Somerset chosen to run charter school turnaround in rural North Florida

Jefferson County charter school vote
Jefferson County school board members unanimously approve charter applications by Somerset Academy.

MONTICELLO, Fla. – After a 5-0 Tuesday night vote, the Jefferson County School Board brought Florida’s smallest school district into uncharted territory.

It’s now poised to start negotiations with Somerset Academy, which could soon lead a conversion into Florida’s first all-charter school system.

The board approved a trio of charter school applications. If contract negotiations go smoothly, Somerset will operate an elementary, middle and high school, housed on a single campus and led by a single principal.

The state is home to dozens of charters converted from traditional public schools, but converted charters have never encompassed an entire school system. Somerset and the school district will have to hash out new arrangements for expulsions, transportation and employment terms for teachers.

Douglas Rodriguez, a consultant advising Somerset, said the charter organization plans to interview current Jefferson teachers and decide by next month which ones will stay. The charter group also plans an ambitious recruiting effort across North Florida and nationwide. A promised new pay schedule could boost a current teacher’s salary by nearly $10,000. Rodriguez said the plan would help draw recruits to a rural community that lies just east of the state capital and two state universities.

“We are going to make the Jefferson County teachers the highest-paid teachers in the state of Florida,” he said.

Michael Monroe, the executive director of the Big Bend Service Unit of the Florida Education Association, told the school board that teachers “are scared for their jobs.” At the same time, he said, local teachers and their union “want to be an ally” in the effort to turn around what is now Florida’s lowest-performing school district.

“If you all are selected, I want it to be a success,” he said to Somerset representatives. “The teachers union doesn’t want to be a hindrance or impediment to the success of the students or the acceleration of the process here in Jefferson County.”

Members of the community have rallied around the charter conversion after years of academic and financial turmoil.

Tina Dollar, a local parent, said she was skeptical of the concept at first. But before the board voted, she said: “We’ve dragged our children through this mess long enough. Let’s move on. Please.”

Somerset operates one of Florida’s largest charter school networks. It’s affiliated with Academica, one of the state’s largest management companies.

Several principals from its existing schools — including Donyale McGhee, the leader of North Lauderdale Preparatory Academy in South Florida — told the Jefferson school board they had the autonomy to run schools that responded to their communities.

“Everything we do at Somerset, it’s all about tailoring to the children’s needs,” McGhee said. “It’s all about looking at what the families’ needs are.”

Marianne Arbulu, the new Jefferson County superintendent elected in November, now has until April 10 to negotiate charter contracts. After the board’s vote, she said she intends to meet that tight deadline.

“I am excited about this charter operator coming in,” she said.