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Jefferson gets its schools back following bid shenanigans and efforts to keep it with a charter operator

Somerset, Jefferson's K-12 charter school.
Patrick Sternad
WFSU Public Media
Somerset, Jefferson's K-12 charter school.

The Department of Education will allow the Jefferson County School District to regain oversight of its school system after five years of charter school control. The abrupt new development comes on the heels of a failed effort to find another charter school operator for the district.

Until late last week, the Florida Department of Education had sought another charter school contractor to run the district after Somerset Academy’s contract expires this summer. But significant concerns were raised recently about how DOE conducted that bidding process. The decision to give Jefferson back its schools came in a Thursday meeting between the school district, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, and North Florida Representative Jason Shoaf.

"You know, I understand the meeting was very tense," said Jefferson School Board member Bill Brumfield, a former superintendent of the district.

Brumfield said he was told that Corcoran also threatened to fire the superintendent, a local elected official, if after a year they don't achieve a "C" grade. It's unclear how exactly that could happen under state law.

Jefferson County will have to achieve better results than Somerset, likely with less funding.

The district currently serves more than 750 mostly Black students. When Somerset took over in 2016, the district had years of failing grades: D’s and F’s. In 2019, the last year district grades are available, Jefferson received a C. An analysis from the Tampa Bay times shows the school would have received a D grade last year.

Brumfield says DOE initially told the board that MGT Consulting, a management and technology firm, would be the new external operator, even before the bid process ended. The company is led by former Tampa Republican lawmaker Trey Traviesa, who is an associate of Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran.

However, an internal investigation was launched after two top DOE officials and a now-former member of the State Board of Education submitted a competing bid, leading to two resignations.

Gov. DeSantis’ press secretary says his office considers the matter closed and the governor has full confidence in Corcoran.

Jefferson County Schools was Florida’s first, and only, charter school system. It’s also home to the original “Schools of Hope.” That program was the brainchild of Corcoran when he was House Speaker. And he used Jefferson’s struggles to promote the idea that charter schools should have a financial incentive to locate near failing ones. Corcoran, at the time he was pushing "Schools of Hope," also predicted it was just a matter of time—through the miracle of privatization—that Jefferson’s schools would turn around.

“It’s never overnight, but I promise you Jefferson County will turn around with this program," he said.

That turnaround never materialized, despite a small jump in the district's grade early on.

Jefferson’s problems are complex. And money alone, says former North Florida Senator Bill Montford, may not be the answer.

“Spending a considerable amount of additional funds may not be able to meet the needs of those children," he said. "Those needs may go far outside the school district itself. And I think a legitimate question should be asked, [which] is can the school district, can any school district—not just Jefferson, but can any school district—be expected to meet all of the needs of those students.”

Montford also heads the Florida Association of District Superintendents.

The students in Jefferson, he notes, are the ones that can’t leave. Other families have sent their kids to private schools, or taken advantage of the state’s school choice programs and moved their kids to public and charter schools in neighboring counties.

DOE is giving local officials just one year to bring the schools up to a “C” grade. Brumfield says he doesn’t think that’s fair.

“To make that comment, I thought was very out of place. And I don’t know the commissioner," he said."I don’t know him personally and I’m not trying to say anything bad about him because I don’t want him any madder at us than what it was."

Still, Brumfield believes the local officials can succeed where the external operator could not.

“The charter school was an absolute disaster...absolute disaster," he said. "So much money was spent with no results.”

Brumfield believes it will be the district that will be successful—if given enough time. He says incoming principal, Jackie Pons, has already started hiring teachers for the upcoming school year.

He thinks Jefferson County officials can’t do any worse than Somerset did and he’s confident they can educate their kids better. Though, he’d like to see the district get all the additional financial resources the state gave Somerset.

Sarah Mueller is a journalist who has worked for media outlets in several states since 2010. She earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2010 and worked as a print reporter covering local government and politics.