts of town that are taking different approaches.

“[Some] schools have a not-for-profit organization that’s raising money and they’re using that money to buy paraprofessionals for their teachers, for their students,” he said.

Election Information

The District 4 seat is one of three up for grabs in the August election. The others are District 2, which covers the Beaches, and District 6, which covers much of the Westside.

In Duval, any candidate who gets at least 50 percent plus one vote in the August primary wins the race. When that doesn’t happen, the top two candidates will move on to the November ballot.

Lindsey Kilbride can be reached, 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.