‘I’m an advocate for what works’

Editor’s note: This is the second of two parts about Lake Wales Charter Schools. Part one here.

Robin Gibson
Robin Gibson

Robin Gibson counts one legendary Democratic governor as a close friend, and helped run the U.S. Senate campaign of another. So it may be surprising to some, given the misperceptions about school choice, that the prominent Democrat is a leading figure behind the creation of a city-wide charter school system in Central Florida.

When Gibson, an attorney, led the charge back in 2002 to turn around struggling schools in Lake Wales, he knew it would be a labor of love. Public education is at the heart of what the former Florida Board of Regents chairman believes makes communities successful.

“If there are great schools, the rest of it will take care of itself,” he told redefinED in a recent interview.

It was that belief that guided Gibson to search for a way to improve education in Lake Wales, long after his children had moved away, and to convince others to support the cause. The effort resulted in a new system, Lake Wales Charter Schools, with six schools and nearly 4,000 students.

None of it would have happened, say many in the community, without the drive and dedication of their adopted native son.

“He is kind of seen as our local statesman,’’ said Betty Wojcik, executive director of the Lake Wales Area Chamber of Commerce and a trustee for the Lake Wales charter system.

The Miami native and University of Florida graduate came to this picturesque stretch of Polk County in 1966, ready to work for a new law firm and start a family with his wife, Jean. “I’d had enough saltwater and palm trees,’’ he told a reporter in 2006. “I was looking for a small town, rolling hills, lakes and oak trees.’’

Gibson’s four children attended Lake Wales public schools – but not for long. Dissatisfied with their quality, he and Jean sent their kids to private schools outside of town. But it didn’t sit well with Gibson that his beloved city’s schools weren’t up to snuff.

As a member of the now-defunct Board of Regents, which oversaw Florida’s public universities, Gibson helped then Gov. Graham try to elevate public education. He served six years on the board, eventually becoming chairman. Graham would go on to become a U.S. senator.

But their friendship endured. The UF fraternity brothers were senior class presidents of competing high schools in Miami. Later, Gibson would serve as an advisor and national campaign treasurer during Graham’s unsuccessful attempt for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.

The two also teamed up in 2001, when then-Gov. Jeb Bush signed a law abolishing the Board of Regents. Graham, with Gibson at his side, led a ballot initiative to restore the board. The amendment passed, creating the Florida Board of Governors.

“Robin Gibson is an exceptional human being,’’ Graham told redefinED during a recent stop in Tampa.

Pragmatic and charismatic, Gibson has the ability to bring people together to accomplish a goal, Graham said. He’s “a very strong believer in the public schools,” Graham continued. “But he felt Lake Wales needed a public alternative to traditional schools.’’

Graham has visited the Lake Wales Charter Schools system. He called it “impressive.’’

Gibson paid close attention to the start of charter schools in Florida. The landmark bill that created the first schools passed in 1996, when another friend, Lawton Chiles, was governor. Gibson had served as Chiles’ campaign manager during his first re-election campaign for U.S. Senate.

Coincidentally, Polk County become one of the first places in the state to have a conversion charter school, McKeel Academy, where teachers and parents voted to transfer control of a public school to a charter provider.

In Lake Wales, Gibson attacked the cause like he was preparing for a trial, poring over state charter laws to see what would benefit his city the most – and what needed to change.

A committee he led commissioned a feasibility study, tracking the exodus of students. It chartered two buses to Pembroke Pines in Broward County to observe its city-run charter system.

Gibson did his legwork, too, talking to neighbors, community leaders, teachers and parents about the need for an independent system. Never once did the loyal Democrat feel the need to politicize the charter issue, which is often portrayed as a Republican-led reform.

“I don’t think there’s anything partisan about it, if you’re for a first-class education system, ’’ Gibson said. “I think everyone’s for that. I’m an advocate for what works and I’m an advocate for educating the entire demographic.’’

He also stood up to school board members who weren’t immediately sold on the idea of turning their schools over to a charter group.

“I think we felt like ‘give us a chance to work it out’ ,’’ said Hazel Sellers, a four-term school board member who recalled some of those early meetings  “But Lake Wales had done so much homework.’’

The charter system continues to look at its options. Gibson hopes to convert the district-run middle school – D-rated, according to the state – to bring it more in line with the charter system’s A-rated middle school. But he’s not disappointed that one of the city’s elementary schools remains with the district.

Some teachers feel threatened by the charter system because it requires annual contracts, Gibson said. So keeping at least one district-run school in the community gives them a choice.

“If a teacher doesn’t want to be a part of the charter … they don’t have to leave town,” he said.

For Lake Wales, he said, that’s a good thing.