Schoolhouse Knocks

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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.

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Ted B. Kissell
Contact: Ted B. Kissell