Duval School Board Rejects Controversial Voucher Resolution

Oct 7, 2014

For a second time, the state’s controversial voucher program took center stage at the Duval County School Board meeting.

Credit Duval County Public Schools

The school board voted to reject a resolution opposing a lawsuit filed against the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship program Tuesday night. The voucher program helps Florida parents pay for tuition at private schools.

School Board Member Jason Fischer first introduced the resolution to board members last month.

The lawsuit filed by the Florida School Boards Association (FSBA), the Florida Education Association and several other community groups alleges that the voucher program is unconstitutional because it diverts tax-payer dollars to private, unregulated and often religious institutions.

Fischer’s proposal calls on FSBA, specifically, to withdraw from the suit. Duval County School Board members Paula Wright and Chairwoman Becki Couch are both members of FSBA, but the Duval County School Board, itself, is not a plaintiff in the suit.

Last month, members of a Tampa-based group in support of the voucher showed up in force to oppose a lawsuit. The group, Florida Voices for Choices, is the advocacy arm of the state’s largest low-income tax credit scholarship program “Step Up for Students.” The organization's founder, John Kirtley, chairs both groups.

Tuesday, several local parents from the group showed up once again to implore board members to support Fischer’s resolution.

Jacksonville grandmother Arleen Scott told board members her grandson, who suffers from asthma, has been a benefactor of the program for about five years now.

“The school that I have him in even has asthma classes (for) an hour every week,” she said. “My grandson learns so many human values…and has a love for learning that he’s not even realizing.”

Currently, more than 60,000 students across the state benefit from the program. However, opponents of the program argue it is siphoning millions of dollars from the public school system.

A number of individuals opposing Fischer’s measure took to the podium Tuesday as well, including local education advocate Colleen Wood.

Wood argued the issue should be left out of school board discussion altogether.

“It introduces partisan politics into our local school boards and it opens up not only this school board but other school boards around Florida to partisan bullying and intimidation which is already happening,” Wood said.

Last month, the Republican Party of Duval County became involved in the debate when the Executive Committee passed a similar resolution introduced by Fischer to oppose the voucher lawsuit. Duval GOP head Rick Hartley said the proposal was sent out to about 200 other voting members.

School board members also confirmed they received an email from State Board of Education Chairman Gary Chartrand last month urging them to support Fischer’s resolution.

Conflict of Interest?

Fischer’s support for the voucher program came under fire recently in an article published in ContextFlorida.

The article notes Fischer’s affiliation with Step Up for Student's founder Kirtley. Kirtley is co-founder and partner of Uretek Holdings Inc. where Fischer works, and he has contributed more than $2,000 to Fischer’s campaign over the last two years, Supervisor of Elections records show.

Fischer was hired at Uretek in July 2013. In an email sent earlier to WJCT, Fischer said his support for school choice initiatives such as the voucher program had nothing to do with his job.

“My business is engineering-related, not education-related,” he wrote. “I don’t do business with the Duval County School District, and I have supported this program as well as many other school choice initiatives for many years, whether that was when I was at Florida Power & Light, the U.S. Navy, or CSX Transportation.”

Later at the school board meeting, Fischer called the allegations of conflict “an attempt to assassinate” his character.

“Those assertions are simply political and trying to distract from the situation—just a manufactured crisis to distract from the real conflict of interest and that’s the FSBA and the unions using taxpayer dollars to sue the state and selfishly increase their assets and deny families an education that meets the needs of their children.”

However, most of the other board members didn’t see it that way. School Board Member Connie Hall countered that Fischer's resolution was the distraction.    

“I’m very disturbed that my time and this board’s time is really distracted by this,” she said. “My vote tonight is going to be a ‘No’ because we cannot politicize our students.”

The resolution failed 5-2, with Fischer and fellow board member Ashley Smith-Juarez voting in favor of it.

Other Votes

Among other votes of the evening, the board passed a resolution seeking a one-year pause on state-issued school grades as schools transition to the new Florida Standards Assessment.

The 6-1 vote makes the school board the first in the state to pass such a resolution, according to board members. Other boards and district officials around the state have proposed similar measures.

School board members also voted to deny an application to open a new charter in the Deerwood area. District officials recommended the board deny the school's opening slated for 2015-16.

In August, Legacy Academy Duval, Inc. proposed a plan to open to 589 kindergarten through sixth graders in the Deerwood area and eventually expand to 755 students in kindergarten through eighth-grade.

However, district officials cited that both schools did not meet enough of the 19 required standards in their education, business and organization plans to open next year.

The board was scheduled to vote on another charter school application from Early Career Academy-Jacksonville Inc. for 2015-16, but that item was later withdrawn from the final school board agenda.

Meanwhile, another charter school now facing closure has appealed. Scholar Preparatory Academy Inc. submitted a notice of appeal to Duval County Public School’s Office of Legal Services last month.  

The school was slapped with 90-day termination notice due to several missed several deadlines and low enrollment numbers, according to Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

The letter to district attorney Karen Chastain, dated Sept. 17, requests a hearing on the closure.

“Please note that the Charter School Board specifically indicated its intent to continue working with School District Staff with an eye toward resolving all outstanding issues in the Notice of Termination and hopefully avoiding a hearing altogether,” the letter states.

As it stands, Scholar Preparatory will have about two more months to resolve issues outlined by the district to avoid closure

.You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter @RhemaThompson.