Jefferson To Become Florida's First Charter School District

Feb 10, 2017

Full Story: The Jefferson County School system will be the state’s first charter district at the start of the next school year. The district's board approved the move Thursday, after state officials said any other plan is unlikely to be approved by the state board of education.

Jefferson Superintendent Marianne Arbulu says she wasn't willing to risk another rejected plan from the state board of education.
Credit Marianne Arbulu's Twitter page / Twitter

The Jefferson County School system will be the state’s first charter district at the start of the next school year. Its ongoing failure status has resulted in the district being put through so-called “turnaround options”. None have ever worked. Three of Jefferson’s proposals to turn around its schools have been rejected. In January, state education Commissioner Pam Stewart gave Jefferson an ultimatum: close down the schools, hire an outside operator to run them, or convert the district into a charter school. Jefferson tried to go with an outside operator—but none in the state have ever worked with a failing district. In the end, says Jefferson Superintendent Marianne Arbulu, the district was left with one choice: convert into a charter.

“They didn’t feel any other options would be approved by the state board, and I wasn’t willing to take the risk of going to the state board and walking away with it turned down. That just wasn’t what I thought was in our best interest," she says.

The Jefferson County School Board voted 4-1 Thursday night to move forward with the charter option. If approved by the state, Jefferson County Schools would be the first to be operated by a charter company. That means lots of unknowns.

Charters operate independently of district boards, which concern those elected officials. And teachers working at the now consolidated Jefferson elementary, middle and high school, aren’t guaranteed to keep their job.

“I know change needs to occur for our children and I’m all for that. But here we go again rushing into something and we’re not even sure if we can get a charter company to take our school. And I can’t wait until July for them to tell me I have a job or I don’t have a job," says Jefferson teacher Terri Clark. She says the district has never followed through on what it approves. And she’s not confident it will happen now.

The district will have to negotiate on everything from whether it will remain a part of the state retirement system, to heath care benefits for employees, future roles for district administrators, and what to do about students in its alternative school and voluntary pre-kindergarten programs.

"I really feel OK about the charter," says school board member Shirley Washington, "but there’s a little reservation when Mr. Miller said he wasn’t sure we could get someone to come in.”

Mr. Miller is Adam Miller who heads DOE’s school choice office. Due to the district’s failure status, the state wants a charter company with a track record of working with low-income, high-poverty students and failing schools. Jefferson’s district of 700 students is similar to that of a medium sized elementary school. The Florida Department of Education has offered to help Jefferson with the task, and has identified at least three companies that could work—but there’s no guarantee they will want to. Jefferson is a risk. Florida K-12 Chancellor Herschel Lyons says Jefferson is in an uncharted situation. And if no operator can be found?

“I don’t know what the next step is," Lyons says, "but I am focused, along with their school board and the state board, in ensuring that we support them finding someone.”

But there is an incentive. Jefferson is set to go back before the state board of education next week. If the board approves the plan, the district will begin seeking a charter school operator, and it could become eligible for an $800,000 grant from the state.  If it doesn’t—well, no one knows what happens in that case.

At least one charter school operator has suggested it's interested in Jefferson, says Superintendent Arbulu. She's trying to find out more information.

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Original Post: The Jefferson County School system will be the state’s first charter district at the start of the next school year. The School board voted 4-to-1 to convert the district into a charter after state education officials told them other options are unlikely to be approved by the state board of education.

District Superintendent Marianne Arbulu says Jefferson was left with only one choice.

“They [Florida Department of Education officials] didn’t feel any other options would be approved by the state board, and I wasn’t willing to take the risk of going to the state board and walking away with it turned down. That just wasn’t what I thought was in our best interest.”

The district is last in the state when it comes to student performance and it’s been that way for more than a decade. State board members and DOE administrators had floated ideas such as cutting off funding, removing local officials from office and bussing kids to outside districts after going through several rounds of talks with local officials to address the problems.

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