Unelected state education officials directed Jefferson County's private takeover. The sidelined superintendent says they 'played in places they shouldn't have.'

By Jessica Bakeman

Marianne Arbulu is a superintendent without a school.

Elected in 2016 to lead the small school district in rural Jefferson County, Arbulu was quickly stripped of the job description she campaigned for. She took office just a few months before then-Gov. Rick Scott’s administration forced the local school board to turn over the county’s two long-struggling schools to a charter school operator from South Florida.

These days, Arbulu fingerprints candidates for jobs at the charter schools. She compiles responses to public records requests. She stays late some nights to proctor tests for the district’s adult education program.

At first, she worked alone in the district’s small office building, located in Monticello, a small city about 25 miles east of Tallahassee. Arbulu was later joined by an administrative assistant, her sole full-time employee. When visitors arrive, they ring the doorbell, and sometimes Arbulu personally receives them.

“Yesterday, … I had an appointment with a vendor to show us … a piece of software,” she said during an interview in her office earlier this year. “I opened the door, and he said, ‘Are you the superintendent?’ And I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ And he said, ‘I've been calling on school districts for 30 years, and I've never had a superintendent open the door.’”

She told him: “Well, welcome to Jefferson County.”

The Scott administration’s Department of Education didn’t just mandate the switch to private power in Jefferson County, ultimately disempowering Arbulu and the elected school board. The agency also quietly directed the transition, easing the path for the charter school network, Somerset Academy, Inc., and its for-profit contractor Academica.

State bureaucrats’ punishingly tight control over the tiny district is detailed in hundreds of pages of emails and documents obtained by WLRN through public records requests.

Arbulu, who is a pro-school-choice Republican, argues some of the decisions imposed by the state were “inappropriate” and questions whether they were in the district’s best interest.

In an extreme example, former education commissioner Pam Stewart compelled the financially underwater school district to transfer to Somerset hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal reimbursement funds for meals the district had already served to children. That was despite other government agencies’ position that the money rightfully belonged to the school district. The decision likely kept the Jefferson County district in the weakened, financial-emergency status longer than necessary — therefore, allowing the state to maintain control over the district’s budget.

Under Stewart, the Department of Education “played in places they shouldn't have,” Arbulu said. “Micromanaging, selecting staff for me. Selecting vendors for me. Those things were simply inappropriate.”

Stewart disagreed, saying it’s “very clear that the department acted within their authority.”

The Jefferson County School District building in Monticello.
The Jefferson County School District building in Monticello.
© Jessica Bakeman / WLRN

‘I want to be governing’: Voters’ choice for superintendent is on the sidelines

Marianne Arbulu ran on two campaign promises: If elected superintendent of the Jefferson County district, she would improve the schools’ performance by two letter grades and increase enrollment by 20 percent.

Arbulu is a former business executive and once worked as a state administrator herself, for the Florida Division of Emergency Management and the Department of Economic Opportunity. She also served a term on the Jefferson County school board, from 2008 to 2012.

She decided then she couldn’t achieve the changes she hoped to see in the schools from her board seat, so she ran for superintendent in 2012 and lost. On her second try in 2016, she won. Her salary is $100,240.

Arbulu hoped to offer parents more options for their children’s education, and she supports school choice in a broad sense: charter schools, magnet programs, vocational training.

She never got a chance to govern.

When she won the August 2016 Republican primary, ousting the sitting superintendent, the state Board of Education had just begun pushing the district toward drastic change. After the November election, she was in office for three months before the state forced the district to give up power over the schools or close them. The entire time she’s been superintendent, the district has been in “financial emergency” — an official status that allows the state to take over a local government’s budget — so she’s had little control over spending decisions.

She said she’s a “home rule gal” who believes the best government is the one closest to the people.

“When you have an appointed board or a department, an agency, coming in and dictating who and why and how, that goes against the grain,” she said.

Despite her concerns about the degradation of local control in Jefferson County, she’s realistic about why her office has been stripped of its power — because the district was in such bad shape, financially and academically, for so long. Why would state education officials trust her to do any better than the previous superintendents?

Without any schools to run, Arbulu’s main job now is keeping an eye on Somerset Academy, making sure the South Florida charter school network meets the obligations set out in its five-year contract, which extends through 2022.

Even though the charter path was chosen for her, now she’s just hoping it works.

“I want to be governing, not doing data input, right?” she said. “But the end game is to have a better school system for our kids…. If that is Somerset, then that's something we need to support and continue.”

Frank Ocean Blonde Album Cover
Then-state education commissioner Pam Stewart kept a close watch on the Jefferson County School District during its transition to all charter schools.
© AP

A quiet tug-of-war: State bureaucrats direct public-to-private power transfer

Superintendent Marianne Arbulu’s other primary responsibility has been working closely with the state Department of Education to sort out the district’s financial mess.

There’s a state law that says if a local government’s savings falls below 2 percent of its general revenue — the amount of money coming in for the year — the state can take over its budget through a “financial emergency board” until the problem is corrected and there’s a plan to keep it that way.

The Jefferson County school district had been in financial emergency in 2009 and climbed out of it. But in 2016, again, the district’s savings had been depleted. The Florida Board of Education appointed a committee to oversee Jefferson County’s finances, and that body required the district to get personal approval from the education commissioner before spending even a dollar.

Arbulu has been disturbed by some of the state Department of Education’s actions in controlling the district’s finances. Sometimes, she has worried that the department was working against her attempts to repair the district’s budget and therefore come out from under the specter of financial emergency.

Before former state education commissioner Pam Stewart retired earlier this year, her office declined WLRN’s multiple requests for interviews with her about the transition to charter schools in Jefferson County.

Hundreds of pages of emails and letters, some of them threatening, exchanged between Stewart, her staff and Arbulu over a year and half show a difficult and unequal relationship in which both sides accused each other of acting outside the limits of their power.

In February 2017, Stewart admonished Arbulu for trying to hire employees without first getting approval.

“Should this occur in the future, I will institute one, some or all of the following,” Stewart wrote, listing possible consequences. Among them: “Request that the Governor review the action for suspension and removal from office on the basis of misfeasance” and “request that the Jefferson County School District withhold your salary.”

In another exchange a year later, in February 2018, Stewart accused Arbulu of refusing to make herself available for a meeting with department officials and administrators at the new charter schools, Somerset Academy Jefferson County.

“I am disappointed and appalled,” Stewart wrote, demanding that Arbulu attend a meeting that week. Another threat: “The Department reserves the right to take … actions permitted by law in response to an elected official who is refusing to fulfill her lawful duties.”

Arbulu replied, “I would never want to disappoint you” and rearranged her schedule so she could join the meeting. She had planned to participate in a training offered by the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.

Early on, the department approved Arbulu’s request to hire an administrative assistant at an annual salary of $35,000. In the summer of 2017, Arbulu wrote to Stewart to alert her that nine candidates had applied, and Arbulu had chosen the one she wanted to hire. Stewart responded asking for all of the candidates’ resumes. Later, Stewart wrote again and told Arbulu to hire someone different than her choice.

“It's kind of ridiculous to think that, from Tallahassee, you are going to have the best information to make these kinds of decisions,” Arbulu said. “It's just mind-boggling to me.”

Stewart also used the state’s power over the district’s finances to block Arbulu from paying for legal advice. In this case, the conflict was over a transportation contract, which had implications both for the school district’s legal liability and for students’ safety. But there’s a bigger picture: Without access to a lawyer, Arbulu could not have challenged the state’s more extreme actions.

Initially, under Somerset’s charter school contract, the district was supposed to provide transportation for students. Having no experience in the area, Arbulu was uncomfortable overseeing the program herself. She wanted to hire a transportation director to do it.

“That was not going to fly,” Arbulu said. “[Stewart] was not going to let me have any staff.”

Eventually, Somerset wanted to take over transportation. Arbulu was worried about what her personal liability would be if there was a problem, like an accident involving a school bus. She wanted a lawyer to look over the proposed contract.

Jefferson County school board attorney George “Tom” Reeves declined to help Arbulu, saying he works for the board members, not her. He argued it could be a conflict of interest for a school board attorney to represent a superintendent. It’s not unheard of for superintendents to have their own lawyers, because sometimes school boards and superintendents disagree.

So, in November 2017, Arbulu got help from an outside attorney who charged her $825. The superintendent submitted the bill to the state Department of Education for approval.

Anticipating the department’s response, Arbulu argued her case: “With all due respect, allow me to point out that the state does not expect any other superintendent to perform their duties without resources and under such conditions - without counsel, and left to navigate through unprecedented legal ground.”

State officials balked at the request.

"To the extent that you misled [the lawyer] and represented to him that you had authorization to retain him, I trust that you will take full responsibility for your actions,” the department’s general counsel, Matthew Mears, replied.

Arbulu argues she did have the authority. The school district’s budget — which had been approved by the state — included a $10,000 line item for legal fees. There’s a district policy that gives the superintendent the power to spend state and local funding for goods and services without school board approval if it’s under $50,000. Further, the Jefferson County school board passed a resolution asking the state Department of Education to approve payment of the bill.

But the department refused. Arbulu said she’s not paying it herself.

“I refuse to do that. It sets a precedent,” she said.

The lawyer she retained, Mark Levine — who still has not been paid — said the department is being “petty.” Levine’s small Tallahassee law firm represents the state teachers’ union, the Florida Education Association, which has been a prominent critic of charter schools and other policies that offer alternatives to traditional public education. Levine and his partners have opposed the department in lawsuits.

“Not being a charter school advocate personally, I think they saw our involvement in Jefferson County as a threat to what the department’s intentions were in … making the county a charter county,” Levine said.

Arbulu’s take: the department did not want her to have a lawyer.

“What does that tell you?” Arbulu said. “It's very lonely out here.”

Stewart retired on Jan. 8. Although her office declined requests for interviews prior to her retirement, Stewart agreed to speak with WLRN briefly earlier this year after a meeting of a state school safety commission on which she serves. She defended herself and the agency, saying the department’s actions “absolutely were appropriate.”

She said: “When you're under financial emergency, and all of your purchases have to be approved, I felt it very important that I make sure that they were being fiscally responsible.”

Federal funds offer school district hope for financial recovery. But state says: Not so fast

In at least one example, the Florida Department of Education appears to have overstepped its legal authority in its handling of Jefferson County’s finances.

In 2017, the department mandated that the Jefferson County school district transfer nearly $300,000 to the charter school operator Somerset, despite no clear legal requirement to do so. The money could have elevated the school district out of financial emergency, restoring local elected officials’ power over the budget.

That year, the Jefferson County school district had about $291,000 in a bank account used for feeding students. The money was reimbursements from the federal government for breakfasts and lunches the district had already served.

Typically, the district would have used the money to pay for the next year’s meals. But because Somerset had taken over the responsibility of food service, Superintendent Marianne Arbulu wanted to put this money into the district’s savings. If the district’s fund balance was above 3 percent of the year’s general revenue — a threshold of about $230,000 — Arbulu could push for dissolution of the financial emergency board, and the state would eventually step back.

The money for food service is one of school districts’ few funding streams that doesn’t flow through the state Department of Education. It comes from the federal government through the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services instead. Arbulu checked with the finance experts there to make sure she could keep the reimbursement dollars.

“My question is this - upon termination of the food service program, are the excess food service funds considered general funds for district use?” Arbulu wrote to the state agriculture department in July 2017.

The next day, an administrator with the department wrote back: “Because the funding for Food Services was a reimbursement for a served meal to children, you have earned that funding. … The funding will remain with the county.”

Another administrator forwarded the response with further clarification several days later: “Hi Marianne, Yes, you are able to use your funds as general funds now.”

A federal government representative confirmed to WLRN that, legally, the money belonged to the school district.

“Once those funds have been issued … to a school district, the funds remain with the school district,” Tamara Ward, a spokeswoman for the federal agency, wrote in an email.

Further, Ward said if a school district ends its participation in the federal breakfast and lunch programs, the federal government “expects” the state agency — in this case, Florida’s agriculture department — to ensure the school district “is made whole by providing all unpaid reimbursement … prior to or shortly after termination.”

But state officials at the Department of Education — and the financial emergency board appointed by the agency — thought otherwise. They directed Arbulu to transfer the money to Somerset “to provide for the ongoing nutritional needs of the district’s students.”

Jefferson County students would not have gone hungry without the transfer. Somerset would have had to put up its own money for food and then wait for reimbursement.

Arbulu resisted handing over the funding. So then-education commissioner Pam Stewart threatened to withhold hundreds of thousands of dollars in crucial funding the district needed to make the charter-school transition possible.

The Jefferson County school district didn’t have enough money to pay out the vacation days and sick time it owed teachers who were being fired and not rehired by Somerset. So the state Legislature wrote a special provision into a 2017 law that allowed the Jefferson district to use money usually earmarked for construction projects for personnel, just for one year. Without this unusual reallocation, the district might not have been able to afford the charter takeover.

Learn more about the state law that helped make the transition to charter schools possible. »

Stewart had already sent a letter to the school district in the summer of 2017 releasing the construction money — about $552,000 — and approving its use to pay teachers instead. But she rescinded that two days later, stating she wouldn’t provide the funding unless the district first gave the food service dollars to Somerset.

The law in question, House Bill 7069, does not appear to give the Department of Education authority to deny the district the construction money — which, in this case, was earmarked for the outgoing teachers’ benefits.

A representative for Somerset wrote to the state Department of Education asking for help in getting the district to turn over the $291,000 in food service money. He got it.

“I know that there was some conversation last week about the food service surplus and what the actual number was that should be transferred to Somerset,” the representative, Doug Rodriguez, wrote in an Aug. 8, 2017, email to the state education department’s deputy commissioner, Linda Champion. “Has that been resolved and if so when might we expect that transfer?”

“Doug -we are still reconciling this item but believe the district could go ahead and make payment of at least the balance they currently show. If we find that more is due to you, they could pay the difference later,” Champion wrote back.

“Thank you,” Rodriguez wrote. He then addressed Arbulu, who was copied on the email: “Marianne please remit as per Ms. Champion. Thank you.”

Arbulu said she would start by sending $200,000, but she was still trying to determine whether some of the money should stay with the district. Rodriguez protested.

“Marianne. … You were instructed by the state to transfer the full amount. Your [sic] are in no way entitled to keep any of these funds,” he wrote. He asked Champion to “please clarify.”

Champion wrote a letter to Arbulu the next day again pressuring her to give up the food service money and threatening to withhold the funding she needed to pay the fired teachers.

Finally, Arbulu gave in. She’s not happy about it.

“There was no legal obligation to do that. It was just an arbitrary decision made by the department,” Arbulu said.

“It's kind of like, ‘OK, I'm in financial emergency. You're supposed to be advocating for me. And yet you want me to hand over a quarter of a million dollars that I have no obligation to do?’” she said.

“It seemed contrary to what I expected from financial advocacy,” Arbulu said. The state was supposed to “help us build a budget, not take money away.”

The former education commissioner, Pam Stewart, said during a brief interview with WLRN she couldn’t respond specifically to questions about the conflict over food service funding without having access to more information. But she said, generally: “I do know that the letters that were sent to Jefferson County — I reviewed them. Our legal department reviewed them. And they were accurate.”

Spokespeople for the Florida Department of Education did not respond to a list of detailed questions regarding its handling of Jefferson County’s transition to the state’s first all-charter school district.

During a brief interview following a meeting in Tallahassee in March, then-chair of the state Board of Education, Marva Johnson, said she supported the department’s involvement in Jefferson County.

“I don't think it ever hurts to have extra wisdom in the process,” Johnson said.