‘It’s totally obliterated local rule’: How a troubled, segregated district lost its public schools

By Jessica Bakeman

In the summer of 2016, the rural Jefferson County school district was in a dual state of academic and financial emergency.

That gave Republican-appointed state regulators at then-Gov. Rick Scott’s Department of Education enormous power over a school system enrolling only about 800 of the state’s nearly 3 million public school students.

The department engineered an unprecedented private takeover of the Panhandle county’s schools, which officials argued was necessary to ensure the children there finally had access to a quality education after more than a decade of public school failure. They describe themselves as advocates for the “voiceless.”

But the elected superintendent, school board members and others in the small community argue the will of the voters was tossed out to make way for Florida’s first all-charter school district.

“What's getting lost in all of this is: those folks weren't elected to run the school district,” said Marianne Arbulu, who won the superintendent’s seat in the fall of 2016, just in time to lose the chance to run the district’s schools.

Two years into Jefferson County’s transformation, the community stands as a symbol and threat to school districts in the rest of the state, a tangible representation of the direction education policy is going in Florida: Power over public schools is shifting to the state and private sector, while slipping away from local officials — and the voters who elect them.

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The courthouse in downtown Monticello.
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© Jessica Bakeman/WLRN

Education is black and white in Jefferson County

North Florida is the deep South. The area’s history is marred by racial violence and injustice: slavery, the Confederacy, sharecropping, lynchings, Jim Crow.

Despite the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education 16 years earlier, Jefferson County didn’t desegregate its public schools until 1970, when it was forced to by the federal government.

Dee Counts, a white local historian, owned a weekly newspaper with her husband in the early 1970s, the Monticello News.

“I can remember when it came time to announce the homecoming king and queen. By that time, the schools had been integrated, and there was a white queen and a black king,” she said. “And we could not print a picture of the two of them together. We had to print individual photographs side by side.”

Jefferson County remains starkly segregated, and that’s especially apparent in the schools.

More than 60 percent of people in the county are white. But, for years, about three quarters of the roughly 800 students in the public schools were black. More recently, the student population has shifted to about two-thirds black.

More than 300 students attend a predominantly white Christian school in Monticello; it was founded the same year the public schools integrated. The school’s current principal said it was established to offer a religious educational option, but he acknowledged some white parents’ motivation for enrolling their children at the time might have been to avoid mixing them with black students.

Another few hundred students, mostly white, leave the county for public schools in other counties. And more than 200 students in Jefferson are homeschooled.

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A dilapidated beauty salon in Monticello.
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© Jessica Bakeman/WLRN

Pervasive racial discord among the school district’s elected leadership contributed to the institution’s gradual demise.

Community members explicitly described the school board as split along racial lines. For several years, there were three white members and two black members on the board. In 2016, the ratio flipped.

“I mean, literally, on a five-person school board, blacks sat on one side, whites sat on the other side,” said Mike Monroe, who is black and has worked for two decades as a teachers’ union organizer in North Florida. “There was no decorum. There was no professionalism. It was you against us.”

The divided school board and a series of white superintendents mismanaged the district’s dwindling resources and blamed problems on each other.

The leaders’ dysfunction erased any chance the district had of surviving the rural community’s economic woes, with jobs disappearing and people who were forced to work outside the county taking their children with them to go to school. Competing schools popped up nearby, drawing more students and more money away from the district.

By the time Jefferson County’s local elected officials lost control, their two schools had earned about a decade of Ds and Fs under Florida’s high-stakes system for rating school performance. More than half of the students in the middle/high school had been held back two or more times. In 2016-17, the last year before the traditional public schools closed, Jefferson County’s graduation rate was 54 percent, compared to the state average of 82 percent.

“We never were able to get anywhere, because of the poor leadership and not working together collaboratively to do what we need to do for our students over in Jefferson County,” school board member Sandra Saunders, who is black, explained to state lawmakers in the fall of 2017.

“Over the years, we never had a working superintendent and a working board together. It was always apart,” she said. “We tried to make it work, but it never would, so I think that’s why … we are here today.”

A plea for help, unanswered. Then, a forced takeover.

Two years before the district’s public schools were taken out of local elected officials’ hands, Jefferson County residents asked Gov. Rick Scott for help. His administration dismissed their pleas.

In 2015, community leaders were alarmed that the school district’s finances were careening toward disaster, and that plans to improve academic performance were incomplete and ineffective. Some school board members blamed the superintendent at the time, Al Cooksey. The Republican elected in 2012 argued he inherited the district’s problems and was trying to fix them.

A group of “stakeholders” — students, parents, teachers and community members, along with at least one school board member — wrote to Scott asking him to get involved. Their 36-page letter included what appears to be more than 250 signatures. Among their concerns:

With a small student population in just two schools, Cooksey was planning to hire another district-level administrator while cutting teachers. One of the people set to be fired was the district’s only Spanish teacher, despite the state’s graduation requirement in foreign language. The middle/high school’s custodial staff was at risk, as were several specialists who work with students with disabilities.

As far as the community members knew, money allocated for a gifted program was unaccounted for, as was an insurance settlement following a fire at the elementary school. Advanced Placement classes had few textbooks. The middle/high school was grappling with “extreme discipline problems.”

“We feel the education system in our county is broken,” they wrote in the May 6, 2015, letter. “We are asking for your help in getting our school district back on track for the sake of our children.

“We … are passionate to ‘take back’ our schools,” the letter said.

An investigator with the state Department of Education asked Cooksey to look into the allegations outlined in the letter and respond. In his reply four months later, the superintendent argued most of the complaints were inaccurate or overblown. That satisfied the state.

“Our review determined that you have addressed the allegations posted by the complainant, and no further action will be required,” the state investigator responded in September 2015.

The matter was settled, it seemed.

Less than a year later, though, state education officials saw it fit to intervene — not to help local elected officials “take back” their schools, but the opposite.

At this point, the elementary school had not earned a passing grade — a C or higher — since 2009. The combined middle/high school had racked up low grades since 2003. Because of the chronically poor performance, the Florida Board of Education could have pushed to close the schools altogether — a fate the Jefferson County leaders couldn’t live with.

“I’m going to work like my hair’s on fire,” Cooksey said at a state Board of Education meeting in July 2016, about a month before the primary for his re-election bid.

The school board chair, Shirley Washington, said there was a time when residents were proud to call themselves Jefferson County Tigers, when people from other districts visited the schools in Monticello to find out what the district was doing right.

“We’re going to get it back there. There’s no doubt in my mind,” Washington said at the same state Board of Education meeting. “When you see me again, you will be pinning a flower or a rose … on Jefferson County for the great accomplishment that we have made.”

Local leaders were asking for more time to raise the school grades themselves and with the help of outside consultants. But the superintendent and school board needed approval from the state board for their plans, and the gubernatorial appointees wanted to see more dramatic change.

“Is there a mechanism for a district to be taken over?” Marva Johnson, then-chair of the Florida Board of Education, asked during the July 2016 meeting.

“Constitutionally, and in law, school districts are responsible for their schools in their district,” then-education commissioner Pam Stewart responded.

State board member Gary Chartrand asked at the next month’s meeting: “What if we keep denying their plan? What happens?”

Stewart answered him: The district would keep coming back with new plans.

Chartrand offered: “We could deny this forever.”

Chartrand is a prominent booster of charter schools. The business executive donated $1 million to persuade KIPP, a national charter school network, to open in his hometown of Jacksonville. He now chairs the governing board for KIPP Jacksonville and also serves on the board for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, an influential education reform nonprofit founded by former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush. Chartrand has also donated regularly to the campaigns of GOP political candidates, including Scott’s successful 2018 bid for the U.S. Senate.

Some members of the state Board of Education advocated for a radical change: asking a private organization to take over.

“I would ... look into chartering the entire district,” then-Board of Education member John Padget said during a conference call in August 2016. He’s a retired private equity investor who lives in Key West and served a short stint as superintendent of the Monroe County school district in the early 2000s after Bush tapped him for the post.

By January 2017, Jefferson County leaders still didn’t have state-approved plans for how to fix their schools. Frustrated with the lack of progress over several months, state education officials gave the Jefferson County leaders three options: Close the schools and send students to other districts. Hire another district or a contractor — an “external operator” — to advise the district, which had not been done before and was unlikely to get approval. Or turn them into charter schools.

Charter schools are run by private nonprofit organizations, sometimes in contract with for-profit companies, under the direction of an unelected governing board. Charter operators enter into contracts with elected school boards, which monitor their compliance with the agreed-upon terms. The schools are exempt from many of the laws and regulations that apply to traditional public schools.

When offering these choices, state education officials raised the stakes: They said if Jefferson County’s next plan was rejected, the education commissioner would take the most drastic action she could — formally declare that the district was breaking state laws and regulations, report the district to the Legislature and consider withholding school funding. The education department’s lawyer said it would be an “unfortunate but necessary exercise of state power.”

The Jefferson County school board — along with a new superintendent, Marianne Arbulu, who had beat Cooksey in the Republican primary and then won the November 2016 general — had a month to decide what to do.

Desperate to avoid closure, the local leaders came back in February 2017 with the only other plan they believed the state board would accept: charter schools.

Tom Grady, a state Board of Education member and former Republican lawmaker, was skeptical.

“When we think of charter schools, … you think of choice,” Grady said. “That's not what we're doing. These students in Jefferson County have no choice.”

A Jefferson County school board member and former district superintendent tried to assuage his fears.

“This board wants to save that county,” Bill Brumfield told the state officials. “We’re turning over to the charter school to save the district, for the children’s sake.”

After about an hour of discussion, the state board voted to approve Jefferson County’s new way forward: becoming the state’s first all-charter school district. A couple state board members offered a “good luck,” and there was a brief, sparse bout of applause.

A few days later, Stewart wrote a letter to the superintendent stressing the statewide stakes of the charter takeover.

“If Jefferson can maintain its resolve and commitment to success in the years to come,” she wrote, “then not only will the students of Jefferson County benefit, but the county may itself serve as a model for other similar school districts.”

‘No other choice’: Hiring a charter school operator for Jefferson County

The next step for Jefferson County was finding a private organization willing to take on a really tough job: remaking two schools with a legacy of failure.

Staff at the Department of Education offered three suggestions of charter school operators with a history of success educating poor and non-white students. Two were networks affiliated with the for-profit charter school company Academica, based in Miami. One of those, Somerset Academy, Inc., was interested.

In 2016, Somerset operated 48 schools in Florida, mostly in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, with more than 60 percent of them earning As and Bs from the state. Somerset brought in nearly $150 million in revenue in 2015-16. And the network paid Academica at least $7.2 million that year, according to federal tax documents. Academica provides services to its client schools including staff recruitment, grant solicitation, human resources management, curriculum development and legal representation.

Somerset Grades

Two other charter school operators also considered applying but later pulled out. Their leaders determined they didn’t have the capacity to take on the Jefferson County challenge at that time. So the local school board was left with only one option: Somerset.

Doug Rodriguez, the president of a private college affiliated with Academica who is also working as a consultant for Somerset in Jefferson County, said the charter network’s willingness to take on the unprecedented challenge disproved a common criticism of charter schools: that they “cherry pick” their students.

“Here was the most distressed school district in one of the largest states in the United States. This model had never been done in the state of Florida before,” Rodriguez said. “We were the only show in town.”

Learn more about the South Florida charter network Somerset. »

In March 2017, the Jefferson County school board held a three-hour public meeting at the middle/high school to consider Somerset’s bid.

“This has been a rush rush to a charter school,” complained C.P. Miller, head of the local nonprofit Concerned United People.

“If you look at the process, the school board only has one choice, which is Somerset, to look at,” he said. “This is not a competitive process. How can the school board make an intelligent decision looking at one application? They can't do it.”

Ultimately, the Jefferson County board voted to let Somerset take control of their schools starting in the 2017-18 academic year. It was unanimous.

The state Board of Education met in nearby Tallahassee the following day. Stewart, the state education commissioner at the time, asked the Jefferson County school board members who attended for photos and hugs. She said she was “so proud of them that they chose to put the students first.”

Later, Jefferson County school board members said they made the decision under protest.

Without direct control over the district’s schools, the locally elected board’s role is limited. Members meet regularly to monitor Somerset’s compliance with its charter contract and manage the district’s remaining assets, like empty buildings that were once schools. Each school board member earns about $27,000.

“We really feel like a fair chance was not given to the board, but we are trying to work with what we have no other choice in doing,” local school board member Sandra Saunders said during a legislative committee meeting in October 2017.

All five members of the Jefferson County school board declined multiple requests for interviews with WLRN over more than a year.

Brumfield, the school board member and former superintendent, wrote in a text: “We had no choice on the charter school it was crammed down our throat’s [sic] by the department of education.”

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While another board member, Charles Boland, refused to speak with WLRN, his wife — a retired Jefferson County teacher and former president of the now-defunct teachers’ union — shared her concerns about the loss of local control in her community.

“It wasn't the will of the voters. I mean, I think the voters found out about it after it happened,” Andrea Boland said, referring to the switch to charter schools. “And so, I think it’s totally obliterated local rule.

“How can a locally, democratically elected official not have any power?”

Constitutional conflict puts control of education in ‘gray area.’ A fight would be expensive

The Florida constitution states school boards “shall operate, control and supervise all free public schools” within their districts, one for each of the state’s 67 counties.

The governing document gives the state Board of Education the power of “supervision,” and it lets lawmakers define what that means. Current law says: “The state board … may impose state requirements on school districts in order to improve the academic performance of all districts, schools, and students.”

In Jefferson County’s case, the state Department of Education’s actions were “heavy handed,” according to the local school board attorney. George “Tom” Reeves said the agency acted within a legal “gray area.”

He questioned the constitutionality of state laws that allow the Florida Department of Education broad control when school districts are experiencing academic or financial problems. Do those laws violate the constitution by infringing too much on local school boards’ authority?

The courts would have to decide. But school districts in a position to challenge the state often can’t afford it, said Andrea Messina, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. That’s especially true if the state is dictating how they can spend money.

“When you have a difference of interpretation in statute, the only place to go for an interpretation of, ‘What does it really mean?’ is the judiciary,” Messina said. “And the judiciary costs money.”

A Tallahassee attorney with expertise in education law said it would likely cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring that case to the Florida Supreme Court.

“That would be a big financial fight,” said Leonard Dietzen, a labor lawyer who has represented school boards and charter schools.

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It would likely cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring a legal challenge from school districts against the state Department of Education to the Florida Supreme Court, according to a Tallahassee education and labor lawyer. The courthouse in Tallahassee, shown above.
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© AP

School districts around the state have been watching what’s going on in Jefferson County, seeing the takeover as a sign that the state is creeping into the realm of school boards and superintendents.

The state’s gradual accumulation of power over public schools has been especially apparent in recent years. In 2017, the Legislature took away some of the options that districts once had to direct their own efforts to improve schools, making it more likely that underperforming schools would end up closing or turning into charters.

Meanwhile, the Florida Board of Education has gotten more aggressive in overseeing school districts’ efforts to raise student performance. The board has questioned superintendents about their plans in tense meetings, often pressuring them to fire principals and teachers when schools’ grades don’t budge.

The new state education commissioner, former Republican House Speaker Richard Corcoran, has advocated for a law that would allow the state to take over struggling schools directly. His comments were borne out of frustration over 21 struggling schools in the Jacksonville area — illustrating that it’s not only small, rural districts that are at risk of losing local control of their schools. Since Corcoran took that stance this spring, a national charter school network based in Texas, IDEA, announced plans to expand to Jacksonville in 2022.

Dietzen, the Tallahassee labor lawyer, said the Jefferson takeover was a “wake-up call” that prompted some school districts to cut staff and forego raises, in hopes of avoiding “financial emergency” — a status that gives the state power over budget decisions. Those situations are not rare. Six school districts have qualified for financial emergency in the last eight years, including the state’s largest, Miami-Dade County Public Schools, in 2013-14.

Jim Hamilton, a former Tampa principal who now lobbies for school districts at the state Capitol, said he tells his clients not to underestimate the threat.

“This is deadly serious business,” he said.

When school district administrators sometimes ask him: “What could the state really do to us?” — he points to Jefferson County.

“See what they did right there?” he said. “That's what they're going to do.”