Julie Delegal: 3 Duval School Board members should get ready for hardball

Messina school chalk board

First the lobbyist from the Florida Charter School Alliance wanted to meet with a sitting Duval School Board member — privately. But when former Duval School Board Chairwoman Becki Couch suggested they “notice” the meeting and invite her fellow school board members to join them, lobbyist Ralph Arza said no. He asked her again to meet privately and, in an email dated Sept. 15, Couch declined again.

Then came the vote on the application for a new Charter Schools USA operation in Jacksonville. District staff had recommended denying the charter school application twice before, but in advance of the Oct. 20 vote, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told the board that the organization had assuaged his worries. The application, however, had not changed.

With lobbyist Arza in the audience Oct. 20, the board voted 4-3 to approve the charter school. Couch and two other board members, Connie Hall and Paula Wright, were the three who voted to deny the application.

Next came the public records requests from South Florida lawyer Robert H. Fernandez, aimed at Couch, Hall, and Wright. The first one, dated Nov. 10, wanted the three members’ travel records, including reimbursements, along with salary and benefit information. Travel reimbursements are popular fodder for future ethics complaints: Just ask New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, or former Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown.

Fernandez’s second public records request, dated Nov. 16, sought documents regarding the three board members’ communications — with each other and with a laundry list of nine other individuals. Fernandez even asked for cellphone text records.

Florida’s Sunshine Laws prohibit elected officials from communicating with each other privately about public business. The laundry list of individuals in the public records request may be an attempt to argue Sunshine violations, based on the idea that a third party acted as a proxy for those illegal communications.

Fernandez was Deputy General Counsel under then-Gov. Jeb Bush. He and his boss were unable to win the Florida Supreme Court case that ended Bush’s attempts to use public money for vouchers to send students to private schools. These days, Florida’s voucher program, comprising many religious schools, uses pre-treasury “tax-credit” dollars instead.

Arza, a former state House member, also was a point person in Bush’s education reform efforts. Arza turned himself in to face witness-tampering charges in 2006, and removed his name for consideration for re-election. He admitted leaving an obscenity-laced voice-mail message for fellow lawmaker Gus Barreiro, and to using a racial slur in that recording. Barreiro had previously filed a complaint against Arza for calling a sitting schools superintendent a racial slur.

Arza pleaded guilty in the criminal matter, served probation and community service, enrolled in anger management classes, and apologized publicly for his actions.

Now he’s lobbying for the Florida Charter Schools Alliance.

Arza told CBS 12 TV news on Nov. 9 that he would file an ethics complaint against the Palm Beach County School Board for how it handled a vote opposing a charter school application. Last month, the PBC board voted 6-0 against opening a new charter school, and has filed a court challenge to the Board of Education’s reversal of a previous charter school denial.

The TV interview did not contain an explanation how voting “no” on a charter school application might be the basis for an ethics complaint. But a day after Arza made the statement, Fernandez fired off a public records request regarding Palm Beach County Vice Chairman Frank Barbieri. Fernandez’s second request to the PBC board included Barbieri and two other PBCSB members who plan to run for re-election.

We contacted Arza’s consulting business, but his assistant said Arza was unavailable for comment. As this article was being posted, Arza called to say that he agreed with the facts as presented in another version of this article, published in Folio Weekly.

“School choice” proponents, also known as “school-privatization” proponents, have a record of playing political hardball with local school board members across the state who disagree with “choice” initiatives.

In the year leading up to 2014 school board elections, Florida’s Federation for Children, a pro-charter school and voucher school electioneering and communications organization or ECO, collected $1.3 million to use in campaigns of their choice, which may have also included legislative campaigns.

John Kirtley is founder of Florida’s private school voucher program, Step Up for Students, and is chairman of the Federation. He took credit in 2014 for unseating local school board incumbents — across the state — who voted against the Bush-brand privatization agenda, including those who voted to support a lawsuit against the voucher program.

Kirtley, a venture capitalist who lives in Tampa, is a partner in the equity firm, KLH Capital, and is a director for one of KLH’s investments, Uretek Holdings. Duval County School Board member Jason Fischer works for Uretek and denies any conflict of interest in voting on charter school matters. Fischer’s direct supervisor at Uretek is Kathleen Shanahan, who was Board of Education Chairwoman under former Gov.  Bush.

Fischer voted to approve the Charter Schools USA application on Oct. 20. He’s running for a Florida House seat to be decided next year.

Meanwhile, the staff at the Duval County School Board is working to fulfill a south Florida lawyer’s public records requests.

“There’s nothing to see because we all follow the law,” school board member Couch said of the records requests. “It just takes up staff time.”

Julie Delegal, a University of Florida alumna, is a contributor for Folio Weekly, Jacksonville’s alternative weekly, and writes for the family business, Delegal Law Offices. She lives in Jacksonville, Florida. 

For more state and national commentary visit Context Florida.

Julie Delegal


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