Schoolhouse Knocks

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

What followed was a frenzied attempt at political damage control. Both governing board member Mark Wallace and Tal Fair called Perez to invite her back. “I said no thank you,” she sniffs. At the ensuing school board meeting, Marta Perez cast the lone vote against renewing the school's charter. (Asked if her fellow Republicans have reprimanded her for voting to close the school their governor founded, Perez responds, “No comment.”)

Meanwhile, at the next meeting of the charter school's governing board, Alicia Banuchi got herself into trouble for the last time. Having witnessed much of the exchange between Perez and Wilson-Davis, Banuchi told the board she didn't think Perez's request was unreasonable. Shortly thereafter, she says, Tal Fair came to the school and asked her why she had felt the need to defend Marta Perez. Banuchi says she merely told the truth. Fair did not return numerous phone calls seeking comment for this story. Within two weeks Wilson-Davis told Banuchi she couldn't trust her anymore. She hung on for a few more months, but in December 1999, she was fired from the school.

Banuchi has retained an attorney and threatened to sue the school over her dismissal. Because of this Wallace, who is the school's lawyer as well as a member of its governing board, declines to comment on any of Banuchi's specific allegations.

Banuchi says she still supports the charter-school concept and feels a strong attachment to the students of Liberty City Charter School. “As long as they have a principal who's not leading correctly, who's not there, who's not being a role model for them and the school in general, then it's just not going to happen,” Banuchi declares, her eyes glistening with tears.

Hers is an assessment shared by other South Florida educators. “Just going around talking to people, I don't hear anything good,” says one source involved in charter schools.

The biggest problem, according to this source: “They hired a social studies teacher to run the school. In my opinion you can't do that.” The amount of management training it takes to run any school is significant, the source says, and the challenges are even greater with the freedom allowed at charter schools. The source asserts Katrina Wilson-Davis has not been equal to the challenge. “Her attitude has been a turnoff to the district,” the source says. “She's treated them as if they were the enemy.”

This same person also claims Jeb Bush once declared that politically he had to hire Wilson-Davis as a favor to then-board member Frederica Wilson.

Alicia Banuchi confirms that Wilson-Davis often would speak to Frederica Wilson on the phone at the school. “They're friends,” Banuchi says of the pair. “Frederica offered her a job in her [state House of Representatives] office when she went over to Tallahassee.”

Patrick Snay, principal of Chaminade-Madonna College Preparatory School in Hollywood, was once Katrina Wilson-Davis's boss when he was principal of Miami Killian Senior High. He says he advised her to take the Liberty City job when it first became available. If she asked him now, he says, he would advise her to resign.

“Jeb Bush started that school off with a bang to show he was behind education, but now he's gone,” Snay comments. “It was kind of set up for early success, then abandonment, and then failure. I feel like they've used a whole community, and they've used Katrina also. She's one of the finest teachers I've ever encountered. If I were her, I'd go back into the school system.”

The principal of Liberty City Charter School isn't going to take Snay's advice this time. “Everybody quits on these kids,” she says, her voice quivering for a moment. “When we started this school, we didn't start it because we knew it would be easy. I knew it was going to take a serious commitment to see it through.... I'm proud of the achievements we've had.

“I'm committed to these families now,” she says. “I'm not ready to quit.”

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