Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Friday, December 28, 2012
Schools 2012: Year of changes, new leaders

Florida Keys schools spent much of 2012 evolving as major changes in leadership reshaped the School District.

For the first time in history, voters relinquished their right to select a superintendent to the elected School Board, which hired veteran Minnesota educator and attorney Mark Porter.

Porter succeeded the governor's appointed interim chief, Jesus Jara, who also went through the exhausting interview process that followed a national search only to come in third place when the board voted June 28 at Marathon High School.

Only then-board Chairman John Dick voted for Jara that day, later saying Jara had taken the board's direction.

Porter started Aug. 1, signing a three-year contract that pays him $150,000 a year.

Jara in July landed the deputy superintendent job at Orange County public schools in Orlando, the nation's 10th-largest school district.

The decision to appoint, rather than elect, a superintendent came in response to the 2009 embezzlement scandal that led to the ousting of two-term schools chief Randy Acevedo and put his wife, Monique Acevedo, in state prison.

Jara left the Keys after 2½ years as an administrator, starting in 2010. Some staff members threw him a goodbye party at the Rusty Anchor on Stock Island, but his final School Board meeting was a bit awkward, with no board members saying a word about his departure.

I'm going to miss it," Jara said at the last board meeting, July 24. "I know that my time was well-spent here. I lost a lot of hair. I said that to the superintendent in Orange County when we spoke. I really believe we have a wonderful school system. It's in a better place."

Academically, the School District flourished under Jara's brief tenure. But Jara quickly became the disdained budget-cutter, forced to make drastic cuts in the economic downturn in a district that had grown accustomed to big spending in better years.

After Porter became superintendent by a 4-1 board vote, Jara said his relationship with teachers union leaders had been soured by his cuts, which began in 2011 when he tossed out a signed contract, claiming financial crisis. The move froze promised raises and performance pay, and mandated seven furlough days.

But Jara finished up his final Monroe County board meeting with a brief presentation of what he surmised makes up his legacy: namely, a balanced budget with at least some money in reserves.

"We would have $900,000 in the bank and someone else would be running the School District," Jara said, had he not made the unpopular cuts. "We could not continue to be in a deficit spending model in this School District and survive."

On July 31, Porter agreed to $150,000 in salary for the first year, but no chance for performance pay as City Attorney Shawn Smith had recommended as part of the contract negotiating team.

That idea for performance pay didn't fly before a board already squeamish about teacher pay cuts. Porter attended the meeting even though he wasn't yet on the time clock.

Porter, a 32-year veteran of public education in his home state of Minnesota, originally agreed to a $145,000 salary.

Board members and union leaders welcomed Porter as a symbol of a fresh start in a district still smarting from scandal and scrutiny.

A month into his new job and new tropical hometown, Porter jumped headlong into the frenzy of worry about Tropical Storm Isaac, a vast system that never could get itself together to threaten the Keys with much more than strong winds.

Porter decided to pack a backpack and head to Key West's emergency station, the Police Department.

"We didn't have anyone delegated to go," Porter said, after Isaac was gone. "I thought I should have the experience."

Porter made no staff changes, but he got rid of the lengthy titles his top administrators had been given, including the "chief of staff" title that Jara tried to give Ken Gentile, hired by the board as an internal auditor only to be snapped up by Jara, who said he needed a finance ace on his team.

Gentile is now director of finance and performance; while Michael Kinneer is director of operations and planning; and Theresa Axford is director of teaching and learning.

Gentile and Kinneer found themselves in some drama this year. Kinneer threatened to quit if he didn't get pay he said was promised to him for working as a union negotiator -- but he ended up signing on for another year without it.

Gentile drew a five-day suspension without pay from Porter over the fact that he claimed to be a Certified Public Accountant in Florida and his former home state of New York. His license had expired years back and he never held one in Florida.

Gentile said he did nothing wrong and that he is a CPA, whether his license was current or not. He appealed Porter's discipline and also said he began the process for earning CPA status in Florida.

The board went through a couple changes of its own in 2012, gaining a brand-new member and promoting its senior member as its public voice.

Andy Griffiths fended off challenger Yvette Mira-Talbott to win a sixth term on the board. He was also elected chairman at the November meeting, taking over for John Dick, who said he was happy to give up the job.

The five-man panel lost incumbent Duncan Mathewson, who chose not to seek a third term.

After a white-knuckling runoff Nov. 8 that included a recount that didn't name a winner until Friday night, Marathon dive shop owner Ed Davidson was elected to represent District 3.

Davidson, a constant critic and faithful board meeting attendee, defeated former Key West High Principal John Welsh, who without apology took donations from the Republican Party's clubs in the Keys.

Davidson won by 216 votes, taking 16,362 to Welsh's 16,146. Welsh asked for a recount, saying it was only fair to his supporters.

Write-in candidate Sloan Bashinsky, a blogger whose name didn't appear on the ballot, collected 115 votes, or 0.35 percent.

Davidson's four-year term on the five-man board pays $28,000 a year and offers the same health benefits as for any School District employee.

Davidson, a boat captain and Vietnam veteran, was sworn in last month, where board members greeted him with matching baseball caps-- a lighthearted nudge at Davidson's ever-present hat bearing his name, Capt. Ed Davidson.

Outgoing board member Mathewson, a marine archaeologist, had a brush with the law over the summer.

Deputies arrested Mathewson the night of June 26 and accused him of driving under the influence of alcohol, although his Breathalyzer test reportedly registered below the legal limit of .08. Mathewson registered a .06 and a .07, according to the arrest report.

The case is working its way through Monroe County court system, next set for the Jan. 7 docket.


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