Education commissioner’s role called ‘window dressing’ by Lumb
Annmarie Kent-Willette started her first day as education commissioner helping a group apply for a grant to assist 4-year-olds make the transition from pre-K to kindergarten.
"One of my roles is to support," Kent-Willette said in an interview last week.
The other, she said, is to respond to education-related situations and crises, much like her predecessor did when funding levels threatened Junior ROTC programs at four schools and several sports programs at the middle- and high-school level.
The commissioner's job was created by Mayor Alvin Brown in 2011 as a way to partner and advocate on education issues. Both Kent-Willette and Donald Horner were on-loan from Jacksonville University.
Yet, as was evident in City Council committees this week, not everyone is in agreement with the role or need for the position.
"This position just doesn't make a lot of sense to me," council member Robin Lumb told members of the Finance Committee during review of a bill for a $75,000 Florida Blue donation to cover the cost of the office.
The bill didn't get enough votes to pass out of committee, but later passed through another.
Lumb said Wednesday that when the education commissioner was first presented, he thought the person would have a "seat at the table" concerning educational policy decisions.
"This job is window dressing," Lumb said. "It provides a cheerleader for the public school system and ancillary programs. … I don't want voters to think the education commissioner will be able to move the needle."
David DeCamp, Brown's spokesman, said the education office has shown "significant successes" for education and children in its first two years, including mentorship of more than 600 students and a college-immersion program for dozens more.
"Mayors beyond Jacksonville have education commissioners or similar posts," DeCamp said. "It adds another layer of support for education in the community."
DeCamp said the education system is always part of economic development discussions, which is why the role is important to the mayor's office.
In addition to mentorship and the college program, DeCamp said the office coordinated with The Cathedral Arts Project to bring Jacksonville the "Any Given Child" program, an initiative created by The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts to create long-range arts education plan for K-8 students.
"If those aren't demonstrable results, I don't know what would be," he said.
Lumb said public education belongs in the hands of Duval County School Board members and that while there is a good relationship between the board and council, "they don't need us looking over their shoulders … and we don't want them looking over ours."
During the budget process in 2011, the Finance Committee denied the creation of the office, citing they would not approve city reorganization during the budget review.
At the time, council member Clay Yarborough said he thought the office wasn't needed because it wasn't a core function of government and education enhancement and oversight were handled by other organizations.
"I do still believe it's a function better suited elsewhere," Yarborough said Wednesday.
He said he applauded Brown's commitment to education, but that an elected school board who handles education essentially hires the education chief for the city, the superintendent.
He said he had the understanding that the person would be someone who advised the mayor and kept up on education issues. But, Yarborough added, he believes that if Brown himself wanted to work with the school board or superintendent, they would welcome him.
But, ultimately policy decisions lie with the school board, Yarborough said.
Kent-Willette said the complementary role will continue, as will the progression of initiatives like Mayor's Mentors.
"Mayor's Mentors absolutely will continue," she said. "It's a quality program that has engendered a lot of support from the community."
The program has about 600 mentors who are set up to work one on one with a student in the classroom during the school day. She said one goal would be to keep those people active with their mentee.
Another is the hope that companies form a partnership with the program by encouraging larger amounts of employees for their uses.
As for Learn2Earn, she said more private investment is needed to serve more children in the summer program to expose low-income students to college. Funding for this year was enough for about 75 students, down from 200 that were helped last year.
She said one component she won't be at the forefront of is fundraising, where the mayor will take the lead.
She will serve as more of a liaison by identifying and connecting potential donors to others within the office.