Sunday, March 19, 2017

A Perspective on the Superintendent--Part Five

As mentioned in the first part, the current superintendent is following the usual path in Duval County. After four years, he has entered the contentious board phase. While much of that is due to the culture of the city, its politics, and pressure on board members, the superintendent shares the blame for a relationship that need not have soured.

It hasn't always been clear that Nikolai Vitti understood who he worked for. His relations with the board that gained public notice often gave the impression that he considered the board a necessary nuisance that he dealt with, but that his real bosses were the philanthropists such as Gary Chartrand, Chartrand Foundation, state BOE member, past chair of state BOE, and founder of Jacksonville Public Education Fund, Wayne Weaver, retired businessman and former majority owner of the NFL franchise, and Michael Ward, who recently announced his (forced) move up retirement date from CSX railroad.

The superintendent's lack of presence in board meetings was noted from the start as his eyes remained fixed on the smartphone he was working. Indeed, at one meeting in the last year, the chair felt the need to command the superintendent to look at her while she was speaking to him.

Tension was present from the beginning. In the first performance review, when the superintendent rated himself highly effective in all but one of 48 categories, other board members rated him as barely above a needs improvement rating.

The superintendent tended to interpret this personally. When the animosity between him and Constance Hall broke into public view, he attributed their conflict to the fact that she wanted someone else for the job and was deliberately giving him low ratings ever since.

It was an embarrassing moment. The text messages exposed to public view reflected favorably on neither person, but it did focus attention on how the board had become divided over the superintendent, his leadership, and his proposals.

Three board members, feeling heat from constituents, pressed for better performance in the low-rated schools. Other board members defended the superintendent, going so far as to lecture the constituents in areas of town that were not in their area.

Conflict ensued between board members as they clashed personally. In one memorable episode, one board member asked another, "Are you in love with me? Why are you always staring at me?"

As tempers cooled, board members and the superintendent pledged to develop a better working relationship. However, one board member refused to attend any more development meetings, stating that nothing changed on the board after those meetings. It was always a 4 to 3 vote with the majority ignoring the minority's concerns.

A year later, and the divide shifted with the chair joining the other three critics. She told the superintendent he should look for a place that would better use his talents and began a process for dismissal. The superintendent called another board member, who alerted media, the wealthy philanthropists showed up at a meeting to voice support for the superintendent, and the chair backed down.

That was last fall. Although the superintendent received the show of support he wanted, he would be foolish to ignore the history of which he was now a part and consider offers for a new place.