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Superintendent hopefuls answer questions from School Board, parents 

Published on May 13, 2024 at 11:43 pm

The yearlong search for a new superintendent for Duval County schools is nearly complete. 

On Monday, the two finalists, Christopher Bernier and Daniel Smith, spent the evening at EverBank stadium, each on opposite sides of the same room, as district staff, parents and students formed long lines to talk to and take selfies with them. 

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The public meet-and-greet capped off a day in which each had spent 90 minutes talking with the School Board and 90 minutes with a focus group of community stakeholders. 

During afternoon interviews, each School Board member asked the same question of both candidates. Board member Kelly Coker, for example, asked them to reflect on a difficult personnel issue they had faced.

Superintendent candidate Christopher Bernier (right) talks to attendees of the EverBank Stadium meet-and-greet on May 13, 2024. | Megan Mallicoat, Jacksonville Today

Bernier, the former superintendent of Lee County schools in Southwest Florida, referenced two situations, including a racially charged incident involving the baseball team at Fort Myers High School that led to the resignation, firing or reassignment of coaches and school administrators. Bernier called the situation “one of the most complicated” issues he’s dealt with and said his role was to help the school’s principal decide what to do. 

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“It was a very difficult decision and some of the ramifications are still being played out,” Bernier said. (Two discrimination lawsuits and a state investigation are still pending.) 

He also described a situation where an employee was found to be inappropriately engaged with a fifth-grade student. Bernier said he helped remove the teacher from the classroom and eventually “brokered a resignation.” 

Bernier spent almost two years as superintendent in Lee but resigned April 8, effective the next day. When asked why he resigned, he said he didn’t want to have to run for the job, after that district changed from appointing to electing its superintendent. 

“I want this job to be my last job,” Bernier said. “When I went to Lee County, it was going to be my last job. The voters in Lee County chose to have an elected superintendent. I believe in a governance model of an appointed superintendent.”

His resume also includes three years as chief of staff at the school system surrounding Las Vegas, Nev., and more than 30 years in the Orange County (Fla.) school district.

Among his professional references, Bernier lists Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz, who last week wrote a letter to Duval’s interim superintendent expressing concern over the two-month delay in removing a teacher from the classroom following his February arrest for indecent exposure. Diaz asked for a reply, “outlining what steps” the district will take to address teacher misconduct more broadly, by Tuesday, May 14. 

Superintendent candidate Daniel Smith speaks at the EverBank Stadium meet-and-greet on May 13, 2024. | Megan Mallicoat, Jacksonville Today

Smith, whose daughter is a rising eighth grader and traveled with him to Jacksonville, said he hopes to himself be a Duval Schools parent.

Board member April Carney acknowledged the district is facing challenging issues like budget shortfalls, dropping enrollment and teacher misconduct, and then asked the candidates how they would lead change in the district. 

Smith said that he would take time to get to know the people involved. 

“My leadership strategy is very collaborative,” he said. 

Smith, the chief of staff at Loudoun County (Va.) schools, spent about nine months as that district’s interim superintendent after the previous superintendent was fired following an investigation of how the district handled the sexual assault of two students by another student.

“I really want to seek to understand,” Smith said. “We’ve got to set clear expectations and we’ve got to hold folks accountable.”

Smith said he sees an opportunity for Duval Schools to be recognized nationally. He said he is a member of several national organizations, and he would work to represent the district by networking with other school leaders. 

Both candidates continue the interview process Tuesday with one-on-one meetings with school board members.

At the meet-and-greet, Board Chair Darryl Willie said he was pleased with the interview process so far. “As a board we’ve been able to dive into some really critical questions. More importantly, the community is getting to see them, say hello. I think we’ll get everything that we need.”

Tiffany Clark, a Duval Schools parent, said, “I’m hoping to find somebody that knows how to build relationships, that can navigate through this ecosystem we call Duval County. This is a big city, and I really want to see how they operate under pressure.”


author image Reporter Megan Mallicoat is a Jacksonville Today reporter focusing on education. Her professional experience includes teaching at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, as well as editing, communications management, web design, and graphic design. She has a doctorate in mass communication with an emphasis in social psychology from UF. In her "free time," you'll most likely find her on the sidelines of some kind of kids’ sports practice, holding a book.
author image Reporter Megan Mallicoat is a Jacksonville Today reporter focusing on education. Her professional experience includes teaching at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, as well as editing, communications management, web design, and graphic design. She has a doctorate in mass communication with an emphasis in social psychology from UF. In her "free time," you'll most likely find her on the sidelines of some kind of kids’ sports practice, holding a book.

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