Duval School Board Members, Vitti Meet Face To Face Friday

Sep 23, 2016

Credit Lindsey Kilbride / WJCT News

Duval County School Board members met face to face with Superintendent Nikolai Vitti Friday after a week of accusations that Board Chair Ashley Smith Juarez wanted Vitti gone.

Smith Juarez denied that was her intent this week and reiterated that at the meeting. She did not call for his firing.

“If I intended explicitly to vote on the superintendent’s contract, I would have published that in the published agenda,” she said.

She said the intent of the meeting is to discuss a plan moving forward that is best for students despite board guidelines outlining discussion meetings as workshops, not board meetings in which binding votes can take place.

Around 30 people spoke at Friday’s morning meeting during public comment including Jacksonville Democratic Sen. Audrey Gibson. She said she’s seen the district's achievement data.  

“While I think we should set the bar high, I think we also have to recognize that we don’t want to have a setup for failure, because you together have made great achievements for this district,” Gibson said. “I urge you all to go back to the room and talk about what those goals should look like.”

Vitti and Smith Juarez both acknowledged she had asked for Vitti to resign. She said it was in private out of respect for Vitti’s family and career.

Smith Juarez said Friday she realized over the week that Vitti is willing to work harder with the board to narrow the achievement gap.

Smith Juarez has been unhappy with student achievement, particularly widening gaps between white, black and Hispanic students in some areas .

And she isn’t alone in her concerns. Board member Connie Hall addressed the data.  

“As we as a board received the achievement gap information, I know personally my mouth flew open,” Hall said. “I was in a state of shock and had to sit there and collect myself.”

Vitti said the district has made great achievements over the past few years, but he agrees the work can go much deeper. He said he’s committed to working differently with each member and collectively with the board to continue those gains. Vitti also apologized if he’s ever caused any distrust with members.

“I actually don’t view (my) job as a job. I view it as a calling. I wake up every day knowing exactly why I come to work — to serve all children.” Vitti said. “I never walked into this week’s conversation with the fear of losing a job. I can get a job. It’s about this job that makes me excited. It’s about this job that makes me passionate.”

Shine told reporters Sunday Smith Juarez planned to call for a vote on terminating Vitti’s contract after she scheduled a Friday board meeting for “governance and administration.”

Smith Juarez asked Vitti to better relay information to board members so they aren’t finding out information from news articles. Board member Becki Couch said the same should go for board members.

“(So) that we respect each other enough to not go out and make accusations and give opinions on other board members to the press,” Couch said.

Shine defended telling the public Smith Juarez wanted to vote on terminating Vitti’s contract.  

“I will never withhold information from the public about what is going on in this board room that affects their interests,” he said.

Shine pointed out the room full of public commenters who wanted to be heard and wouldn’t have shown up at Friday’s meeting if he hadn’t emailed reporters.

Board members wrapped up the meeting shortly after this exchange.

They plan to pick up the conversation Monday at 9 a.m. with the possibility of hiring a mediator to help work out the differences.