Schoolhouse Knocks

The Liberty City Charter School is difficult to find, nestled as it is between a middle school and I-95 among the tree-lined streets and neat ranch-style houses of the tiny city of El Portal. It presents an unassuming face, one two-story building with an entry flanked by fluted white columns, adjoining two nondescript one-story classroom buildings painted a modest cream color.

But in the realm of ideas and ideology, this school has been painted with the bright concentric circles of a target, in which the bull's-eye is the smiling, tanned visage of Gov. John Ellis “Jeb” Bush.

When it opened in 1996, it was inundated with press coverage. Not only was it the first school founded under the state's new charter school law, but it was cofounded by Bush, whom everyone knew was going to run for governor in 1998. (By the 1999-2000 school year, there were 112 charter schools in the state.) Sure enough, once Bush declared his candidacy, the press was all over the school again, often at the candidate's invitation.

After his victory Bush withdrew from the school's governing board, ending his formal relationship with the experimental school. His experience there had given him a pedigree -- albeit brief -- in the realm of “school choice,” and he proceeded to propose policies that went further down the path of reinventing public education. His A+ Plan instituted a standardized test, the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test (FCAT), the results of which would grade schools from A through F. Students from F schools would be eligible for the political conservative's favorite cure for public education's ills, vouchers.

When the students at Liberty City Charter School took the FCAT for the first time in 1999, they got a D. The enemies of school choice and of Jeb Bush (often the same people) howled at the inescapable irony. Chief among these detractors, the United Teachers of Dade union, renewed its calls for Liberty City to be closed down. In interviews with the Miami Herald, principal Katrina Wilson-Davis spoke of her disappointment but also of her determination to improve.

In June 1999 the Miami-Dade County School Board voted to renew Liberty City's charter for another five years. In the FCATs of this past year, student scores did improve. When the 2000-2001 school year begins on August 28, Liberty City Charter School will welcome sixth-graders for the first time.

Yet among South Florida educators, reviews of both Liberty City's present condition and its future prospects are decidedly mixed. Teachers-union leaders maintain that charter schools are not an educational panacea and say that Liberty City is among the weakest of the bunch. Though no one in the growing charter-school community will publicly cast stones at one of their own, privately some who work for and support charter schools describe Liberty City as a failure.

The combination of bad test scores, controversy surrounding teachers who helped students cheat on a standardized test in 1998, high teacher turnover, and political friction has left the school with a lousy reputation.

Some of Wilson-Davis's former employees say the principal herself, who had no previous administrative experience, is part of the problem. While Wilson-Davis chalks up the high teacher turnover (no fewer than six have left, from a faculty of roughly a dozen) to the school's growing pains, some claim the principal's shoddy management and vindictive nature drove away many qualified teachers. One former employee says Wilson-Davis's lackadaisical handling of the aforementioned cheating shook the confidence of many staffers. This ex-employee, Alicia Banuchi, also describes a kind of “don't ask, don't tell” policy when it came to corporal punishment at the school, a practice many of the students' parents favor but that is forbidden by school board rule.

But perhaps Wilson-Davis's lack of leadership was merely a symptom of the real problem: that Liberty City Charter School was founded solely for the purpose of making Jeb Bush more electable, and that once that goal was achieved, the school was destined to drift.

The ink on the charter-school law was still glistening in 1996 when Jeb Bush began his drive to be the state's pioneer in the charter-school field.

As defined by that statute, a charter school is a public school funded chiefly by public dollars, mostly in the form of the roughly $4800 allocated to each student in every public school. But by operating essentially as subcontractors to an individual school district, charter schools are not bound by the same rules for staffing, budget, curriculum, or bureaucracy as other public schools. Thus a charter school has far more flexibility in defining its mission and methods. This flexibility includes the choice not to use unionized teachers, which has incurred the enmity of teachers unions. Locally the UTD has supported some charter schools -- especially those that use union teachers -- and opposed others.

In pitching a charter school in Dade County in 1996, Bush was stepping into the most crucial year in the board's political history. That November the board was to increase from seven members to nine and would be chosen from single-member districts for the first time. That election promised to deliver a more ethnically and politically diverse board, but when Bush was looking to create a charter school, he was facing a board dominated by Anglo Democrats, who were not generally disposed to favor either charter schools or any aspiring politician named Bush.

And boy, was this Bush aspiring. Ever since his razor-thin loss to incumbent Gov. Lawton Chiles in 1994, Bush had been waging a nonstop image-building campaign of philanthropy and photo ops. The main vehicle for his continuous campaign for governor was the Foundation for Florida's Future, a nonprofit think tank that appeared to spend most of its time thinking about how to make Jeb Bush governor.

The passage of the charter-school law was an opportunity too good to pass up. First, it would give Bush, who had grown wealthy as a private-sector developer, a track record in education. Second, he would forever be able to claim the mantle of school reformer for leading the state's first charter school. Third, by designing a school to serve the needs of poor black children, he could make a gesture of reconciliation toward Florida's black voters. In 1994, when asked what he would do as governor specifically to help the black community, Bush replied, “Probably nothing.” He later protested he had been taken out of context, that he had meant only that he wouldn't try to favor one ethnic group over another, but the damage had been done.

He made many efforts to mend that particular fence between 1994 and 1998, but the charter school was perhaps the most prominent olive branch. From its founding in early 1996, Liberty City Charter School Project, Inc., had two corporate officers: Jeb Bush and T. Willard “Tal” Fair, executive director of the Urban League of Greater Miami.

Despite this partnership's political potency, their proposal met with some skepticism, especially from the UTD. “We opposed it at first, mostly because they put [the proposal] together in two weeks,” says Merri Mann, the union's director of educational and professional issues. “We were like, why are we putting this through so fast?” She answers her own question: So the school would have been open long enough for Jeb to use it as a campaign issue.

“I think [Bush's gubernatorial hopes] were clearly part of the agenda from the beginning,” says Octavio Visiedo, who was superintendent of schools when Bush and Fair's proposal first emerged. “Everybody saw handwriting on the wall and knew he was going to run, and staff was motivated to help him. In his defense, though, he didn't bully anybody.”

Then-board member Rosa Castro Feinberg recalls the Liberty City proposal was one of three submitted in time to open for the 1996-1997 school year. “All three of them were rotten,” she says. “I wasn't happy with them at all.” Still, she remembers that the Liberty City proposal did get a positive recommendation from school district staff, unlike the other two. (“Staff was afraid of him,” she recalls, referring to Bush.) She had specific concerns about programs for limited-English proficiency students, which she spelled out in a face-to-face meeting with Bush, “but my sense was he had enough board votes in his pocket, so I could only get so much out of him.”

Castro Feinberg, a Democrat, also smelled a whiff of ethnic politics in the whole thing. “Jeb was staking out some reason for black folks to vote for him,” she asserts. He did indeed have the votes. His choice of principal, Katrina Wilson-Davis, didn't hurt those chances. Wilson-Davis, in addition to having taught social studies at Miami Killian Senior High School for eleven years, also had worked for 500 Role Models of Excellence, a nonprofit run by Frederica Wilson (no relation to Katrina), then a school board member, now a state legislator. According to one source, who asked not to be identified, Bush has admitted the hiring of Wilson-Davis was the price for Frederica Wilson's vote.

“We hired Katrina because she was the best person for the job,” says Bush's deputy chief of staff Cory Tilley. Frederica Wilson did not respond to calls. Attorney Mark Wallace, who helped found the Liberty City Charter School and has served as its counsel ever since, says Wilson-Davis's political ties had nothing to do with her getting the job. “There was no Frederica Wilson connection,” says Wallace, who is now a member of the school's governing board.

Wilson-Davis also scoffs at the idea. She points out that the school's charter was unanimously approved. “Even if [Frederica Wilson] had been a dissenting vote, it would not have stopped it one way or another,” she reasons.

Most of the school's ups and downs, both before and after Bush's election, have been widely publicized. No topic drew quite so much attention -- and ridicule -- as the school's poor performance on the first Governor Bush-mandated FCAT in 1999. Union chief Pat Tornillo wrote a letter to the editors of the Miami Herald that insisted he and his organization were not, repeat, not gleeful about the lousy test scores at their archenemy's pet school.

Not publicized at all was the fact that the year before, a teacher at the Liberty City Charter School had helped his students cheat on the Stanford Achievement Test.

Alvin Moore, now 54 years old, is a St. Thomas University graduate who had taught in the Miami-Dade County Public Schools since 1983, mostly as a substitute. He joined the staff of the Liberty City Charter School in its first year of existence. Most of the other teachers were less experienced than he, but his track record with the public schools apparently had taught him little about the proper way to proctor a standardized test.

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.

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.

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.”

“If Jeb got to be elected governor as a result of the school, I think he really got the short end of the stick,” Wilson-Davis declares. “It is the children who have benefited the most, and that's the honest-to-God truth. What they have gotten here, I feel, will take them through the rest of their lives.”

Still, some believe Wilson-Davis wasn't steering the ship. “After the first year, [Wilson-Davis] had totally lost focus.” Banuchi says. “There was a situation where a teacher was using corporal punishment. I let her know; she wouldn't do anything about it.” At the time of the school's founding, many of the parents involved had told the board members and Wilson-Davis that they would have wanted corporal punishment to be a disciplinary option at the Liberty City Charter School. “I would say the vast majority of them want corporal punishment,” Wilson-Davis says. “When the school initially started, they were going to ask for the right to corporally punish. However, they felt, in the interest of getting the contract through, it wouldn't fly that way, because it would have gone against district policy. So we've had to adopt the district's policy.”

Wilson-Davis says she remembers one incident of a teacher spanking a child “about three years ago.” She says she learned about it through a note in her mailbox. “I called the teacher in, and the teacher admitted that was what had happened,” Wilson-Davis recounts. “Then I notified the attorney. I held a meeting to go over the laws and statutes with the teacher.”

She chalks this incident up to the school's close ties with the community it serves. “One of our teachers had a personal relationship with a parent that was beyond the school, knew the family; they had been friends a long time,” she relates. “The child had been misbehaving, and the parent had told the teacher, if the child misbehaves, take care of it. And the teacher did, not realizing honestly, that he was acting in the role of a teacher, and not in the role of, “This is like my godson.'”

Since that episode Wilson-Davis says there have been no other incidents of corporal punishment “that I know of.”

But Alicia Banuchi says she would regularly see one teacher, Tashimba Andrews, seize children, shake them, and scream at them. One time, she says, she saw Andrews grab a child by the neck and slam him against a wall. Andrews could not be reached for comment.

Wilson-Davis says she remembers some other teachers complained about Tashimba Andrews's physical treatment of her students. She says she met with Andrews and the other teachers and determined the complaints were attributable to differences in teaching style and did not constitute corporal punishment.

On two separate occasions, Banuchi recalls, children walked into the administrative offices holding their own belts in their hands. When Banuchi asked them what they were doing, they said they had been misbehaving in class and their teachers had told them to bring their belts to Mrs. Wilson. Banuchi says she never saw Wilson-Davis spank kids, with a belt or anything else. But the school board rule on corporal punishment forbids teachers and administrators from using even the threat of physical force as a disciplinary tool.

Wilson-Davis doesn't remember these incidents specifically but doesn't deny that children at her school might expect corporal punishment from her or her teachers. “Some of these families come from the Caribbean, where you have corporal punishment in schools. You have to explain to them that you can't take corporal action against their kids.” She reiterates that she has neither spanked a student nor threatened one with corporal punishment.

According to Banuchi by the 1998-1999 school year, these kinds of incidents had begun to wear on her enough that she would regularly complain to her higher-ups about Wilson-Davis. As the relationship between the principal and her assistant soured, another publicized incident sealed Banuchi's fate.

In June 1999, roughly two weeks before the Miami-Dade County School Board was to vote on renewing its contract with Liberty City Charter School for another five years, school board member Marta Perez dropped by for a surprise visit.

Perez says she and some of her staff had spent the day visiting other charter schools. All visits had been unannounced, because she wanted to see the schools on a normal day. Liberty City was her last stop. She came into the office and asked Wilson-Davis if she could take a look around. “She told me: “Absolutely not,'” Perez recalls. “She said her board had told her they couldn't have unannounced visitors and that she was not going to open up the doors for us or let us inside the classrooms.”

Perez says she couldn't believe they wouldn't let her in. “When we finally decided to leave, when we walked out she followed us to make sure I got into my car,” Perez says, incredulous. “I was outraged.”

Wilson-Davis explains that, dating back to the days of Bush's campaign, she had begun to feel overwhelmed by requests for tours. Indeed, in her office she has a blue plastic visor with “Tour Guide” printed on it as a joke. Thus, she says, the board instituted the no-impromptu-visits rule. She emphasizes she invited Perez to come back another time, but the school board member wouldn't hear of it. “She just said she couldn't believe that I would deny her access,” Wilson-Davis remembers. “I told her I was not denying her access; I was following the direction of my board. How she took offense to that degree, I don't have an answer for that.”

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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Ted B. Kissell
Contact: Ted B. Kissell