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Thursday, October 6, 2016

Becki Couch raises grave concerns about the direction of the district.

The following I a transcript of what she said on the 23rd at the meeting to discuss the future of the district. She brings up very important issues especially about the hap hazard way the district has done budgeting under Vitti. As his cabinet expands school needs are going unmet.

Recently there has been much discussion regarding the board and superintendent and the future of this district. Allegations have been made that were based off of an emotionally charged, knee jerk reaction from my fellow board member, fueled an interpretation of a private meeting between the superintendent and Board Member Smith-Juarez. Several members of the community who have been avid supporters of the superintendent have portrayed the action of female board members as “emotional” or “personality conflicts”. I have to ask, would this be said to my male counterpart who very unprofessionally made public, unfounded allegations about board members to the media? My fellow board member said comments like, “I heard the rumors”, “ASJ has been using coercive tactics to intimidate Dr. Vitti into resigning his position”, “personal issues... unrelated to his actual work performance. He said Monday he doesn’t know what those issues are”, the list goes on and on. Is this not a glaring example of acting out of emotion and not facts?

Nevertheless, if the leadership in this community has to result to feeding the public a narrative about my actions of reviewing data and setting goals to improve the lives of children as “emotional”, if caring about the children of this district is deemed as “emotional”, then I guess I can wear the label with pride.   

I can assure you in my six years on this board I have always tried to exhibit a level of professionalism that the children of this district deserve from their elected officials. This could be why the public claims any criticism of the progress or lack thereof is simply out of “emotion”. Unlike Mr. Shine and the Superintendent, I have not gone to the media with my concerns. I have tried to handle them privately and during noticed workshops. I understand the public may not know all of the issues because they unfortunately get the story from the latest headline or TV blurb. The public wouldn’t know that I have grave concerns about the seemingly lack of concern by some of the leadership team that children of color are significantly behind their peers. That we have made significant changes to the curriculum, staffing of schools, resources allocated to schools and professional development and have yielded very mixed results. We have had three conversations as a board and superintendent on targets two of which some board members did not attend. While I will acknowledge we have had some successes, I am expecting true transformation. The graduation rate has been in a steady incline since 2012 but of the 8.9 % increase in the graduation rate over the last 4 years, over half of the increase occurred during the year of transition between the previous superintendent’s leadership. Recently, a constituent said we have always been plagued with an achievement gap and it is not all of the blame of this superintendent for the gap. I can agree that the achievement gap is nothing new but, we hired Mr. Vitti to make significant progress in a short amount of time to challenge the status quo. We made a bold move to hire someone who said in his interview, “In one and a half years we will see dynamic improvement in student achievement”. Well, it has been twice as long and we have seen the same incremental growth as years past, particularly in literacy.  How much longer do these children have to wait for someone to believe in them? We have the responsibility today to make these decisions. It is always…wait. These communities have been waiting too long, these families have been waiting too long, these children have been waiting too long and deserve someone who believes in them, today.

The community wouldn’t know, during this media frenzy that was created by my colleague there was something else taking place that drew little attention, the budget was deferred.  This was the first time ever the budget was deferred due to concerns from the board. Recently, the board discovered the budget had $20 million in unfunded cabinet add on positions. A matter of concern I have brought forward over the last three years. In years past there were a large number of cabinet add ons but the budget had an unrestricted funding source, this year there was nothing. This is a dangerous budget practice and the board was once again backed into a corner to make a decision that they were uncomfortable making because as we were told by our attorney, we would be penalized by the state withholding FTE if we did not approve the budget on Monday. Thus, we were required to use 2% of the 5% fund balance we set aside and “borrow” $8.3 million from the maintenance budget. This money will have to be paid back through lapse salary which the board has given direction before that they wanted to avoid this practice. It is not good budget practice to approve positions at the beginning of the year based on what you hope to get back in lapse salary. This can lead to the appearance of not filling school based positions in order to pay for the cabinet add on positions approved at the beginning of the year (after the board approved the tentative budget). The board requested a one page document during the budget process which included cabinet add on positions. While we received a document, it did not reflect this exorbitant amount.

Finally, the community wouldn’t know that with the current narrative the public may have also missed the concern that has been addressed in workshops about the instability of personnel in the district. In the last three years we have had nine Executive Staff leave the district. Most of these employees were people the superintendent brought with him. Several other key staff have also left the district. The argument that was recently made as to why losing the superintendent would be “tragic” was the need for stability, yet this amount of instability has created a significant gap in long range planning and succession planning to the extent that the superintendent has had to dole out two contracts to previous executive staff just to keep the flow of work from falling behind. This has also been discussed in the last three evaluations of the superintendent.

All that I have shared with you this morning is evidence that my concerns are not based on “personality conflicts” and they have been communicated for three years. It is easier to go to the media and cry foul in order to divert attention from the key issues and instead make it about the relationships of the board. Make no mistake, it is the avoidance of these key issues that have caused the strained relationships.

For the last three years every time I have left meetings with the superintendent I left with hope that things will get better.  I am starting to lose faith when the focus continually gets placed on relationships and not on factual information that needs to be addressed. The superintendent and board have made significant changes to the district in the name of reform. We have had some success but in my opinion we have to acknowledge both success and failure and work diligently to resolve the failure. I desire a board and superintendent team that functions out of respect and honors all of the communities that elected each member. I welcome the opportunity to work together on behalf of children but I will not compromise my beliefs that we have to move our most vulnerable students forward in a transformational way nor will I stop questioning budget practices on behalf of the tax payer. We must do better for the children of Jacksonville.

At some point we have to look at the direction the district is going in. They approved another charter school this past week, while at the same time issuing 7 improvement plans for other charter schools and fewer and fewer neighborhoods have their own schools. It to me is disheartening. Teacher moral and attrition, discipline, Engage NY, add in the budgeting issues and the superintendents massaging of data and in my mind we have a district heading in the wrong direction. 


  1. So, if we could just get rid of a couple of cabinet positions we could have classrooms that are in compliance with the class size amendment, full time librarians in every school, paraprofessionals and other support staff? I vote to get rid of a few! I find it ironic that one of the first things the superintendent did when he came in was to lighten the load downtown.

  2. Lighten the load? He just replaced people with higher paid people from Miami and the region 2 DA team. Then he replaced them or reassigned them again. (Depending on whether or not ot he liked you and you kissed the ring) if you go against anything he says start counting the days until he finds a way to get rid of you.