Longform

Schoolhouse Knocks

Page 4 of 7

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.”

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Ted B. Kissell
Contact: Ted B. Kissell