Monthly Archives: March 2015

Education is not the solution; it is an opportunity

Education is not the solution for poverty, injustice or even ignorance. Education is an opportunity — no more, no less — for each individual student to work their hardest to escape these evils. If we actually want to improve Education, we have to accept this.


When we lose sight of the fact we’re here to provide opportunities, we spend billions on redundant exams and unneeded curriculum changes while dissolving libraries (to save mere millions) and failing to prepare teachers properly for the constant change. We spend billions to fulfill the demand for guaranteed outcomes, when nearly any guarantee in Education outcomes is a fantasy; most variables are outside our control.

I think it’s obvious this trend stems from businesspeople lobbying and advising our government to run Education like a business. I actually think the people wanting to run schools like businesses are overwhelmingly well-intentioned — with some exceptions — but it doesn’t work. I’ve lived in both worlds, and they are extremely different. By nature, businesses have much tighter control of their input and processes. When you hire someone, you choose the person you think has the best chance for success and tell the other applicants (nicely) to hit the road. When an employee disrupts your business processes, you might fire them. If someone is valuable to your company, you have powerful incentives at your disposal like raises or bonuses to retain them.

But schools are not factories, students aren’t widgets, and they certainly aren’t our employees. Students have minds of their own. They have different backgrounds, aptitudes, desires and work ethics. In Education, we can’t (and shouldn’t be able to) hire and fire them, give them raises, or control their study habits, strengths and weaknesses.

And since students are the only ones who live with the privileges or consequences arising from their performance, all we can do — and must do — is ensure we provide students with the best opportunities possible, and encourage them to take advantage. But we still can’t guarantee any level of student success, because the rest is up to them.

Administrators say, “Kids don’t read much; why should we provide libraries for books to collect dust?” Administrators say, “Kids never take their textbooks home to study, why should we buy a book to issue to each student?” Even if many kids don’t use these resources, it doesn’t matter. If we are to reasonably provide children with the best opportunities, all of them should have the choice to take a book home for a couple of weeks (as I’ve pointed out numerous times, restoring librarians would be incredibly cheap), or their textbook home at night, and read it. Whether or not they do so, is up to them. Education is here to provide opportunities, not make guarantees.

I am not pretending that all, or (let’s be honest teachers), even most students are conscientious enough to take full advantage. That doesn’t matter, because the children who have (or develop) initiative should have the choice to better themselves. To take a textbook home, and study. To take a vocational book home, and get started on learning a trade. To take a novel home, learn to love reading and become better readers (And who knows? Reading scores might even improve if you provide kids books to read). Whether or not kids do so, is up to them. Some will, many won’t. We hope and strive to encourage  as many children as possible to do so.

I say this with the firm belief that we have already won 90% of the battle in Education over the past century with two strokes of the pen (Child Labor Laws/Compulsory Education Laws) and the struggle to enforce one Supreme Court decision that sets the ideal of equal opportunity for all (Brown v. Board of Education).

Yes, there are legitimate concerns and debates, but they pale in comparison to progress already made. The opportunity is there for the taking; parents and students must seize it. And as anyone who runs any kind of enterprise should know, unnecessary or improperly applied changes are at least as likely to harm than help. For this reason, I advocate common-sense boosts and moving spending towards the work of teachers and students, rather than sweeping reform that shifts spending towards administration and exam publishers. A bit of calming down all the way around may be what we need. This is much easier when we acknowledge Education is not the solution, but an opportunity for all.

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It would have taken less than $2 million to save all of Duval County’s libraries

From Khris Brooks, former Times-Union Education reporter, on May 31, 2013:

Because the School Board wanted 7 percent [instead of the required 5 percent] of the budget in the reserve fund, Vitti said he didn’t have enough money for the district itself to completely fund all media specialists’ salary. At the middle and high schools, principals will be given a choice between using district money to pay the salary of a media specialist or a full-time teacher.

It is worth noting that Vitti increased the high school day from 7 periods to 8 (14% increase) without increasing the budget for teachers by 14%. This change mandated high school principals to convert the librarian position to a teaching position in an (often futile) attempt to comply with the class-size amendment.

The Times-Union did some research regarding the school library situation with the results posted on scribd. Vitti was hired during the 2012-13 school year. I have analyzed this document for the 2013-14 school year, Vitti’s first school year in Duval County. Some notes:

  • K-8 schools were considered both elementary and middle schools
  • 6-12 schools and Exceptional Student Centers were considered both middle and high schools (The kids who are able to read at the Exceptional Student Centers deserve access to books as much as anyone else).

If I made any mistakes, feel free to let me know and I’ll correct them. Here are the numbers I found:

  • 74% of existing Duval County Secondary School libraries in 2012-13 (79% of high school libraries, 71% of middle school) were eliminated in 2013-14, Vitti’s first full year as Superintendent.
  • 90% of Duval County high schools (26/29) had no full-time librarian in 2013-14.
  • 86% of Duval County high schools (25/29) and 74% of middle schools had no librarian at all in 2013-14.
  • 58% of Duval County elementary schools did not have a full-time librarian, but all had at least a part-time librarian.
  • In 2013-14, Vitti’s funding decisions eliminated library positions from 28 secondary schools.
  • While 90% of high schools didn’t have a single full-time librarian, Paxon (the college prep school) received funding for two librarians.
  • Vitti cut the equivalent of 27.5 full-time positions at these middle and high schools where librarians were eliminated.
  • Vitti blamed the School Board wanting to save an extra $62 million or so for cutting librarians.
  • Estimated savings from killing our library system? 28 positions @ $65k salary and benefits = $1.8 million (roughly 1/10 of 1% of DCPS’s annual budget).

Why would the School Board demand, or even agree, to save an extra $62 million dollars they don’t need to save, when less than $2 million of that amount would have saved all of our middle and high school libraries?

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When it comes to school libraries, Duval County doesn’t understand the difference between “unlocked” and “open”

School Libraries are being killed off across the U.S., often by quietly defunding librarians, leaving the doors unlocked, and claiming the libraries are open to avoid criticism until it’s too late. This is a disturbing trend that Dr. Vitti seems to have effectively introduced to Jacksonville, FL. I believe it’s clear (see below) that Sandalwood, the largest school in Jacksonville, FL, is one of dozens of schools affected by District policies in this way. Please do not direct your support or opposition on this matter towards the principal or school, but towards the Superintendent (E-Mail | Twitter) and School Board. I’m often sarcastic, but this is 100% sincere: the principal at Sandalwood High School is too competent and cares too much about Sandalwood and its students to have ever wanted to close down Sandalwood’s library.


According to multiple reliable sources, including an e-mail to the Sandalwood faculty, Sandalwood’s library was marked to be dissolved. All books were being given away, the books would “not [be] available after this school year”, “[did] not need to be checked out”, and the remainder would be mothballed in the Bulls Bay warehouse in order to convert the school library into a testing center (the latter part was announced verbally by administration according to multiple independent sources). No matter what smokescreen the District puts up, this is “dissolving a library”:

Sandalwood's faculty was told that books at Sandalwood's library would be completely unavailable next year.

And why not? Sandalwood’s library has been dead in the water without a librarian (“media specialist”) for the past two years. So in a practical sense they might as well clear out the books and use that space for something, since Vitti is determined not to fund it.

But now, after many contacted the school, District and media with concerns, leadership has “backtracked” (the exact word used by multiple sources) and stated we were mistaken; that Sandalwood’s library will not be closed.

In a sense this is true; Sandalwood’s library is already closed, and has been closed for two years, along with the libraries of 31 42 other middle and high schools.

At Sandalwood, I observed the former librarian teaching ESE classes full-time in the library. The doors to the library were unlocked so these students could attend the ESE class, but students were not able to research or check out books at the library.

Yet the District will tell you with a straight face the library isn’t closed; District officials are literally equating “unlocked” with “open”, or in a few cases, equating “open several random hours per week” with “open”. Don’t take my word for it. Visit your neighborhood school and see for yourself. Nearly all high school libraries are in reality, closed. Most middle schools as well [EDIT: Please read update below]. I am unaware of the state of elementary school libraries but I invite feedback from any elementary school employees — I don’t need your name, just your school’s name, and I’ll do the rest.

If a school does not have a budgeted Media Specialist, make no mistake: the library is all but closed to students. And as much as we poke fun at librarians in pop culture, think about the tens of thousands of books and other media that have to be managed, ordered, checked out, the follow-up on missing books to ensure books are returned, etc. When we think like this, we can all agree it’s an honest-to-goodness profession that holds enormous responsibility; it requires a master’s degree for good reason. Yet Vitti thinks we can replace librarians with high school students who don’t yet even have their diploma (no disrespect meant to the students), as has been done at multiple schools (students at these schools, including Englewood High School, say that these libraries are useless and rarely/never have the books students need for their classes):

The plan is for students and volunteers to run libraries next year.

I strongly believe this is a smokescreen from the District (not the school) so the District can continue to claim these dead libraries are “open” when they are useless to students. So forgive me; when some from DCPS claim closing the Sandalwood library was never their intention, I don’t believe them; their actions speak too loudly to believe any words to the contrary. And I don’t think you should either.

For anyone who doesn’t understand why this is an issue: what is a low-income/working class/homebound kid without access to the Public Library, Barnes & Noble or Internet supposed to do on the off-chance they want to read a book? Or do research? This question deeply troubles me. I believe it might be the most important question facing our schools in Duval County.

I believe it’s of primary importance because it is an easily reversible manufactured crisis that Dr. Vitti is completely responsible for creating. At $65,000/year per librarian (this is roughly the figure used by the County for the full cost of a teacher/media specialist), the eliminated school librarian positions would cost roughly 1/10 of 1% of the annual budget. Vitti wasted — literally wasted — close to that on the Iowa Test that the District quietly discarded.

If you have stories about your school, please contact me. I will confirm the library’s closure (or opening) myself. Feel free not to use your real name or DCPS e-mail address when you use the contact form.

I have contacted the Times-Union Education Reporter about this. Please also feel free to contact other media outlets, your School Board member, etc. and let them know politely, but in no uncertain terms, that dissolving school libraries is not an option. Each school needs a fully funded, full-time media specialist so our children have easy, equal access to read books and do research.

UPDATE: I’ve done more research and have some solid numbers on Dr. Vitti’s effect on our school libraries for 2013-14. Additionally, Denise Smith-Amos of the Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville’s newspaper) wrote a front-page article Wednesday, April 1 with even more up-to-date information:

There is exactly one public high school and one public middle school left in the city of Jacksonville with a library that our students can count on.

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“What was taken away from my children’s education in order to make them better at taking standardized tests?”

This decades-old quote from Alfie Kohn is as true today as it ever has been, because everything in life is a trade-off. We have limited time and resources. If we increase the importance of testing in our schools, we decrease the importance of something else. We must ask ourselves: what is that “something else” that’s being taken away?

The arts? Creative learning and teaching? Physical activity? Recess? Joy in learning for its own sake? Joy in reading for its own sake? Weeks of instruction per year?

We may want to take time to think about what we lose when we introduce “accountability” and seek “higher test scores” at all costs.

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March 13, 2015 · 11:46 AM

Elected School Board Member launches “anonymous” personal attack against teacher who criticized him

I want to be clear that I actually showed restraint regarding my conversation with DCPS Board member Scott Shine. Mr. Shine has lost restraint, publicly attacking Chris Guerrieri (a DCPS teacher), for criticizing him (an elected official). In light of this, I felt it necessary to release some quotes I’d previously decided not to publish because I didn’t want to pile on the guy too hard when he had the courage to speak to me. No more, especially after he had previously lectured me about the importance of civil discourse.

I asked Mr. Shine how he could defend Vitti’s decisions that led to 32 middle and high schools closing their libraries. I stated that this hurts poor kids without cars and computers the most, because school libraries are the only place many low-income kids can research. Shine’s direct response to this statement? “Well, there will always be haves and have-nots,” then continued to downplay the concern.

I want to be clear and reiterate: his quote was a direct response to my concern about the closing of libraries hurting low-income kids.

Furthermore, Mr. Shine told me that he feels teachers are going about our fight the wrong way: that we need to stop campaigning against politicians we disagree with, and instead convince them to agree with us. He further implied that teachers are missing the boat by focusing on anything other than “more teachers at higher salaries” (Edit: I feel the need to clarify because a number of people have misunderstood this: Shine implied teachers cared about too many things. He never said teachers only cared about salary.).

Of course we want more teachers at higher salaries, but that is not all we want. We want our jobs to be as meaningful and productive as possible because to many of us it’s much more than just a paycheck.

And here’s the thing about “convincing” politicians: people don’t generally change their minds about things. On the rare occasion they do, it is usually because they are made aware of new information and take that new information into account.

When politicians (School Board members, governor, state legislators) or bureaucrats (Superintendent, etc.) are made aware of new information, and that information does not change their mind, it isn’t long before the only option is to try to replace them with people who do agree with us.

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School Board pays $1.2 million for half a test because the whole test was too expensive.

Business and community leaders of Jacksonville: Last year’s Iowa Test fiasco (see below) is simply one of many reasons why your support of Superintendent Vitti is misguided.

Many problems in Education arise from well-meaning leaders who are not experts in Education. I consider the business leaders, pastors and community leaders supporting Dr. Vitti to fall into this category.

If our leaders truly want to make Education in Jacksonville better (I’m certain they do), they would do so by insisting on Dr. Vitti’s removal.

Pastors serving high-risk communities: I have spoken to a number of DCPS officials regarding the District’s increased African-American graduation rate.

The conclusion? DCPS has become more thorough in purging ineligible dropouts from the system. Doing so is completely ethical. Claiming that clerical adjustment as a victory against inequality, not as much.

Additionally, Vitti delivered a mandate (detailed below) forcing most high school program coordinators to teach full loads of classes. This directly harmed teachers’ ability to coordinate after-school programs for all teenagers, disadvantaged or otherwise.

Business and community leaders: The ultimate job of DCPS leadership is to facilitate the education of children in classrooms. It does not matter how many initiatives Dr. Vitti begins, how much money he raises, etc., if these programs and funds do not facilitate the delivery of education in Jacksonville’s classrooms. Some concrete examples of how Nikolai Vitti has failed to facilitate — and has actually harmed — the education of Jacksonville’s children:

Vitti’s regime is disorganized and does not treat the first day of school as a hard deadline. Student head-count estimates often do not reflect reality, and it is likely intentional. For example, Sandalwood has always had 3000-3300 students. Last year, DCPS budgeted for just 2200 even though there was no rational basis to do so. Our final head-count was ~3000 students, just like previous years. As a result, First Coast News responded to parent complaints on our 70-100 student math classes that had to be moved to the auditorium. The District hired extra teachers about two months into the year, leading to students’ education being  interrupted by involuntary schedule changes. This saved the District two months of teachers’ salary for nearly 1,000 students at Sandalwood alone (not counting other schools) — at the expense of actually educating those students.

Vitti places incompetent cronies into instructional support positions. You can find my first-hand experience here.

Vitti has brought with him a culture of fear and hierarchy where teachers are forced to delay resolution of instructional issues by filtering issues through their principals rather than contacting resources directly. Teachers who contact district personnel directly with pertinent issues risk bringing sharp rebuke upon themselves and their principals (to my knowledge, this was unheard of before Vitti).

Vitti makes changes blindly without regard to proper transition, or to consequences, such as the following:

Vitti spent $1.2 million on the Iowa test (PDF Warning) without realizing the money was only for the first half of the exam. The Iowa Test requires two administrations to be valid (“The Reading Comprehension test at Levels 9 through 14 is administered in two separate testing periods of 25 and 30 minutes. By reducing fatigue, this two-session format increases motivation, helps maintain test takers’ focus, and results in dependable scores.“) Call your local middle/high school reading teacher and ask if they ever gave their students the second administration of the Iowa test last year. When DCPS learned the $1.2 million they spent did not include the second administration, they quietly abandoned the exam, discarding its results. $1.2 million and thousands of student-days were lit on fire by Vitti’s incompetence.

Vitti tried to replace relevant, employable Career Education programs with what I, along with managers from the IT departments of CSX, Florida Blue, Bank of America, and others considered to be unemployable garbage.

Vitti shuffled a number of principals mid-year last year. Why not wait until the end of the year to avoid disruption? The obvious answer may unfortunately be the correct one: that Vitti doesn’t care enough about disrupting children’s education.

Vitti increased the high school “day” from 7 periods to 8 without hiring more teachers. Business leaders of Jacksonville: please explain the resource management Vitti used to add 14% more classes without adding 14% more teachers. Much of the burden fell upon athletic directors, program coordinators, librarians, etc., who taught a full load of classes without extra pay in addition to other responsibilities. Corners are cut somewhere, meaning students suffer. Elective classes, and even many core classes (including all Math above Algebra II and all Science above Biology) being subject to having unbelievable numbers — again, math classes of 70-100 kids were reported by First Coast News.

Vitti’s unfunded mandate forced school librarians to teach classes, closing libraries at 32 Jacksonville middle and high schools (PDF Warning). You know who this hurts? Low-income children who have neither a computer nor a parent/car available to take them to the local library to do research. For those children, the school library is their only place to conduct research, because the school bus provides the transportation needed.

A quote from Joey Frencl, Duval County Teacher of the Year: “[I] plead with the School Board and Dr. Vitti to fully fund library/media services in Duval County. Is the public aware that the libraries at these high schools lack a certified library/media specialist and are basically closed to students: N.B. Forrest, Robert E. Lee, William Raines, Jean Ribault, Atlantic Coast, Englewood, First Coast, Fletcher and six other high schools. Libraries are closed at 18 middle schools including Baldwin, Darnell Cookman, Ft. Caroline, Landon, LaVilla, Mayport, Stilwell and JEB Stuart. This information was gathered by my calling each school in November and asking who was staffing the library/media center.”

Vitti has replaced American Government paper-based curriculum with computer-based curriculum without providing computers to access it, and also implemented iPad-based reading curriculum without providing sufficient iPads in a timely fashion (“timely fashion” is crucial), sufficient Macintosh computers for teachers to present the curriculum, or Wi-Fi access points capable of supporting a classroom’s worth of devices at once. This means hundreds (certainly) or thousands (likely) of struggling readers went days, even weeks in some cases, not receiving mandated reading instruction.

Business leaders of Jacksonville: please understand that if even one of the above is true, it would be devastating to the education of those students affected. Now understand, that all of them are true, and all are attributable to Nikolai Vitti.

Business leaders, if you had a project manager with the above track record, they would likely be fired. I am confident that the reason you support Vitti is because you are unaware of the issues above. I am imploring Jacksonville’s business, community and religious leaders, along with the Duval County School Board, to withdraw their support of Dr. Vitti, so that they can instead support Jacksonville’s children. Whether you realize it or not, supporting both is mutually exclusive.

Change can be good, even great. Stagnation is always bad. But change is destructive when going in the wrong direction, or implemented improperly. Change must be balanced with some semblance of reason and stability.

Instead, Vitti has implemented numerous disjointed initiatives and abandoned nearly as many, giving few (if any) of his plans sufficient time to work. This is not a problem of needing more time, this is an incurable problem of Vitti being an objectively bad leader. There are more examples out there. Anyone defending Vitti, in my humble opinion, isn’t looking at what he’s doing closely enough.

In closing: please understand, I’m not a politician or bureaucrat. I’m a former teacher whose goal is to improve Jacksonville’s Public Schools. Vitti has never done anything to me personally. I simply believe he has been and will continue to be bad for Jacksonville. I also believe I have presented ample evidence to support this opinion.

School Board, it’s not too late to buy out Vitti’s extended contract. In fact, you could do so for less than the cost of half an Iowa Test.

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Conversation with Board Member Scott Shine

Mr. Shine wrote me this afternoon and we spoke on the phone for a bit. I will give him credit where due for answering that letter.

The conversation was cordial but I did not get a satisfactory reason for Dr. Vitti’s extension — the main reasons were “we need stability in the Superintendent’s chair”,  “If we fire him, who’s going to be better?” and “We hope [Dr. Vitti] can develop into a great leader” — that the Board wanted to give him a chance to do so. (My question is, why does he need to develop here? Duval is too big for that).

Mr. Shine stated he did not initially think they had the four votes to extend Vitti. The impression I got from other parts of the conversation was that dissenting Board members felt Vitti already had a majority, and did not want to be on the record voting against him if they had to deal with him until 2019. I suppose I understand that on an intellectual level, but I have a hard time respecting that. Shine himself seems to be firmly in Vitti’s camp.

Shine said he received zero calls regarding Vitti’s extension. I told him it’s because no one knew about it — if I didn’t know, and my friends who are teachers didn’t know, that the vote wasn’t publicized enough. He acknowledged it should have been more visible, he claimed that was unintentional. I remain skeptical.

I thought long and hard before posting this, and I’ve decided to add it: I asked about Vitti’s decisions resulting in 32 middle-and high schools being without full-time librarians. I stated that this hurts poor kids without cars and computers the most, because school libraries are the only place many low-income kids can research. His direct response to this statement — no exaggeration, this was his direct response: “Well, there will always be haves and have-nots.”

I want to be clear that this quote is not out of context.

Shine did acknowledge that Vitti tends to perform drastic experiments on live tissue, and that Vitti can be fired at any point with just three months’ severance. I replied that our frustration is because that ship has sailed for now — is the Board really going to fire him right after extending him? He conceded it would be difficult, but Shine said if there were an egregious error or scandal of some sort, that he wouldn’t hesitate to vote against him (but that he couldn’t speak for other Board members). I’m disappointed that he’s using the ability to fire Vitti to calm people down, because I don’t think it’s an option they’re genuinely considering.

I hope Vitti develops into a great leader. I hope the Board reconsiders. But I’m not holding my breath.

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Open letter to Duval County School Board regarding extension of Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s contract

Mr. Shine and Honorable Board Members:

I am one of Mr. Shine’s constituents.

I am disheartened by your unanimous vote tonight to extend the Superintendent’s contract to the point I’m having trouble sleeping, so I am writing this letter to you.

I am not only disheartened that Dr. Vitti’s contract was renewed, but in the quiet, rushed, disorganized fashion he was renewed. I plan to do my best to find out why this vote was so blatantly rushed. I keep reasonable track of DCPS issues, yet I was unaware of this vote until the morning of. Most of my teacher friends had no idea this vote was happening. I suspect this is how many of you wanted this.

Yesterday was an extremely busy day at work, so I was unable to prepare a statement for last night’s meeting. I was unable to speak my piece as a citizen because of the Board’s quiet, unnecessary rush to vote on this issue. I will have a hard time forgiving the Board, and will have a hard time forgiving myself for not pushing my work obligations aside to write a statement, leave work early, and speak last night.

I resigned from DCPS last summer as Sandalwood’s reigning Teacher of the Year, and Duval County Teacher of the Year semifinalist, largely due to Vitti’s misguided leadership (I will not get into details about Dr. Vitti’s many missteps here; this letter is about you, not him).

I subsequently campaigned against you specifically, Mr. Shine (mainly because of your rating Vitti “an eight out of ten”) and on behalf of Shannon Russell. Mr. Shine, when you won the seat convincingly, I made the decision that I’d reconsider and reserve judgment until I saw your actions. I think I am a reasonable person and can be persuaded by reasonable, logical argument so I’m asking for you to please persuade me.

I would respectfully like an explanation from the Board as to why Vitti was renewed:

  • Nine months before the deadline to renew,
  • In such a rushed fashion,
  • When it was clear sufficient discussion had not occurred among the Board members (Any rebuttal that discussion was sufficient with 9 months to spare would be an insult to your constituents’ intelligence given what was shown on camera last night),
  • Before test results came out this year, and especially
  • When not a single teacher spoke in his favor.

You would be hard pressed to find any teachers who want to work for Dr. Vitti, and if you do find them, they are a tiny minority. DCPS — meaning you — you say you are interested in doing a better job retaining teachers. So considering most teachers want Vitti dismissed (any statement to the contrary confirms that you’re not paying close enough attention), this decision puzzles me and makes me wonder: do teachers actually matter to the School Board? I think last night’s vote proves your answer is a clear “No”.

I do not see the Board’s decision being easily changed, but neither do I plan to let this issue rest quietly. Especially without hearing a satisfactory answer befitting your crucially important positions and responsibilities within the City of Jacksonville — responsibilities that I want to ensure you are not abdicating.

Your actions last night, and your inaction regarding the absolute necessity of parting ways with Dr. Vitti may not get the attention it deserves. And my efforts may be too little, too late for the students and educators of Duval County you are sworn to represent. But it will not be for lack of effort on my part.

I don’t believe it’s likely, but it is possible I’m seeing this the wrong way. If you are interested in talking to me to give your full story and show where I’m mistaken, I’m willing to listen.

Sincerely,

Mike Khalil

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