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Florida Education Board Asks For Legal Options To Address Jefferson School Failures

The Florida Board of Education is growing frustrated with the failures of the Jefferson County School District, and it’s looking for solutions, including a merger. But it’s running into legal roadblocks, and Wednesday’s meeting didn’t provide any resolution. Meanwhile,  the district’s superintendent has lost his reelection bid.


Jefferson County School Superintendent Al Cooksey has lost his re-election bid, less than a month after the district was put under state financial control. Wednesday, Cooksey went before the state board of education to offer a new education plan for his two, small schools, and acknowledged his defeat:

“The timing of the last meeting, and four months of working on this plan has cost me my superintendent’s race. So I won’t be back. Thank ya’ll for what you do for Jefferson," he said.

Cooksey finds himself in a similar situation to his predecessor, Bill Brumfield, whom Cooksey defeated in 2014 under similar circumstances. Jefferson’s problems are not new. The district has struggled academically for more than a decade, cycling through teachers, principals and superintendents. That’s led to an exodus of students, families, and even businesses.

“When we talk about our children we’re not just talking about 700 students, we’re talking about a community, economic prosperity, jobs. So it’s much greater than just how do we educate 700 children," Marianne Arbulu told the board. She defeated Cooksey in the Republican primary, and she will face Democrat Kelvin Norton in the general election. He is the assistant principal of Leon’s Godby High School.

Wednesday the Florida Board of Education rejected Jefferson’s elementary school improvement plan.

“I don’t believe the school is likely to return to a 'C'," said Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart. "And some of the changes that have occurred are making it more unlikely for the grade to improve.”

Jefferson's middle high school principal took a job elsewhere, and Elijah Key, the elementary school principal, now oversees both schools. If he wins his bid for Gadsden County School Superintendent in November, he could be leaving too. There are only 700 kids left in the district, but there appear to be few legal options available to the state to address the problem. And board member Gary Chartrand is frustrated.

“This doesn’t need to be a district…and we ought to figure out practically, within the law how it can be absorbed by a neighboring district. Because they don’t have scale, and the duplication and cost going into staff isn’t going into students.”

The Florida Board of Education has asked its general council to come back next month with a list of legal options to address Jefferson, which may have to include a change in state laws or voter referendums.

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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