My sit down with Superintendent Vitti Part 2: Nikolai and Gary: The Educator and the Establishment

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.

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