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Text messages point to internal struggle within Duval County Public Schools

by: Catherine Varnum Updated:

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Action News Jax exposes an internal battle within Duval County Public Schools.

We have obtained text messages from a school board member sent to the board’s auditor. These September messages from Connie Hall call for the firing of Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and another message allegedly mocks Dr. Vitti – saying “special ed in action."

We pressed four board members Thursday night about what’s going on and Dr. Vitti said legal action is pending. Some of the board members maintain there is no battle between them and the superintendent, but Dr. Vitti describes the atmosphere as a hostile work environment and even accuses some board members of using their internal auditor to dig up dirt instead of reviewing finances.

The four Duval County School Board members stood before a group of parents, teachers and students downtown talking about how the district could improve on Thursday night.

In North Jacksonville, Dr. Vitti sat on a panel discussing crime in our community. But 2015 text messages from at least one school board member show a disconnect.

One text message was sent from board member Connie Hall to the school board auditor saying, “I vote fire him now!!!!!!!”

Another one from Hall said, “I will not sit at the table with a disrespectful superintendent.”

A third one from Hall, allegedly mocking Vitti's dyslexia saying “special ed in action.” Vitti called that beyond unprofessional.

We went to Hall asking for answers about the text messages.

Catherine Varnum: “You heard students tonight, looking for leaders?

Hall: “Yes.”

Varnum: “Saying special ed in action about Dr. Vitti, is that what you want them to look up to? “

Hall: “I don’t recall. I think what we want to look up to is improved student achievement.”

Varnum: “Did you not text special ed in action referring to Dr. Vitti?”

Hall: “What I’m saying is we need to devote these energies not to adult differences, but what’s going to be best for children.”

Varnum: “But you did text that about him?”

Hall: “We need to improve student achievement in Duval County Schools.”

Varnum: “Are you going to talk to Dr. Vitti about these text messages?”

Hall: “We're gonna talk about improving student achievement.”

Varnum: “Is that the only thing you're going to say tonight?

Hall: “That's our focus.”

The superintendent said he is pursuing legal action for some of the text messages. The original public records request for these text messages was made by a Miami attorney. We have reached out to that attorney tonight, but have not heard back.

Vitti released the following statement on the text messages:

“Unfortunately, the information that was included as part of the PRR is not necessarily surprising as it speaks to the hostile work environment that has been created by certain board members since I interviewed for the superintendent position and assumed the role. When the district was searching for a new superintendent it specifically called for a transformational leader and one that would challenge the status quo. The reality is that the majority of school board members embraced the superintendent as an agent of change; however, some did not. The change that I have implemented and have proposed to implement has been deeply resented and contested by some board members. This is sometimes done through constructive means and at other times through means that are unprofessional. The PRR reveals this to be the case through the following: 

•Select board members have misused the board auditor for muckraking purposes instead of high level financial reviews 

Select board members engage former administrators to find fault with the current administration 

Specifically, the “Special ed in action” comment is beyond unprofessional. My struggles with dyslexia and my journey to success has been used to motivate students with disabilities. The comment is unbecoming of a former educator and public official who represents thousands of students with disabilities. The comment was insulting. Legal action is likely. 

Overall, I have attempted and will continue to offer and participate in board development sessions and one on one meetings to build greater understanding, improve communication, and trust. However, I was not welcomed and resented from the beginning of my tenure by some board members. From the beginning, proper lines of governance have been a great challenge for certain board members. It was clear from the beginning of the interview process that Ms. Wright and Dr. Hall were not interested in my hiring (one did not vote for me and other stated that she preferred the other finalist, respectively).  Both have not fully embraced the reform that has been deeply needed in their districts and both have resented the reform agenda and at times, the successes and additional resources that have been realized and gained. References to lower school grades will be made regarding lower performance since I assumed the superintendency; however, those references are made without acknowledging two waves of significant statewide changes to standards and assessments that have caused an increase in F and D schools throughout the state, namely with Title I schools, and the fact that several of those schools have been low performing for over a decade. 

Top ranking NAEP scores and graduation rates for African-American students have been overlooked. 

For some board members, voting for my original contract or the extension was done so begrudgingly based on the support of the community. This is also the case for several highly contested board agenda items that were ultimately approved on 7-0 board votes.

Ultimately, the ongoing tension between myself and certain board members reached its apex when I announced the recommended boundary changes. This, in many ways, was the height of the reform and therefore brought about the height of resistance, namely represented by the letter of reprimand and OCR complaint. 

At no time did any of the three board members engage me personally or professionally about the content of the PRR after knowing its content for some time.”