Incoming Superintendent Chris Bernier appears at a community meeting at Stanton Prep on June 12. | Will Brown, Jacksonville Today

Duval School Board chair: ‘We’ve done our due diligence’ on Bernier amid accusations

Published on June 12, 2024 at 12:16 am

The Duval County School Board will hold a special meeting Wednesday morning to approve the contract for incoming Superintendent Christopher Bernier. 

Bernier will earn a base salary of $320,000 — less than the $350,000 he requested and more than the $300,000 that previous Superintendent Diana Greene made. The vote will mark the culmination of a search that lasted more than a year following Greene’s sudden early retirement amid multiple district scandals

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The incoming superintendent arrives with a bit of his own baggage: He’s the subject of an investigation following an April whistleblower complaint that accused him of “bullying” of a subordinate — with similar behavior mentioned by multiple former colleagues in interviews with Jacksonville Today

Still, Duval County School Board Chair Darryl Willie tells Jacksonville Today, the board is satisfied in its own investigation of the claims against Bernier after talking to his references. They remain confident in their unanimous selection of Bernier, whose experience in Florida’s K-12 education system, they believe, will make him an effective leader from day one. 

‘Hated to see him go’ 

Bernier comes to Jacksonville after less than two years as superintendent of Lee County Schools in Southwest Florida, where Shirley Chapman is first vice president and education chair of the local chapter of the NAACP. She remembers, when she met Bernier at his swearing-in ceremony in 2022, she shared her observation about the absence of minorities at the event. He told her he would work on that, Chapman recalls.

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And he did.

Chapman says she was happy to see Bernier hire Jennifer Cupid-McCoy, who is Black, to fill the newly created role of deputy superintendent. (Bernier and Cupid-McCoy both began their careers as teachers in Orlando’s Orange County Public Schools and reunited in Las Vegas’ Clark County school district, too, where they served as successive chiefs of staff to Superintendent Jesus Jara, another Orange County alum.)  

Bernier also hired Michael Ramirez, who is Hispanic, as his chief of staff. 

For his support of diversity, Chapman is grateful.

And although Bernier is named in two federal civil rights lawsuits related to the district’s handling of racial tensions among a Fort Myers high school baseball team, the Lee County NAACP chapter President James Muwakkil recommended him for the Duval job in a letter and in an interview with Jacksonville Today.

Chapman says, ”I actually really hated to see him go, to be honest.”

And Lee County School Board member Chris Patricca, one of Bernier’s listed references, tells Jacksonville Today he has her highest recommendation.

“I think Dr. Bernier would be an amazing addition to Duval County,” Patricca said last month. “He really transformed Lee County to the extent that he could in the short period of time that he was here.”

A ‘violent temper’ 

The whistleblower complaint filed on April 4, though, describes a superintendent with a “violent temper” who used his position of power to threaten and intimidate the employee who filed it. And a handful of current and former Lee County district employees describe Bernier similarly in interviews.

Doug Santini spent 57 years as a Lee Schools employee — at various points a teacher, principal, school board member and district administrator — before retiring. Bernier was at times “hostile,” he said.

“He loses his temper to people quite a bit,” Santini said. 

A current employee who asked to not be identified described Bernier as “harsh.” 

“Most people were happy when he left,” the employee said. “A lot of people said, ‘There’s just a different atmosphere now that he’s gone.’”

A former district employee, who asked not to be identified, told Jacksonville Today she once went to Bernier for help with a female supervisor she felt was retaliating against her. He characterized the issue as “a woman problem” and declined to involve himself further, she says. 

And an email to the Lee County School Board from an anonymous sender, which is making the rounds on social media, alleges Bernier spoke disparagingly about two female subordinates.

It claims he called Denise Carlin, who at the time was a member of Bernier’s cabinet, a “b****.” Carlin resigned shortly after the alleged incident and is now the leading candidate for Lee County superintendent. She did not return voicemails or text messages by this story’s deadline.

“I was really shocked to hear it,” Chapman, of the NAACP, said, noting that she heard the same story from someone who talked to Carlin directly. “I began to doubt my feelings about him.”

The email also says Bernier was speaking to a district administrator and referred to Cupid-McCoy “as his b**** and made references to her as ‘an obedient dog.’” The named administrator did not return emails, voicemails or text messages by this story’s deadline. Duval School Board Chair Darryl Willie says the board did contact the person, who told them the alleged conversation about Cupid-McCoy is not accurate.

Jacksonville Today requested a copy of the anonymous email from the Lee County School District, but the district declined to produce it, citing Florida Statute 112.3188, a law intended to protect whistleblowers. 

Lee County community activist Jacqueline Perez said she sent the Duval County School Board a copy of the anonymous email in late April, which Chair Willie acknowledges they received before selecting Bernier. Santini says he also sent the board an email in late April, warning of Bernier’s “foul temper.” 

“Dr. Bernier was very abusive with his executive staff and other employees in the district,” Santini’s email said.

Willie says he does not recall receiving an email from Santini, but following the email from Perez, the board spoke to Bernier’s references, including Lee County School Board members and staff. They’d also hired a law firm to conduct a background check. 

“I feel like we’ve done our due diligence to see the overall idea and character of who he is as a candidate,” Willie said on Tuesday. 

Bernier has not returned Jacksonville Today’s voicemails or texts over the past month. 

The contract

On Wednesday, Duval County’s school board will vote to approve its largest superintendent contract ever. 

Willie says the contract does not include annual raises, as such contracts often do, so Bernier’s pay rate will remain the same for the four-year agreement. The contract also does not include many of the extras Bernier requested — like a $1,000-per-month car allowance, fully subsidized health insurance for Bernier and his family, and $50,000 to hire a mentor. It does include a contribution to a retirement account. Bernier already receives $7,000 per month in pension benefits from the Florida Retirement System.

“The back-and-forth landed us there,” Willie said. “It definitely took into consideration our financial constraints.”

The board expects Bernier to start in Duval on July 1.

“The ultimate goal is to get someone in to be able to tackle student achievement and be able to take us to that next level,” Willie says.

This story was updated June 12 to include the mention of the civil rights lawsuits and Lee County NAACP president’s endorsement. Bernier addressed the allegations after he was hired on June 12.

author image Reporter email 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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