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Florida Senate considers $5M for struggling Jefferson County schools

A charter school company that had been running the schools is leaving “a great vacuum,” one senator said.
The Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee said it's setting aside $5 million in its proposed budget for the struggling Jefferson County school system. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
The Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee said it's setting aside $5 million in its proposed budget for the struggling Jefferson County school system. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Feb. 3

TALLAHASSEE — A Senate education committee on Wednesday delivered a message of solidarity to the struggling Jefferson County school system as it comes off of five years of charter school control.

The rural, majority Black school district was the first, and only, district in the state to be privatized. But in July, the school board will resume control over its three schools, and it’s facing a multimillion-dollar funding shortfall.

“We are not going to leave them abandoned, and we are setting aside $5 million to ensure their success,” Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee chairperson Doug Broxson said as he unveiled the first draft of the Senate’s K-12 budget proposal.

Broxson said the district needs the funding because it is in “a little bit of a freefall.” He noted that Somerset Academy Inc., the charter school company the Florida Department of Education tapped to help the district back in 2017, decided to “vacate” the county and will be leaving a “great vacuum.”

“As we broadcast today, this message will go to the superintendent and to the good people of Jefferson County to know that at least the Senate is going to be there for them as they get through this transition,” he said.

The $5 million spending plan still needs to survive budget negotiations between the Senate and House, which has not yet unveiled its K-12 budget proposal. Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has veto power over budget line items, would need to approve the funding, too.

Broxson cited news reports when he announced the $5 million budget proposal. However, he did not delve into specifics.

A month ago, the Times/Herald revealed that the Department of Education, led by education commissioner Richard Corcoran, had tried to steer a multimillion-dollar contract to a politically connected company to help consult with Jefferson County’s schools.

The bid to award the contract to the vendor, MGT Consulting, fell apart when a member of the State Board of Education and one of Corcoran’s top deputies also applied for the contract, a move that the state agency investigated for potential conflicts of interest and led to their resignations.

Related: Florida officials tried to steer education contract to former lawmaker's company

After the Times/Herald reported that the inspector general investigated the potential conflicts of interest, but not the apparent bid-rigging for a politically connected vendor, the state’s chief inspector general announced she was reviewing the case.

The Department of Education had planned to pay new consultants roughly $4 million from a pool of federal coronavirus relief dollars meant for Jefferson County. Jefferson School Superintendent Eydie Tricquet has asked the Department of Education to allow the district to keep that money, which she said is needed to spend on education and staffing.

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The status of those federal dollars is unclear. Last month, Democratic members of Congress from Florida wrote to the U.S. Department of Education’s inspector general asking for an inquiry into how Florida tried to use the coronavirus relief dollars to pay for consultants.

When the School Board takes over in July, it will have to make do on a roughly $8.5 million budget if nothing changes — about $7 million less than the charter school operator has during its current year. The $5 million proposed by the Senate would help the district as it faces that shortfall.

After the reporting, Corcoran agreed not to use the money on the consultants, but he also issued an ultimatum to the superintendent. He said the district can remain autonomous as long as it improves its district grade to a C within one year. The district would have received a D grade in 2021, under charter school control.

Related: Florida education officials took aim at local control amid bid-rigging allegations

In 2017, amid failing grades and financial mismanagement, the state allowed Somerset to take over control of the county’s three schools with about 800 students. The company chose not to extend its contract.

The Department of Education did not respond when asked whether it was satisfied with Somerset’s performance over its five years.

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