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And of course Banuchi's first year at the school was the year Jeb Bush was actively campaigning for governor. She remembers the regular presence of photographers, TV cameras, and politicians had a disruptive effect on the school. Banuchi got to know Bush's then-campaign manager, Cory Tilley, quite well. “Cory was there two or three times a week. Jeb would come by about once a week, and he would tour the school,” she remembers. “Sometimes he'd come with reporters; sometimes he'd come with Cory. The phones would be ringing off the hook -- people calling, reporters, people wanting to come and tour the school.”
Bush himself, she adds, was “wonderful” with the kids. “The kids would see him, hug him; he'd have them all over him,” she says. “But I just had this strong feeling that if he becomes governor, he's going to disappear. I knew this whole thing was just something to get the black vote.”
And all this time, Banuchi says, the constant refrain was, “Where's Katrina?” Tilley, she says, would utter the phrase himself. “He'd come in with his laptop, get on the phone, send out press releases, try to schedule tours, and he'd be asking, “Where's Katrina?'” Banuchi insists the principal kept erratic hours at the school. As there weren't any assistant principals at the school, Banuchi says she often found herself alone in the office.
She began complaining to Tilley about Wilson-Davis's shortcomings, including her attendance. “Cory's favorite phrase was, “Just hang in there,'” she remembers. “One day I picked up the phone and paged him, and I said, “I can't do this anymore.'” This was like three or four months before the elections. He would say, “Just hang in there, just hang in there.'”
Tilley would not comment on Banuchi's allegations. Wilson-Davis merely expresses dismay that her former employee is taking potshots. “I don't believe she's a stable person,” Wilson-Davis says of Banuchi. “That instability is now coming out. I don't want to start to say negative things against her, but it's just sad to see that people will unnecessarily hurt children for their own personal reasons.”
Banuchi insists she is criticizing the school because she wants to help the students. She says she expected some changes after the election, but Bush merely resigned from the board of governors, leaving Tal Fair as the sole chairman. And Wilson-Davis remains as principal.
Another source familiar with the school, who asked not to be identified, also describes Wilson-Davis as part of the problem, calling the principal “vindictive” and “dishonest.”
“[Wilson-Davis] was given too much power,” the source says. “When you give someone too much power, they take it to the limits and they forget about who got them there. [Wilson-Davis] needs to realize that all the valuable people are disappearing.”
Katrina Wilson-Davis gestures at the cluttered classroom. The desks are piled with colorful boxes that scream with letters and numbers. Workbooks, posters, and other learning aids sit in recently opened boxes on the floor. “Our teachers are trying out new materials to see if they want to use them next year,” she says. “That's one of the great things for teachers here: the freedom to make those kinds of decisions.”
The Liberty City Charter School doesn't have a summer session, so the four-building complex is empty of children on this afternoon in late July. Last year the school held 240 students; this year that number could rise as high as 280. A few teachers and staff members are circulating around, though.
The 37-year-old principal has a winning smile and an infectious enthusiasm, which have served her well as a teacher and an administrator -- and as a high-school cheerleader. She also has an undeniable sense of style. Her bob haircut is coiffed just so; gold jewelry glints tastefully from her wrists, neck, and ears; a short-sleeve black top and leopard-print, knee-length skirt fit her snugly as her strappy gold sandals click across the linoleum floors of her school. “For me, coming straight from being a teacher, I didn't have a lot of expectations about what it was going to be,” Wilson-Davis says. “We were trying to impact on the performance of some children who had traditionally been underserviced, disadvantaged, in education here in Dade County, and I wanted to be a part of that.”
She says Jeb Bush and Tal Fair maintained a constant presence at the school, but they had little influence on its day-to-day operations. “Their visibility was very, very high,” Wilson-Davis explains. “They would spend time with the children, the teachers, attend school events. So I would say they were visible in the school on a daily basis.”
“She really had the [principal's] role down,” insists former consultant Pat Booth, who now works at the Barry University Charter School. “I thought she handled the segue from the classroom to administration very well, and she had a lot of support at the school.
“I remember Jeb doing some wonderful things with the kids, and I thought, Where's the media now?” Booth continues. “One time he showed up and played Santa Claus; the kids loved it. They knew who it was.”