Nikolai and Gary: The Educator and the Establishment
Another thing that is hard to support is the state’s grading system. The state has made so many changes to the system that it’s hard to know what is both reliable and valid. The superintendent seemed exasperated when briefly discussing the continuing movement of the goal posts. Responsibility for this falls at the feet of local businessman and philanthropist Gary Chartrand. I write often in my blog that he went from top 50 in grocery store news as an executive of ACOSTA to practically running our schools. He is also responsible for creating PEN, the professional educators network, and for bringing both Teach for America and KIPP, the Knowledge is Power charter school, to Jacksonville. Arguably, all three of these entities are designed to weaken the power of teacher’s unions, but the superintendent and I didn’t talk about that.
We talked about his influence and about how wealth often brings influence. The superintendent specifically said he has seen an evolution in “Gary,” acknowledging that when the philanthropist first decided to get involved in education policy, his main focus was to bring business solutions to the classroom. The superintendent noted that , organizationally, the district needed some businesses practices to be successful. When we get down to the classroom level, however, it’s a totally different animal. Classrooms have a different structure than businesses, and can’t be run thusly.
I pushed him on this issue for several reasons. Most people agree that the district was floundering before the superintendent arrived; later in our conversation the super said that the district had lacked vision. So, if we could all agree that the district wasn’t where it should be, why would he lean on people like Betty Burney, W.C. Gentry and former Superintendent Pratt-Dannals, arguably three of the figures that led us to where we are? He talked about all the institutional knowledge that they had, emphasizing that while he would listen to anybody, his decisions would be based on two factors: the data that he had on hand, and what he felt would be best for the district’s children.
When pushed a little further he gave the example of closing the Schultz Center as a decision that rankled many of the establishment players in town. Not only do we (the district) own the property, we were paying millions to run the center and providing the staff to do so. We also talked about Pervalia Gaines-Macintosh from The Friends of Northwest Jacksonville Schools, who was not considered a traditional player in education policy but was somebody with whom he had conversed several times about education issues.
I have not pulled punches when it comes to education policy and about the policy makers themselves, so it wasn’t surprising that the establishment players thought the Superintendent was crazy to sit down with me. In addition to the others already mentioned, every school board member for the last six years, the mayor and numerous state legislators have also had blogs dedicated to them. Occasionally my blogs acknowledge how our public officials have gotten it right, but more often than not, my work points out hypocrisy, incongruence or anti-public education policy. The local media often dismisses my voice with little analysis for two reasons. First, they marginalize my opinions because I am teacher, i.e., I’m part of a group of people whose voices they simply don’t want to hear. Second, keeping me in the margins enables them to paint me as a disgruntled employee, as well.
The truth is I have been very happy for the last two years, and where I have been critical of Vitti, I have also been very complimentary of him, too. The first thing I said to him when we started our conversation was that many teachers and I felt that he was a breath of fresh air—and I believe it. Now does this mean I believe he has made every correct decision? No—not even close—but I think he had a solid first seven months and that the district is finally heading in the right direction. I also believe that if he follows through with what he told me his plans were it would lay the foundation for more success in the future.