JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – News4JAX sat down one-on-one with Duval County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Diana Greene to ask about this year’s unique challenges, including staffing and politics.
The 2022-23 academic year begins Aug. 15 in Duval County, and the school district is still facing hundreds of teaching vacancies, as well as support staff and administrative position vacancies.
But despite the shortage of teachers, Greene has an optimistic tone, and she said she and her team are ready to take on the new school year.
“We feel wonderful about getting ready for a new school year. We’re excited about our students coming back,” Greene said. “It’s been a tough two and a half years. But we believe that this year, just like any other year, our school-based administrators, our teachers, support staff, from the district down to the classroom, we’re all ready.”
UNCUT: Press the play button above to watch the full interview with DCPS Superintendent Dr. Diana Greene
But she said there are going to be two things that parents will need to do to make this year successful: be engaged, and have patience.
“‘Patience’ needs to be the keyword,” Greene said. “I think two years ago, ‘pivot’ was our new word. Well, this year will be ‘patience.’”
Although it’s a new school year, there’s the same challenge: a shortage of teachers. The Duval County school district told News4JAX that it had 389 classroom teacher vacancies and 64 instructional staff vacancies as of Aug. 1.
In response, the district is taking measures to temporarily fill the gaps:
- Slightly increasing class sizes
- Bringing in more substitutes
- Working qualified administrators as teachers in a pinch
COUNTY-BY-COUNTY BREAKDOWN: How many teacher vacancies are in your school district?
The superintendent said it’s not just for show.
“This is not about a photo op moment, it’s not about being on television, it’s about ensuring that our students have a teacher and our teachers are so important,” Greene said. “The qualifications to be a teacher are very high.”
Meanwhile, district leaders are crossing their fingers that voters on Aug. 23 will approve a referendum, which would increase the property tax rate to fund pay raises for veteran teachers and make the district more competitive.
Greene said it’s vital, as the profession is bleeding qualified teachers.
“The referendum will not bring new teachers, but it will continue to show our teachers, especially our veteran teachers, how much we appreciate them, and the importance of them staying in the profession,” Greene said.
EXPLAINER: Where will my extra tax money go if Duval County approves referendum for teachers? | THE RACES, CANDIDATES & ISSUES ON YOUR BALLOT: News4Jax Voter’s Guide
But a tax increase is a tall order during an economic crisis when inflation is punishing pocketbooks.
News4JAX asked Greene if there is a long-term strategy if the millage rate is rejected.
“The long-term strategy is working with our local colleges because the colleges are not producing as many educators as they have in the past,” Greene said. “When I was a principal, I would have a list of people to interview more than what I needed. But today, that list is very short.”
Greene said she wants to make sure that teachers feel appreciated and that families know how hard the job actually is.
“There are many challenges that our students have in their lives, and they, it doesn’t stop at the schoolhouse door. Those challenges come into the classroom,” Greene said. “Our teachers face many challenges for in their own personal lives, and it doesn’t stop at the schoolhouse door.”
Bottom line, Greene said, with fewer teachers and staff, it has to be on parents and family members to stay involved with their children’s progress.
“This year, I want parents to be engaged. Our schools are open so they can come volunteer. When they have orientation, please show up. Work with your child’s teacher. Let’s get back to that team Duval,” Greene said. “We’re all in this together.”
New state laws
Teachers are in a particularly precarious position this year as recent state laws have placed restrictions on how certain subjects can be approached with students and empowered parents to sue the district if anything is deemed by them to be out of place.
It comes as many are concerned that more and more political skirmishes are infiltrating school board meetings, campuses and even classrooms.
News4JAX asked Duval County’s superintendent how the political environment has shaped how she does her job and how schools operate now compared to in the past.
“Oh, it absolutely is different than when I was a teacher in the classroom. It’s very challenging, and it’s very different,” Greene said. “And this is why I’m so amazed that our educators and those that have been in the classroom now 20, over 20 years, they’ve seen the different political landscapes come and go, but they remain committed to teaching students.”
Under a new law that limits how gender identity and sexual orientation are taught, some parents and educators worry that their children will be returning to a more dangerous — or less accepting — school district than last year. One group of stakeholders even filed a lawsuit against Duval County’s and three other Florida counties’ school boards over the new law’s constitutionality.
Greene said there’s nothing for Jacksonville-area parents to worry about.
“The law is simply about parent notification, and we will follow the law,” Greene said. “But we will also ensure that every single student that steps on our campus, that they know that they have people who care about them, that can support them and that we can support their families, as well.”
Greene stressed that the district is still a safe, welcoming place for all of its students — regardless of who they are — despite the state-mandated rollback of its LGBTQ resource guide.
“I want them to know that we are here that we are Team Duval, and that school is ready to start, and we’re ready for them to come back to school,” Greene said.
In addition to engagement, Greene asked for understanding from parents this year as DCPS works to educate nearly 130,000 students in the state’s sixth largest school district.