JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Copies of text messages exchanged by Duval County School Board members and staff obtained Thursday by First Coast News show a rift between the board and Superintendent Dr. Nikolai Vitti, who says he's dealing with a "hostile" work environment.
The text messages, including one from board member Dr. Constance Hall calling for Dr. Vitti's termination, were sent in September and October when relations between Vitti and the board reached a nadir as the superintendent sought to reform some of the district's lowest performing schools.
"There's been a bit of a hostile work environment that has been present since the day I became superintendent," the superintendent told First Coast News. "I think when you look at what the district wanted, they wanted a transformational leader and I brought that transformation."
Dr. Vitti was hired in 2012 to bring about change. But the superintendent said the changes he's making have been met with resistance -- despite the fact that the board voted unanimously to extend his contract last March.
Text messages between Dr. Hall and the school board's internal auditor, Michelle Begley, show Hall's displeasure with Vitti. On Sept. 25, Hall told Begley, "I vote, fire him now!!!!!!!!!!!!!" In a separate text the same day, Hall ridicules the superintendent, calling him "...Special Ed in action."
Vitti said he's not surprised by the vitriol he's enduring, adding that he's been dealing with it for the past three years. But he took issue with the "Special Ed" remark, particularly because he's been an open book about his struggles with a learning disability.
"It's insulting, offensive and disheartening considering that I've been very open with my own dyslexia and we have a public official who represents many students who have disabilities," the superintendent said.
Dr. Vitti said he's committed to Jacksonville, but he's asking those who support his work to speak up. "The board as a whole needs to step up, other board members, and ask some questions about the culture, the environment and how that can be improved," he said.
The superintendent's contract does not expire until 2019. Vitti said he's looking at possibly taking legal action, but did not elaborate.
Dr. Hall could not be reached for comment.
The school district provided this statement from the superintendent after releasing copies of the text messages:
“Unfortunately, the information that was included as part of the PRR is not necessarily surprising as it speaks to the hostile work environment that has been created by certain board members since I interviewed for the superintendent position and assumed the role. When the district was searching for a new superintendent it specifically called for a transformational leader and one that would challenge the status quo. The reality is that the majority of school board members embraced the superintendent as an agent of change; however, some did not. The change that I have implemented and have proposed to implement has been deeply resented and contested by some board members. This is sometimes done through constructive means and at other times through means that are unprofessional. The PRR reveals this to be the case through the following:
Select board members have misused the board auditor for muckraking purposes instead of high level financial reviews
Select board members engage former administrators to find fault with the current administration
Specifically, the “Special ed in action” comment is beyond unprofessional. My struggles with dyslexia and my journey to success has been used to motivate students with disabilities. The comment is unbecoming of a former educator and public official who represents thousands of students with disabilities. The comment was insulting. Legal action is likely.
Overall, I have attempted and will continue to offer and participate in board development sessions and one on one meetings to build greater understanding, improve communication, and trust. However, I was not welcomed and resented from the beginning of my tenure by some board members. From the beginning, proper lines of governance have been a great challenge for certain board members. It was clear from the beginning of the interview process that Ms. Wright and Dr. Hall were not interested in my hiring (one did not vote for me and other stated that she preferred the other finalist, respectively). Both have not fully embraced the reform that has been deeply needed in their districts and both have resented the reform agenda and at times, the successes and additional resources that have been realized and gained. References to lower school grades will be made regarding lower performance since I assumed the superintendency; however, those references are made without acknowledging two waves of significant statewide changes to standards and assessments that have caused an increase in F and D schools throughout the state, namely with Title I schools, and the fact that several of those schools have been low performing for over a decade.
Top ranking NAEP scores and graduation rates for African-American students have been overlooked.
For some board members, voting for my original contract or the extension was done so begrudgingly based on the support of the community. This is also the case for several highly contested board agenda items that were ultimately approved on 7-0 board votes.
Ultimately, the ongoing tension between myself and certain board members reached its apex when I announced the recommended boundary changes. This, in many ways, was the height of the reform and therefore brought about the height of resistance, namely represented by the letter of reprimand and OCR complaint.At no time did any of the three board members engage me personally or professionally about the content of the PRR after knowing its content for some time.”