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Jefferson Ed Board Approves Elementary School Merger Over Superintendent's Objections

Thomas Favre-Bulle
flickr.com/ https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

The Jefferson County School Board has voted to close its last elementary school at the end of the school year and merge it with the existing middle-high school. But as Lynn Hatter reports the district superintendent is pushing back.

The state board of education recently gave Jefferson administrators an ultimatum: close the district’s last elementary school, find an outside group to operate it, or convert the school into a charter. Monday night, Jefferson’s school board took action:

“We went ahead and voted last night and we had discussion with the audience and just about everybody, 99 percent, wanted to close it and consolidate just because of the condition. And of course, she fought us on it," says board chairman and former Jefferson Superintendent Bill Brumfield.

The "she" is current Superintendent Marianne Arbulu, who says she opposed the vote because it wasn’t set to be heard, and two—there’s a difference between closing the school—what the state wants, and consolidating it with the middle-high school, which is what the board approved.

“In the turnaround template, the closure option directs the district that students must then go to a higher performing school. In our case, that would mean students going to schools outside of the district," she says.

If students leave, the already poor district loses even more money. Arbulu did not say whether she will contest the move.  She has resisted closing the school because she says it’s not what residents want. Brumfield says attendees at the meeting overwhelmingly supported the consolidation plan.

The district is the poster child for failing schools. The lone elementary school is crumbling, and K-12 education Chancellor Herschel Lyons recently painted a grim picture of how the middle and high school students are doing.

“The most alarming statistic from Jefferson Middle-High School is that over half of their students have been retained two or more times," he told state board of education members at the most recent meeting.

Jefferson is an F-rated district where teacher turnover is high and morale low. The problems are not new and have festered now for nearly two decades. Governor Rick Scott says is office is monitoring the situation.

“Every child deserves the same opportunity I had growing up….we have to have an education that’s accountable—every school has to be held accountable.”

But Scott’s hands are largely tied. So are those of lawmakers. There’s a provision in state law allowing the board of education to report the district to the legislature, but Senator Bill Montford, head of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents says the state is limited in what can be done.

“It’s a constitutional issue. People have said 'well why can’t the governor remove people from office?' Well, it’s a constitutional issue," Montford says. "The Governor doesn’t have the power. But what it comes down to is the local officials in that county have to make some real tough decisions."

“We’re trying to figure out what the real options are fast. And I will tell you they’re drastic," says state Rep. Halsey Beshears, R-Monticello. "Shut the school down, fold it into Leon County. July first the law changed in which all kids can transfer across county lines What about transportation? So, we are looking, I’m looking at everything I can to help the kids there.”

Other ideas that have been thrown out include having another district take over some of Jefferson’s responsibilities, bussing kids to outside districts, or letting a charter school or outside administrator run the schools. Superintendent Arbulu says she’s leaning toward the outside administrator option, but has not made a decision. The outside administer could be another school district. But with the exception of the vote to close the elementary school—no small feat and far from settled itself-- a long-term plan has not emerged.

Follow @HatterLynn

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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