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School board member mum on hostile texts

Duval County board member calls for resignation over texts about superintendent

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A Duval County School Board member under fire over text messages written about Superintendent Nikolai Vitti remained silent on the subject Tuesday.

Board member Jason Fischer called Monday for the resignation of Dr. Connie Hall after text messages between Hall and the school district auditor about Vitti last fall were released last week, causing issues described by the superintendent as a "hostile work environment" to go public.

Hall skipped a special “development meeting” on Monday, sending a one-line email to Board Chairwoman Ashley Smith Juarez saying she had another engagement and could not attend. The meeting had been called to address the text message controversy, and Hall was the only board member not present.

Hall did show up Tuesday to the regularly scheduled board meeting, the first time since her comments were revealed that all seven board members and Vitti met together.

Hall spoke in the meeting about regular business, but said nothing about the text messages she sent or the apparent hostility underlying them.

News4Jax attempted twice to get her side of the story, but she had no comment.

Fischer said Monday that he was "offended and disturbed" that a colleague would call Vitti’s administration “special ed in action,” which he said is offensive to people with disabilities.

"In light of these revelations, if she (Hall) truly wants to put education first, she should resign immediately,” Fischer said. "To just ignore it looks bad."

Some concerned citizens agreed with Fischer's take.

“She should know. She should be aware. Maybe she is too overwhelmed,” Sheila Andrews said. “Why not talk about it? If she tells me I am sorry, I have to forgive her. But she hasn't said I'm sorry for using those type terms.”
Fischer stood by his call for Hall's resignation after Tuesday's meeting.

“I am not going to back away from my comments on that,” Fischer said. “I think it was out of line. It was disparaging towards somebody with a disability because of their disability.  Again I have family members with disabilities, constituents with disabilities, I care very much about those individuals. And I just can't imagine one of my colleagues making those comments.”

Hall said last week in a statement that her comments were taken out of context and she's sorry to anyone who was offended.

Member Paula Wright acknowledged Monday that there is a hostile divide between the board and Vitti, but asked that no action should be taken at a meeting where Hall was not present to defend herself.

"I find this an ugly distraction from what is going on in our schools," Wright said. "Fact is, between 2012 and now, we have had an increase in D and F schools every year."

Despite the tense meeting Monday, the one thing the board members present agreed on was they want change.

"I think it shows that we have a dysfunctional school board," board member Scott Shine said. "I'd like to see this board take action. If you look at what we did today, we called it a special meeting, We did not take a single action."

Shine said he wanted the board to be issued county phones so all texts will be public record. Shine also said he'd like to see the district's auditor, Michelle Begley, fired.

"She is a board auditor. She is not supposed to play a partisan role," Shine said.

A dozen members from the community attended Monday's meeting to speak about the leadership of the school district. Many supported Hall, saying she was a good board member and takes care of her constituents.

"Everybody has the right to freedom of speech," said Bettye Miller. "You may not like what some people say, but they have the right to say it."

Andrews came to the meeting in her wheelchair to object to Hall's disparaging use of "special ed."

"When you call someone by a label -- ESE (exceptional student education), SLD (specific learning disability), OHI (other health impairment), cripple, that concerns me," Andrews said. "All those words are no longer socially accepted. They are not politically correct."

Vitti did not say much during Monday's meeting, but after the item was tabled for a future meeting at which Hall could attend, he told News4Jax afterwards he is considering taking legal action against Hall for her remarks.

He said he doesn't want to, but feels it might be necessary.

"The hostile work environment is not anything new. That has been ongoing and in many ways, it has only intensified over the last couple of months or so," Vitti said. "I think it is reassuring for me to know that the board, although divided, there is still a high degree of support for the reform that has happened and will happen."

Even if other board members wanted Hall removed, it could only be done by order of Gov. Rick Scott.

No longer private communications

A Miami lawyer requested the texts and emails between Hall and two other board members, and a copy of the records was provided to News4Jax news partner WJCT last week. The school district's legal counsel said the content of a message makes it a public record under the Sunshine Law, not the device or platform that sent it.

In November, Hall wrote a letter to Vitti, where she writes “Your persistent lack of respect when addressing Board members” is a problem… telling Vitti “As superintendent you are expected to model high standards.”

Her text messages appeared to show deeper feelings.

In a September text message to School Board Internal Auditor Michelle Begley, Hall wrote, “I vote, fire him now!!!!!!!!!!!!!” In another text, Hall referenced the resignation of Florida A & M University Board Chair Rufus Montgomery and said she wished it was Vitti who was quitting. 

READ: Connie Hall's text message exchange

The day after her texts were broadcast on WJCT-FM and WJXT, Hall released a statement apologizing to the board, the superintendent and the community, "For this distraction and any offensive language taken out of context."

“I do believe that the release of this information which was a part of a plethora of other information was specifically orchestrated," Hall wrote. "Be that as it may, it only serves as a distraction for the necessary work that has to be done in order to improve student achievement across this school district.”

Vitti was brought into the district in 2012 as a change agent. He said sometimes his changes have caused tension, and that reached a peak when he announced boundary changes for many schools last year.

The School Board unanimously voted to renew Vitt'is contract when it came up, but Hall sent a letter criticizing what she called Vitti's "persistent lack of respect when addressing board members.”

Robert H. Fernandez, an attorney with Zumpano Castro law firm, requested Hall’s texts and emails, along with those of board members Paula Wright and Becki Couch. A phone message to the firm asking why it targeted the three was not returned to WJCT, which has also placed calls requesting comment from Hall and Begley.

Last week when the texts and emails were made public, News4Jax contacted the South Florida attorney who pushed for the open records request to get these text messages. So far have there has been no response. No one News4Jax spoke to knows who hired the attorney to make the records public.

About the Author:

Lifetime Jacksonville resident anchors the 8 and 9 a.m. weekday newscasts and is part of the News4Jax I-Team.