Christopher Bernier, Duval County's new schools superintendent, speaks during a forum May 13, 2024, at EverBank Stadium. The balloons form the school district's logo. | Megan Mallicoat, Jacksonville TodayChristopher Bernier, Duval County's new schools superintendent, speaks during a forum May 13, 2024, at EverBank Stadium. The balloons form the school district's logo. | Megan Mallicoat, Jacksonville Today
Christopher Bernier, Duval County's new schools superintendent, speaks during a forum May 13, 2024, at EverBank Stadium. The balloons form the school district's logo. | Megan Mallicoat, Jacksonville Today

Christopher Bernier chosen as Duval Schools superintendent

Published on May 23, 2024 at 1:12 pm

In a unanimous vote Thursday, the Duval County School Board elected to move forward with Christopher Bernier as its new superintendent.

The vote marked the end of a yearlong search. Bernier replaces Diana Greene, who announced her early retirement last May.

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Bernier stepped down as superintendent of Lee County Schools in Southwest Florida in April, two days after applying for the Duval job. Daniel Smith, chief of staff at Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia, was the other finalist.

Bernier was the board’s top pick because they see him as someone who is well-equipped to navigate Florida’s complex and sometimes politically charged education system. 

“I think he has been able in his previous jobs to navigate a very diverse community, whether it’s politically, socially or economically,” board member Warren Jones said. “I think he’s the right person to do it at this time.”

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Bernier has said his abrupt exit was a way for him to avoid campaigning to keep his job in Lee County, where voters decided in 2022 to begin electing superintendents in November rather than appointing them.

Thursday’s meeting began with a time for public comments. Nine people spoke for three minutes each, and all offered their support to Bernier. Most focused on culturally divisive issues that frequently make headlines in Florida, like the so-called “Let Kids Be Kids” bill package – which included legislation on preferred pronouns, bathroom use and transgender care – that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed last May with the support of education commissioner Manny Diaz. Bernier listed Diaz as a reference on his application. 

After the public comments, board members each talked about their decision-making process without saying which candidate had their support. 

Cindy Pearson, the first to speak, said her primary takeaway from reading more than 1,000 comments from community members about the two finalists  — comments that seemed to her to be split rather evenly in support of the candidates — was a sense of “disunity” in the community. As each board member took their turn to speak, most echoed Pearson’s lament over division in the district.

“I hope that regardless of which candidate is chosen — because I honestly think either man could do the job, and I would be happy to work with either person; I think we have come down to two qualified candidates – but regardless of which candidate is selected, I would really urge the community to give this person space to work and and be for them,” Pearson said.

After each board member spoke about their priorities and process, they went around the dais again — this time starting with Vice Chair Charlotte Joyce. 

Joyce said Bernier’s experience with large districts in Florida gave her confidence he was the better choice. Several board members said they had contacted their counterparts and community members in Lee and Loudoun counties. Board member Lori Hershey said she learned both finalists were beloved and respected. 

April Carney said her conversations left her concerned that Loudoun County  — and Smith by extension  — was not sufficiently responsive to what she called “parental rights.”

“It seems to me that they’re kind of where we were a couple of years ago in regards to parental rights, and in regards to student safety – particularly in our restrooms,” Carney said, referring to a district policy allowing students to use bathrooms that align with their gender identity. “I have a lot of concerns about a board and people in leadership in Loudoun County that are ignoring recommendations from their governor when it comes to safety in bathrooms for female students.” 

Carney and Jones both spoke about a letter they received from the Lee County NAACP endorsing Bernier. 

Bernier had emailed the School Board the endorsement letter, written by Lee County NAACP president James Muwakkil, who told Jacksonville Today Bernier has his wholehearted support. 

“Originally, we did not support him as the superintendent,” Muwakkil said by phone. “But we now understand that that was a great big mistake.”

Muwakkil said Bernier diversified Lee Schools’ upper management, worked to implement programs and policies that helped minority students, and oversaw the building of a new school in the heart of Lee’s Black community. 

Kelly Coker, who has about 30 years of experience working in Duval County schools as a teacher and an administrator, was the first board member to suggest Smith might be the better selection.

“I’m the data nerd. Everybody knows that,” Coker said, explaining that she had taken a deep-dive into Lee County’s student success metrics and compared them with Duval’s. “What I found was they did outpace us a touch. That’s there. I see it. But is this board wanting someone who can somewhat outpace? It wasn’t a massive difference.” 

She described Smith as a “visionary” and said he was an incredibly bright, collaborative leader. Ultimately, though, she gave her support to Bernier because of his experience in Florida. The conversation soon came back around to Chairman Darryl Willie.

“I’ll give my thoughts,” he said. “But I can also read the room. And count.” 

Willie said he preferred Smith but would give his support to Bernier in a show of unity for the community. 

And so, when the board then voted, it was 7-0 in favor of offering the job to Bernier.

“I think it’s going to be difficult for him to bring the community together right off the bat,” board member Jones said after the meeting. “It’s going to take some time; it’s going to take a lot of work. I think he’s the right person to do it.” 

Bernier’s exact start date is not yet set, but the Board plans for it to be on or around July 1.

Duval Schools attorney Ray Poole said he will get feedback individually from board members regarding the specific offer the Board will make to Bernier. He said board members are using superintendent contracts from other Florida districts as a guide.

Coker said the boilerplate contracts they’ve used in the past will not work this time.

“We cannot afford that type of contract anymore. The type of severance pay we’ve paid in the past – we cannot afford,” Coker said. “I also want to make sure that I go on record as stating that it needs to be performance-based and tied to our strategic plan goals.”

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Jacksonville Today’s Will Brown contributed to this report. 


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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