Schoolhouse Knocks

Although the Liberty City Charter School helped make Jeb Bush governor, four years on it's barely passing

In March 1998 Moore and teacher's aide Keith Anderson administered the SAT to the school's third-grade students. Wilson-Davis says she didn't know anything was amiss before the preliminary scores were delivered to the school some two months later. Pat Booth, a retired assistant principal from the Miami-Dade schools who was working as a curriculum consultant at Liberty City, took a look at the scores and noticed something was wrong. She brought her concerns to Wilson-Davis. “[Booth] was very alarmed by how well [the students in Moore's classroom] scored on the social studies and on the science,” Wilson-Davis remembers. “She felt there was something inconsistent about those scores.” Booth and Wilson-Davis called Moore and Anderson on the carpet and confronted them with the “inconsistency” of the scores. Anderson, Wilson-Davis says, “indicated that some impropriety had occurred.”

“From there I referred it to the school attorney and the governing board,” Wilson-Davis says. Attorney Mark Wallace took statements from the two proctors and some of the students and determined that Moore and Anderson had gone from desk to desk and helped children with their tests, which explained both the high scores and the consistency of the correct and incorrect answers.

On May 20 Wallace wrote a letter to superintendent Roger Cuevas, informing him the school had determined there was “contamination” of the third-grade students' scores. “In response to the charter school's review, the third-grade SAT administrator [Alvin Moore] has resigned from his employment,” Wallace wrote. In fact both Moore and Anderson were forced to resign; Wallace will not disclose the details of their exits. Anderson, now 26 years old, earned his bachelor's degree from Nova Southeastern University and currently is a fifth-grade teacher at Sweetwater Elementary School. He would not comment on the cheating incident. Alvin Moore also declined comment.

Attorney Mark Wallace has been with the school through thick and thin, including his investigation of cheating on tests
Attorney Mark Wallace has been with the school through thick and thin, including his investigation of cheating on tests
Principal Katrina Wilson-Davis knows she has her detractors, but she's sticking with the kids at the Liberty City Charter School
photo courtesy Katrina Wilson-Davis
Principal Katrina Wilson-Davis knows she has her detractors, but she's sticking with the kids at the Liberty City Charter School

Wallace stresses he was in regular communication with the school district about the cheating, starting almost as soon as he heard about it. “Those kids needed the opportunity to retake the test,” he explains. The kids were tested in early June. Bush, hard on the campaign trail at the time, was kept abreast of the investigation as well. “Jeb was hearing about this at the same time the board was,” Wallace says. “His response was, he wanted to make sure the process was completely transparent.”

It appeared the school dealt swiftly and efficiently with the problem by booting the offending teacher and resolving the scandal quickly enough to allow the children to retest. Other than the embarrassment of having hired a couple of unethical teachers, it seemed the episode had passed with minimal damage to the school's reputation.

But Alicia Banuchi, the principal's former administrative assistant, insists everyone in the school already knew Moore and Anderson had helped those kids cheat, well before the suspicious scores were red-flagged. Banuchi says another teacher heard Anderson confessing his cheating to Katrina Wilson-Davis roughly one month before the scores came back. And yet the principal did not report the incident to her governing board or the school district.

Wilson-Davis says the school's grapevine exaggerated when it called Anderson's statement a confession. “Mr. Anderson came into my office to hook up a VCR, and he said to me that he felt uncomfortable about something that happened during that test,” she recalls. “He said that Mr. Moore had assisted the kids by telling them to check their answers.” Wilson-Davis says that admonition “didn't sound like an impropriety,” thus she took no action. Only when Pat Booth questioned the scores did the aide tell her the full extent of Moore's assistance.

Nonetheless the outside perception of Liberty City Charter School as a troubled school persists. And at least one ex-employee declares vociferously that, based on her two years inside the school, she believes it to be more troubled than anyone has previously realized.

Banuchi, a 53-year-old mother of two from New York City, moved to Miami in 1996. She had been in town a year when she saw the Liberty City Charter School was looking for experienced office workers. In addition to secretarial and administrative work, Banuchi also had worked as a tutor and after-school counselor in New York. She applied for the job at Liberty City and was hired in July 1997.

At first, she says, she had no idea this was Jeb Bush's school and all that would entail. “If I had known from day one that this school was politically involved, connected that way, I would have never even applied for the position,” she sighs.

When she first arrived, she says she forged a solid working relationship with Katrina Wilson-Davis. “I was very excited; I thought she was excited,” Banuchi says. “This was a jewel; we were going to make it the charter school, set the role model. We worked outside of school, we would go over to her house, she would come over here, we'd work and we'd plan.” But none of these plans were ever brought to fruition.

She at first believed the school's problems were solely a function of growing pains and were correctable. But the nagging inefficiencies began to pile up. She saw shoddy hiring and contracting practices, laxity in filing crucial paperwork such as parental permission slips, and incidents of teachers treating students roughly. “One teacher would punish students by making them stand outside in the hot sun with their hands on their heads,” she remembers.

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