We have a crisis in Volusia County Schools.
I’m normally not an alarmist, preferring to examine an issue from all sides, talk to those “in the know” and form an objective opinion based upon the best information available.
I like to think most people do the same; however, we often come to different conclusions on the issues of the day – and that diversity of competing ideas makes for healthy debate and positive change.
However, we can all agree that the growing scandal at Mainland High School poses startling questions about the quality of our children’s education and the organizational health of a taxing authority commanding a $900 million budget.
Last week, Volusia County students, parents and taxpayers learned of the retirement of former Mainland principal Dr. Cheryl Salerno – a veteran educator who, according to a district investigation, participated in an egregious academic fraud involving a bogus Advanced Placement ‘placebo’ exam and pencil-whipping superior passing grades for senior student-athletes – among other ethical and procedural violations of the public’s trust.
Given the fact Dr. Salerno is not the first strategic retirement by a senior administrator identified in the district’s inquiry, many are concerned that what occurred at Mainland may not have been an anomaly.
And how is it possible that those at the highest levels of the organization didn’t know about it?
For instance, in an excellent report by News-Journal education reporter Cassidy Alexander, we learned that the son of an area superintendent – the senior administrator charged with overseeing Mainland High School – served in a sensitive role at the beleaguered school without proper certification:
“Aubrey Brant was listed in the school’s information system as a substitute teacher, but taught one class and served as a school counselor the rest of the time. Brant is not listed on the Florida Department of Education’s website as a certified teacher or counselor. The investigative report states he is currently working to complete a counseling degree.”
“Additionally, Brant is Area Superintendent Susan Freeman’s son, the report noted. Freeman is the supervisor for schools in the Daytona area, including Mainland.”
Add to that sustained allegations that unqualified teachers were permitted to teach courses outside their area of certification – apparently without any notification to parents – and you come to the unmistakable conclusion that Mainland students are victims of widespread academic dishonesty.
But what is happening in other schools throughout the district?
For months, the district has been under investigation by the United Stated Department of Justice for its abominable treatment of children with autism and emotional-behavioral disabilities – to include the clear abuse of Florida’s Baker Act to involuntarily commit student’s for psychological evaluation.
That means autistic children, already in the throes of a crisis, are routinely subjected to the trauma and embarrassment of being restrained and transported to Halifax Hospital in the secure cage of a police vehicle.
Last year, hospital staff determined that some 34 unfortunate children who were committed under the Baker Act didn’t meet the basic criteria for admission.
Many believe the Department of Justice investigation will result in an incredibly expensive – but clearly necessary – federal consent decree designed to protect our district’s most vulnerable. I hope so.
Like many, for years I was a disinterested bystander – a typical uninvolved taxpayer who ponied up the money on demand without any real understanding of the who, what or why of the district’s enormous internal structure or organizational culture.
Then, last year, Sheriff Michael Chitwood sent a heartfelt call-to-service to recently retired law enforcement officers seeking participation in the newly formed Guardian program in response to the atrocity at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas.
Admittedly, I didn’t need – or particularly want – the job.
At the time, I was gainfully retired and working a hobby job in the international flight training industry. Frankly, I didn’t want to take a salary reduction to stand around an elementary school – but I felt a need to serve if my professional skills could assist in keeping students, teachers and staff safe.
So, after Sheriff Chitwood forwarded my resume to district officials and a series of telephone calls with county staff, I completed an online application and awaited an interview.
Then – crickets.
I wasn’t so much rejected as ignored.
After repeat inquires, I was told the discrepancy was my fault. According to district officials, I failed to press the proper button to submit the application (despite the fact I received an automated response notifying me that the application had been accepted. . .)
Look, I get it. The hypercritical nature of this blog hasn’t exactly endeared me to many local taxing districts – so, I’m not sure I would have hired me either. But the way it was done seemed ham-handed to me.
So, being an inquisitive asshole, my weird experience prompted a series of public records requests which ultimately provided a shocking glimpse into the administrative black hole of our massive educational complex in DeLand.
I don’t want to say “I told you so” – that would be crass, boorish and self-serving.
But I told you so. . .
In a Barker’s View piece published in July 2018, entitled, “Fake it till you make it,” I wrote:
“The more I scratch the surface at Volusia County Schools, it becomes increasingly apparent that Superintendent Tom Russell, his senior administrators and our elected officials have lost touch with their core mission – and at least some have no qualms whatsoever about quibbling the facts when their motives are questioned.”
Unfortunately – tragically – things were worse than anyone could possibly have imagined – and I learned that this is isn’t the first-time unqualified individuals were placed in positions of high responsibility – or held themselves out to be something they were not. . .
Perhaps most appalling, even after these serious issues were exposed, nothing substantively changed.
In my view, this horrific academic deception and gross maladministration may well be more pervasive than we know. Rarely are these issues confined to one administrator or institution – and many “in the know” tell me we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg. . .
I hope you will join me in encouraging the Florida Department of Education to launch an immediate investigation into the open violation of state statutes by senior administrators, academic fraud, non-existent classes leading to padded grades for student-athletes, the use of non-certified counselors and unqualified teachers, etc., etc., that has led to this systemic dysfunction and corruption of a publicly-funded educational system.
In my view, this is a crisis of epic proportions – with long-term ramifications for students and teachers associated with Volusia County Schools.
When the facts are known, I hope our system of justice will hold those who maliciously manipulated the system and perpetrated these massive deceptions – or looked the other way – accountable for their betrayal.