Schoolhouse Knocks

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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.

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Ted B. Kissell
Contact: Ted B. Kissell