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Jefferson is freed from state financial oversight. District cheers the move as it regains local control of its school

 Jefferson's consolidated K-8 and high school
Patrick Sternad
WFSU Public Media
Jefferson's consolidated K-8 and high school

The Jefferson County School District will no longer have its finances overseen by the state. Jefferson was placed under state financial control for the second time in 2016, a decision that came after years of the district running in the red.

At one point, the school district's payroll checks bounced. Today, Jefferson has $1.2 million in the bank. It agrees to notify the Florida Department of Education if that amount drops below $500,000 before the end of the 2023 school year. The district must also meet certain reporting requirements.

“I am so excited, I can’t even put it into words. I am so thrilled," said Jefferson Superintendent Eydie Triquet.

The announcement came at a State Board of Education meeting Wednesday.

The Florida Department of Education also rejected three bids for an external consultant to help Jefferson transition from charter school operator Somerset Academy’s control. That means the district will be on its own sooner than expected.

It’s the latest twist in Jefferson's ongoing efforts to regain local control following five years of being run by an outside charter operator. The school board was notified last month that it would get its schools back after a botched DOE bidprocess for a consultant resulted in the resignations of a high-level DOE official and a state board of education member, who tried to secure the contract for themselves.

“I don’t believe these children are being served and I don’t believe these children are in a posture of being served even on the eve of looking into the next school year," Rep. Allison Tant said Monday, ahead of the state's decision to give Jefferson back control of its finances.

The journey back to independence has been a long one for Jefferson.

DOE wrote the transition bid for a political friend of state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran. DOE's Inspector General Mike Blackburn did an investigation which only focused on the DOE officials, but not the issue of MGT—the company that was initially slated to receive the Jefferson Contract and whose President, Trey Traviesa, is a former lawmaker and friend of Corcoran.

"I'm not sure exactly how this is going to look. I'm meeting tomorrow afternoon, but I do know that on Nov. 29th, MGT will be taking over," Tricquet told the Jefferson County School Board on Nov. 8th, prior to the bid being opened.

Late last month, Rep. Tant asked for an independent probe of the situation. Tant said she was concerned because the state planned to use state and local portions of the school district’s federal coronavirus funding to pay MGT. It’s unclear whether the state was allowed to use the local portion of those federal dollars that way. The governor’s office handed the request to the state inspector general.

Tant's email to Blackburn last month also noted said she spoke to him as requested by Dawn Case, the governor's deputy inspector general. Tant suggested interviewing Tricquet and incoming Principal Jackie Pons as well as others in the meeting with MGT. Both Triquet and Pons recently got letters from DOE asking whether they have knowledge of any past or present DOE employee misconduct.

“This seems to me to be they’re throwing it back into my lap to say ‘Oh, so what are you complaining about’ as opposed to asking questions to get more clarity on the situation,” Triquet said about the request.

Despite the email to Jefferson, a DOE spokesman says there is not a new probe nor has it reopened the original case.

Despite Wednesday's announcement on local financial control, challenges remain for the rural district of about 750 students.

Its budget is about $9 million, which is nearly $6 million less than Somerset, the charter operator, was getting to run the schools. The Senate’s budget proposal includes an extra $5 million for Jefferson to help make up the shortfall.

"We are not going to leave them abandoned," said Sen. Doug Broxson during a recent committee hearing outlining the chamber's education budget proposal.

"This message will go to the superintendent and the good people of Jefferson County to know that at least the Senate is going to be there for them to help them get through this transition.”

The district is also hoping a bill revamping school testing gets approved – that would give it an additional year to boost its grades. DOE gave the district just one year to improve.

Tant said she's grateful for the decision and encouraged local residents to help support the district moving forward.

"That means all of us," she said. "Community partners, community members, family members, you have children going there, businesses in the area, community leaders in the area, everybody's going to have to lean in."

Copyright 2022 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Sarah Mueller is the first recipient of the WFSU Media Capitol Reporting Fellowship. She’ll be covering the 2017 Florida legislative session and recently earned her master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting at the University of Illinois Springfield. Sarah was part of the Illinois Statehouse press corps as an intern for NPR Illinois in 2016. When not working, she enjoys playing her yellow lab, watching documentaries and reading memoirs.