Billy Townsend: Sen. Manny Diaz blames *the people of Jefferson County* for failing his employer’s charter school. Let’s audit that.
Billy Townsend keeps a close eye on education shenanigans in Florida. Here he looks at another aspect of the failed takeover of Jefferson County schools. Reposted with permission.
Why is Somerset Charter tucking its tail and leaving Jefferson County schools far worse than it found them — despite nearly double the state resources the traditional Jefferson district ever received?
Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, has excuses.
He blames the Jefferson County community itself and the 461 miles between charter Somerset Charter headquarters in Miami and the Jefferson schools in Monticello.
Mind you, Diaz himself, personally, conflictedly, greased the skids for Somerset, which is owned by Diaz’s employer, to take over Jefferson five years ago. Miami NPR reporter Jessica Bakeman documented this very well in her “Chartered” reporting on Jefferson.
Diaz and company do not do self-criticism or self-reflection.
“Number one, geographically it [Jefferson] really is far away and it’s difficult …”
Keep all that in mind as you read this excerpt from a recent article written by reporter Sarah Mueller of WFSU, the Tallahassee NPR station. She has done an excellent job of getting Diaz on the record with these excuses.
Her article from a couple days ago does what I challenged Matt Dixon and Politico Florida to do. And it has created a new narrative: that the corrupt people who forced a distant charter school company on a local community now blame that community itself for the charter school taking the community backward while pocketing big bucks in tax money.
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.”
Corcoran: “And I promise you, … Jefferson County will turn around with this program.”
Now compare those whiny, post-pocketing $20M Diaz excuses with this April 2017 empty bravado from Richard Corcoran, who was then Speaker of the Florida House and is now the deeply corrupt leader of Ron DeSantis’ deeply corrupt Florida Department of Education.
The image above and the excerpt that follows comes from Bakeman’s “Chartered” story:
Corcoran pointed to Jefferson County while pushing “schools of hope” during an interview with public television’s The Florida Channel in April 2017.
“Jefferson County: a failure factory,” he said. “Basically, the school board threw up their hands and said, ‘We give. We cannot turn around this school. We’re persistently, you know, a D or an F. It’s a disaster.’ They put out to bid and [said], ‘Hey, will one of these types of high performing charters, public charters, come in, take over the Jefferson County school system, and turn it around?’”
Corcoran said two Miami-Dade Republicans — then-Reps. Manny Diaz, Jr., and Michael Bileca — had been recruiting charter networks to open more schools in Florida and had assured them more money was on the way through the “schools of hope” program, although the legislation had not yet been approved.
Corcoran was clear some of the funding was intended for Somerset in Jefferson County: “One of the high-performing charters [Somerset] came in [to Jefferson County], made the bid, knowing that we’re working towards this ‘school of hope’ program, knowing that there’s going to be an opportunity to draw down additional funds so that they can succeed, they can bring in the best and brightest teachers. And those things cost more.
“So … [Somerset] came in, they took the bid. Jefferson County awarded it to them,” he said. “And I promise you, … Jefferson County will turn around with this program.”
Diaz, who chaired the House PreK-12 appropriations subcommittee at the time, played a leading role in enacting the “schools of hope” law, known as House Bill 7069. He sponsored the original draft of the bill, introduced the final version that included the “schools of hope” program, and then he answered questions about it and defended it during debate on the House floor. He also worked extensively behind the scenes to whip votes in the House, as shown in text messages he and his staff sent while it was under consideration.
Audit Corcoran’s promise, Diaz’s excuses, and what that $20M bought
The elected Jefferson County School Board and superintendent are less inclined than South Florida senator Manny Diaz to blame the small town, Trump-voting people who elected them — and their children — for the abject Somerset failure Diaz forced on them.
They have sent a letter to Corcoran requesting an audit of Somerset’s spending — and asking that the state not force them to pay useless consultants. (These consultants are the root of the entire DoE/Jefferson bid-rigging scandal.)
Here is the audit part:
“AUDIT ASSISTANCE. We request a complete and independent Fiscal & Property Assets Audit of all items that are currently and have been managed by Somerset Academy since their Jefferson County tenure began.”
Here is the no useless consultants part:
“FLDOE CONTRACTS & AGREEMENTS. We respectfully request that FLDOE not enter into any educational contracts for which Jefferson County School District would be financially responsible. We are very proud of our 17% reserve and do not want to enter any long-term agreements that would negatively impact the District or jeopardize this status.”
It seems only right we test those charlatan excuses under an auditor’s microscope.
After all, Manny Diaz’s handpicked, $20M-extra-flush Somerset broke Corcoran’s bogus promise; and Manny Diaz now blames Jefferson’s kids and community for it.
Let’s audit that narrative.
Here is the full Jefferson letter:
Dear Commissioner Corcoran:
I want to thank you for your commitment, passion and support for turning around the academic progress for all students in Jefferson County.
Thank you for including Representative Shoaf in the initial and ongoing discussions that will undoubtedly result in significanty improving the educational paths and lives of families in Jefferson County.
There is no question that we all share this same vision.
As you requested, I am providing you with our Transition Funding Request (TFR) that will ensure shared success in this endeavor, including and especially the success of the students in Jefferson County:
1. CONTROL. Because you have agreed to transition Jefferson County School District to a fully autonomous highly effective school district we request removal from financial oversight, a necessary action that enables us to begin this process. We currently have a 17% reserve which is approximately 5 times more than the 3.5% reserve threshold required by the State.
2. FINANCIAL SUPPORT. As you review our TFR, you will note we request the same level of funding Somerset received upon entering their contract and taking control of Jefferson County schools. Without same-level funding, we would be at a deficit of $5 million per year which will severely hinder a successful transition. In Jefferson County, nearly 140 school employees and their families depend on us; significant job loss due to such disabling elimination of funds would be a crisis for our community.
3. BUREAU OF SCHOOL IMPROVEMENT (BSI) SUPPORT. We request that BSI be the Transitional Educational Leader for our District. The Bureau, run by the Florida Department of Education and funded with tax dollars, has already made effective suggestions and established rapport with school staff and administrators. As Principal Pons stated, “This school improvement team is the best in the state.” For this reason, BSI involvement is key to academic improvement in Jefferson County and to that end, we request that Dr. Heide’s team be the District’s designated partner in our school improvement process.
4. GRANTS & PROGRAMS. We request FLDOE assistance with grant applications and access to key programs that Jefferson K-12 and the BSI deem beneficial for our students. We are especially interested in the Community Schools initiative that Commissioner Corcoran has championed and that would benefit the entire Jefferson County community.
5. ACCOUNTABILITY. We fully embrace the Commissioner’s directive that Jefferson County will have a District rating of C or higher within one year of the release of official statewide school grades, which shall include learning gains information. Principal Jackie Pons is a former Blue Ribbon Principal who, in the year he was chosen, was 1 of just 14 in the United States. As Superintendent of Leon County Schools, he led the District Turnaround Office and under his direction, nearly all Title I schools in Leon County School District improved to a grade of C or better.
6. ESSER III FUNDS. During our meeting regarding the possibility of securing an external operator, we were very concerned with this significant cost coming from our ESSER III resources. We request that all ESSER III dollars be held harmless and given to the Jefferson County School District for educational purposes.
7. FLDOE CONTRACTS & AGREEMENTS. We respectfully request that FLDOE not enter into any educational contracts for which Jefferson County School District would be financially responsible. We are very proud of our 17% reserve and do not want to enter any long-term agreements that would negatively impact the District or jeopardize this status.
8. AUDIT ASSISTANCE. We request a complete and independent Fiscal & Property Assets Audit of all items that are currently and have been managed by Somerset Academy since their Jefferson County tenure began.
I have no doubt that we are up to this challenge. We are committed to the road of hard work ahead, and I know we can work together towards true success during this transition time. This community of students, families and economic stakeholders depends on it.