PerspectivesMike Clark Jacksonville Today Contributor
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OPINION | Better late than never for Duval Schools + City budget bewilderment 

Published on July 5, 2023 at 12:38 pm

Editor’s note: Today’s column is a two-fer: Mike Clark reacts to what’s happening in school administration and also what doesn’t make sense to him about this time of year at City Hall. 

The Duval County school district is moving forward on two issues that have taken far too long to finish: Making phonics universal in early grades and finding a new administration building.

Those of us who grew up in the 1950s learned phonics while we learned to count. Phonics taught us the building blocks of the English language. Meanwhile, we read the Dick and Jane books that showed us simple words with pictures — later called “whole language” instruction. 

Since then, a battle ensued among the educational elite between the phonics fans and the whole language fans, resulting in some school systems’ veering from one extreme to another. If phonics is eliminated, students are forced to guess at words. That’s not education. Yet research has shown that a balanced approach works best — exactly what I was lucky to have in the 1950s.

Reacting to fads is one reason that parents become disillusioned with the public schools. 

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In Duval County, ICARE, the interfaith group, has campaigned for phonics instruction in public schools for over a decade. This issue should never have been controversial. Now Duval County Public Schools has announced that a new phonics-based curriculum will be systemwide in kindergarten through Grade 2. It was described in a news release as a “new curriculum” from the University of Florida Literacy Institute, and it was piloted successfully in 60 elementary schools in the 2022-2023 school year.

No single form of instruction is a panacea, and it’s difficult to single out one factor as being responsible for student success. But in the early grades, especially, phonics is an essential foundation for building the ability to read. It works.

For instance, Mississippi, which required phonics instruction a decade ago, has seen fourth-grade reading scores of its students leap from No. 49 in the nation to No. 29 in 2019, reported The New York Times

In Duval, all things old are new again.

New home for the school system?

Meanwhile, for many years, civic observers have proposed that the Duval County School Board move its administration building from the Southbank riverfront, thus converting that valuable property into a taxpaying source.

It seems odd to have a government building on the riverfront, but the school district offices moved there 40 years ago when it was next to a JEA power plant and across the river from a working shipyard. It wasn’t an elite location then.

Yet as the riverfront has transitioned from industry to offices and high-rise condos, School Board members stubbornly have refused to move. True, there was no debt on the building. And there has been the Great Recession and a pandemic. Nevertheless, the delay looked irresponsible.

Almost two years ago, on Sept. 7, 2021, the board finally passed a resolution to vacate its riverfront headquarters along with four other properties.

So the turtlelike effort to find an economical new home is nearing a conclusion. The School Board recently heard a presentation on possible new sites. As a school district news release stated, here are four goals for those sites that have been ignored for too long:

  1. Reduce the space needed for administrators.
  2. Consolidate up to five office locations.
  3. Expand the local tax base.
  4. Move from the St. Johns River.

The district received 10 proposals for new headquarters. The two leading proposals are in the current Blue Cross building on Riverside Avenue in Brooklyn and a new building at the JTA Regional Transit Center.

The board can accept a proposal or remain at its current site.

If the board stays, however, as its news release notes, there are major drawbacks: The building has offices built for the world of 40 years ago, and it needs major capital improvements. There is outdated technology, less parking than other options and limited growth possibilities. There ought to be a better way.

At City Hall: The local mistake continues

From the Southbank, where progress is being made at Duval Schools HQ, now let’s turn our gaze to the Northbank, where city government continues a mind boggling summer schedule that serves no one. 

“That’s the way it has always been done” is the mantra of a poor manager.

Yet, a ridiculous election schedule forces new mayors to present a budget for a complicated consolidation government soon after taking office.

That’s nuts. Governing is difficult enough in good times. That goes double for a rare form of government that combines both city and county roles — the consolidated government of Jacksonville and Duval County.

Yet city leaders have been unwilling to make a one-time change in local elections that would greatly improve transitions for new mayors.

Jacksonville, like many Florida cities, holds its local elections in the spring. But because Jacksonville’s fiscal year begins on Oct. 1, that means when a new mayor takes office on July 1, the administration must immediately present a budget to the City Council. Crazy.

The solution is remarkably simple. Move elections to the fall of off years so that local elections will continue to be held free of state and national influence. Let the new administration take office on Jan. 1. That will give the new administration a good six months before having to submit a new budget for the fiscal year. 

So what’s the problem? In a transition year, one group of local officials would receive a few more months in office — but just once. That shouldn’t be a big deal, but apparently it has been enough to prevent a logical change. 

As I learned in my 15 years as editorial page editor of The Florida Times-Union, precedents are incredibly powerful, even when they make no sense.

author image Jacksonville Today Contributor Mike Clark is the retired editorial page editor of The Florida Times-Union. He is currently writing a book and producing a podcast based on the letters that his great-great-grandfather, Edgar W. Clark, a Union private, sent to his wife during the Civil War.
author image Jacksonville Today Contributor Mike Clark is the retired editorial page editor of The Florida Times-Union. He is currently writing a book and producing a podcast based on the letters that his great-great-grandfather, Edgar W. Clark, a Union private, sent to his wife during the Civil War.

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