The Jefferson School District's transition plan back to local control hinges on a legislative plan to revamp student testing
Orenthya Sloan moved his two kids to Leon County schools in 2013 because of the dysfunction he describes in the Jefferson County School District. He says he kept them in Leon because he disliked charter school operator Somerset Academy’s oversight. Now, he’s considering returning his kids to Jefferson, after the Florida Department of Education recently decided to give the district back control over its schools.
“Nobody wants to come to a place where they’ve got to put their kid in a failing school. And that’s part of the reason why those of us who were able to take our kids away, took them away because we lost faith in the district,” Sloan told Jefferson school board members during a recent meeting on the district’s transition plan.
“I think that everything that we’re hearing, we’ve got a chance to be great again.”
The Jefferson County School District has submitted a plan to the state to retake control of its public schools. The move comes after the Florida Department of Education earlier this month agreed to give control back to the district. But that deal came with several conditions—including giving Jefferson one school year to raise the district’s grade from an F to a C.
The district’s successful transition could largely hinge on a bill making its way through the legislature that could drastically change how the state grades schools. The proposal by Republican Sen. Manny Diaz would eventually do away with most state exams–replacing them with a digital system known as progress monitoring. The result: if the bill passes, the state has to set what’s called a baseline year–which includes a one-year transition where school districts would not be penalized for poor performance. That buys Jefferson more time.
Department of Education Deputy Chancellor Paul Burns told Jefferson school board members that if the bill does not pass, grades will be issued as usual.
“So I can’t speculate on what will happen with that bill language about that progress monitoring and assessment. That’s the proposed bill that’s working through the legislative process. But students will be taking the new assessment at the end of the 2023 school year,” he said.
Jefferson’s transition plan also relies on being able to keep most of the additional funding Somerset received along with some extra federal money.
When DOE stripped Jefferson of its ability to run its own schools several years ago, the district was already under state financial oversight. Today, its solvent, said incoming Jefferson school principal Jackie Pons. He wants the state to consider allowing Jefferson to keep the federal money it had planned to use to hire a new charter school operator.
“We’ve also respectfully asked FLDOE not to enter into any educational contracts for us that the board hasn’t approved that have financial consequences because this board has worked so hard to get off of financial oversight,” Pons said.
That money, said Jefferson Superintendent Eydie Triquet, will allow the district to make key hires.
“I need an HR person, I need a finance person, I need an operations person,” she said. Jefferson had to shed the majority of its district staff in the years leading up to losing control of its schools.
When the state stripped the Jefferson School District of control over its schools, it came after more than a decade of failing and poor student performance, and budget problems. There were only about 770 students remaining, and the district was forced to close its dilapidated elementary school and move everyone over to another facility—creating a K-8 school and high school under one roof.
The state hired a charter school operator to run the district under an agreement that expired this year. And it gave that operator—Somerset Academy—tens of millions in additional funding to raise teacher salaries and make improvements. The funding came from a program called “Schools of Hope” that the legislature created with the idea to recruit charter schools to go into areas where there is a low-performing public school. When Somerset took over Jefferson, the district had a d-grade. Today, it’s an F. And despite some early optimism and signs of improvement, the problems in Jefferson persist. Still, the end of the charter-district experiment in Jefferson has not dimmed Diaz’s view of the potential for charter schools in low-performing areas.
“Number one, geographically it [Jefferson] really is far away and it’s difficult,” said Diaz.
"When you bring in, whether it would be a provider, a charter operator, whatever from the outside, there was resistance from the community because, you know, there’s a new group coming in from the outside. You have your school board, you have your superintendent.”
Diaz says he’s hoping that whether it’s a combined effort with the district or another private operator, the students get a solution that helps them succeed. Jefferson officials say they’re ready to prove they can do better—on their own.