Votes to include ABC School educators in consideration for Teacher of the Year

For the first time in the two decades since the school was founded, teachers at the Apalachicola Bay Charter School will be considered for possible selection as district teacher of the year.

At its regular meeting Dec. 17, the Franklin County school board voted 3-1, with Board Member Pam Marshall dissenting, to draw on teachers from all public schools in the district, which include Franklin County Schools, both its elementary and secondary grades, as well as the alternative school and the ABC School.

With Chairman Stacy Kirvin and Board Member Fonda Davis both in support of the expansion, Carl Whaley cast the decisive vote, which avoided a 2-2 split that would have meant the motion failed. George Thompson was absent from the meeting, which was preceded by a workshop marked by a robust discussion of the precedent-setting policy decision.

In her introduction of the topic, Superintendent Traci Moses said districts across the state vary in their approach, and that expanding the teacher of the year pool was a local, not a state-mandated, choice.

“Some do, some don’t, that’s a local decision,” she said.

Marshall, a retired Franklin County schoolteacher, voiced her opposition from the outset.

“I like both schools, I think the teachers are great at both schools,” she said, noting that criteria for selecting teacher of the year are in part based on results of student performance on the Florida Standards Assessment.

As a general rule, standardized test scores at the ABC School are higher than at the Franklin County School, in both reading and math, and at most grade levels.

“They (the ABC School) let all kids in, but the parents that are going to support kids going to the charter school are more likely to support their child’s education,” said Marshall. “I’m afraid that with our traditional public school, our doors are open to everybody. Nobody has to fill out an application to come to school there, and parents that care enough to fill out an application care about their child’s education.

“I’m just afraid that the playing fields would not be even between the charter school and the traditional public school,” she said. “I think we’d be comparing apples with oranges, instead of apples to apples.”

Kirvin opened by clearing up misunderstandings regarding the composition of the two schools.

“That’s an age-old thing, that the charter school kids are hand-selected. I hear the stories every day,” he said. “They have the exact demographic that we have here. The charter school is capped and they have to accept everybody within the cap.

“When it (the charter school) first started, there was an expectation (of volunteerism),” Kirvin said. “We said ‘you have to come and have to volunteer at the school’ but you can’t enforce that and that went away 10 years ago.”

The ABC School educates about 342 students, from kindergarten through the eighth grade, while the Franklin County Schools have about 937 students, up through the 12th grade, plus about 16 students in the alternative school, based on 2017-18 final numbers. Both schools also offer a pre-kindergarten option on their campuses.

Leonard Dietzen, on hand to brief the school board regarding the Denton Cove case his law firm is handling for the district, said there was no prohibition against including the charter school. But, he said, a teacher from the ABC School, which does not have a union contract, would be ineligible for the $500 supplemental award in the contract the district has with teachers at the Franklin County Schools. He suggested “the highest ranking Franklin County Schools’ teacher would win that supplement.”

Any District Teacher of the Year, regardless of where they work, would be eligible for a $10,000 bonus the 2016 Florida Legislature first appropriated. “It has been included in each years’ appropriation since that date,” said Audrey Walden, press secretary for the Florida Department of Education.

ABC School Principal Chimene Johnson told board members that by widening the choice to include the charter school, the district would boost its chances of securing the coveted Florida Teacher of the Year honor from among the state’s 67 counties.

“Every year we have talked about and discussed it as a staff and a faculty, and it wasn’t until recently, reading through the packet, that we realized charter school educators can participate as well,” she told the board.

“Several teachers at the charter school are highly effective, just like at Franklin County. There are outstanding teachers at both campuses,” Johnson said. “I think affording them the opportunity is important as a school district, it’s extremely important. When we exclude a certain population of people in participating, we lower our chances as a school district in having a teacher of the year for the state of Florida.

“We have highly effective teachers on both campuses and I feel like they have equal opportunity to participate,” she said. “We’re not going to exclude some of our highly effective athletes from participation because we know the chances of going to the state playoffs are much higher if we let everybody participate. We’re sort of removing Franklin County itself from an opportunity to have a chance to bring home a teacher of the year for the state of Florida.

“We never wanted this to be a controversial thing between the schools,” Johnson said. “Our mission is every child reach their potential. Working together as a team I think we need to recognize the most outstanding educator in our district, whether they be at ABC or Franklin County.”

Later in the meeting, Johnson stressed that her school’s demographics are very similar as far as special education, English as a Second Language and students who are economically disadvantaged.

“We’re just a smaller population,” she said. “I see our school as a feeder school to the high school. I always have, I always will.”

In her comments, Franklin County Schools Principal Jill Rudd said a vote of the faculty at the school had been overwhelmingly against including the charter school, with only four of the 68 teachers present in favor.

“They (the four in favor) felt we are one district, we serve all the students and we do need to form unity,” she said. “They (those opposed) feel it would intensify the competition between the schools. They don’t want there to be controversy between the two schools and they feel at this time there is controversy.”

Rudd noted that in order to be qualified for consideration as teacher of the year, a person must be employed in the district for at least three years, which would mean fewer teachers at the traditional school could take part.

“We have a very high teacher turnover rate at Franklin County Schools,” she said.

Rudd said a factor in the teachers’ anonymous vote was “the stigma that has been in the past that their (ABC School’s) students are handpicked, and that we don’t have (that) option being a public school.

“We can’t turn kids away nor would we ever do so,” she said. “They feel the demographics are not similar.”

Rudd said some teachers asked that Kirvin “remove yourself due to your ties with ABC school,” and that the ABC School have its own teacher of the year program, run by the charter school’s board of directors.

Moses, a former elementary school teacher at ABC School, differed with Rudd, arguing the perceived stigma needed to be cleared up.

“We need to educate everybody in Franklin County on the schools. They’re different in size but they’re similar in population,” she said. “I would hate for that to be part of the stigma; the demographics are the same.

“I hate that this conversation is controversial,” Moses said, stressing that it is important to understand both are Title I schools, meaning they serve primarily low-income, often underprivileged students, according to federal guidelines.

“It’s just a part of educating everybody in the district on where we are,” she said. “We’re all in the business of education. Students are our customers, the stakeholders are the community members and the taxpayers.

“I’m hopeful that the decision the board makes tonight will bring everybody together, instead of dividing them even further,” Moses said.

Kirvin responded to Rudd’s comment about teachers’ wanting him to recuse himself.

“I’ve spent the last four-and-one-half years working very hard for this entire district, and way before that,” he said. “By the letter of the law, we technically could exclude (the K-12 school), and make it entirely the charter school. I’d like to include everybody. If the shoe was on the other foot, I would feel exactly the same way.

“I am on the school board of the Franklin County schools,” Kirvin said, taking exception to “the fact that somebody thinks because I was involved with helping start the charter school and my wife works there, that I would vote any way because of that.

“If you guys think I should recuse myself, I will,” he told his colleagues.

“That’s a decision that Mr. Kirvin has to make,” advised School Board Attorney Donna Duncan.

She said he would have to determine whether his involvement in the ABC school would cause him to have a vote that would be biased. “Each individual board member has to determine if they have a conflict,” Duncan said, noting that it’s usually nepotism, or the opportunity for monetary gain, that are factors in recusal.

“There’s not one that deals with this specific situation,” she said, noting that having a wife who is an administrator of a school is not generally considered nepotism.

School board members pondered postponing a decision until Thompson could attend, but Moses, and later Shelley Miedona, assistant principal at Franklin County, urged them to decide so as to give the eventual winner a chance to submit their application to the state by the Feb. 8 deadline.

Whaley initially supported having two teacher of the year selections. “Why can’t they do the same thing we are and depending how the board rolls they would be included or not included?” he asked. “They could be recognized by their board.

“Have both schools pick their respective teachers of the year and move forward, and take the vote in January and make it happen,” he said.

But Moses said less than three weeks would not be sufficient time for the winners to prepare the necessary information by Feb. 8, including a video of their work in the classroom. “You’re limiting the quality and amount of time to submit all this,” she said.

“Some of these things don’t take that long to do,” said Whaley.

Miedona said that in her years working with the Department of Education, she had served on the committee that selects the Florida Teacher of the Year. “We should have been done by now,” she said. "It’s a very time-consuming process. I’ve sat on her outside and seen videos from smaller districts and thought ‘This is their teacher of the year?’

“I don’t want that for our county. Whatever we decide I want Franklin County to have the best submission,” she said. “Other teachers of the year have already been chosen and they’re putting on finishing touches over Christmas break.”

At the regular meeting, Moses urged the board to make a decision, and reiterated her position that all teachers should be included.

“I would hate to exclude any teacher in the county,” she said. “We are all Franklin County, all students are Franklin County students and we hope to keep them in Franklin County.”

Kirvin declined to recuse himself, and Moses noted that her sister teaches at ABC, and that others have family ties to county staff as well.

In his vote in favor, Whaley stressed that his vote was because he didn’t want to exclude any staff, including those at the alternative school and within the pre-K program.

“I know we have great teachers on both sides,” said Marshall, prior to her no note. “This is going to cause a bigger division than what we already have, and we do have a division.”

Kirvin urged a yes vote. “To me we look for opportunities to build up teachers and when you exclude an entire demographic of teachers because they’re in a different location, to me that’s ludicrous,” he said.

Following the vote, Marshall sounded a conciliatory note. “I don’t want division and I don’t think we have an equal playing field,” she said. “But I’m with you all. Let’s do it.”