INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — The Indian River County NAACP held the area’s first inclusive school-board candidate debate last week. Democratic and Republican organizations gave stage time to birds of a feather, despite the nonpartisan office.
Held the day before the qualifying deadline, District 1 incumbent Shawn Frost withdrew his candidacy the next day, explaining his no-show at the debate. He is not the only one stepping down. Dale Simchick in District 2 and Charles Searcy in District 4 aren’t running either, ensuring new blood for three seats.
Not in attendance was Eugene Wolff, District 1, who had a prior obligation out of town.
Most of the moderators’ questions concerned the desegregation order in effect for 50 years. Filed by local black families in 1964, the order was imposed four years later. It was amended in 1994, naming the NAACP as plaintiff-representative of black students and parents among the changes. Both parties signed off on the amendments.
That goodwill has long since dissipated. Nearly two years ago the Indian River County School Board told the NAACP it wouldn’t communicate with them, it would see them in court. A year later the board filed for “partial unitary status” in Miami’s federal district court. It asked that three of 10 areas be removed from court oversight.
Staffing and teacher ratios are within 15 percent—give or take–of the 17-percent black student population, the brief argued, deeming 2 percent or one black teacher in some schools as fair treatment. Equal facilities for all students has also been achieved the school board claimed.
The NAACP disagreed on all points, stating no meaningful communication, no good faith effort has happened in 10 years minimum and no reports were filed as required by the order. Sanctions and stronger oversight should be imposed, they argued.
Last fall, Judge Kathleen Williams ordered the school board and NAACP into mediation, a first step required by the 1994 order. It is still ongoing, under a gag order.
Stacey Klim, District 4, said the 1994 order “was not that difficult to comply with, and the fact we didn’t shows a lack of understanding with the community and unwillingness to work with them.”
Taking the NAACP to court instead of negotiating illustrated her point, she said. “Rebuild and repair that relationship,” and then work together on compliance.
Randy Heimler, also District 4, also said the district should work with the NAACP, “Without spending all this money on a lawsuit and court costs.” If elected, “The superintendent would get a directive right away and so would the school board attorney.”
The third candidate for District 4, Teri Barenborg, gave a vague answer on her positon on the order, stating students “need role models that look like them,” and “you bring them up and give them hope by being a good role model.”
Merchon Green, candidate for District 2, said the district needs to form a department, “like Pinellas County,” which is also in mediation and under court scrutiny for backsliding after its desegregation order was lifted. Currently the district has only one employee assigned to the task, she said.
Also running for District 2, Jacqueline Rosario said it was “just insane” the board hadn’t complied with the court order. She disagreed staffing has reached equity, stating “our numbers are not where they need to be” in staffing or the achievement gap. Demonstrating a good understanding of district governance, she said the desegregation requirements should be “a priority in the five-year plan and each school improvement plan.”
Ruben Bermudez, also District 2, said he would “get help from the NAACP or anyone willing to help” to get the district in compliance.
Sidestepping the question and the desegregation order, Devon Dupuis, also District 2, said she would follow the recommendations of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. She suggested the district form a “career pathway” for black students in the district to become teachers.
Mara Schiff, District 1, said it was “unconscionable” the district had not complied for 50 years. The work going forward should be done “with members of the community.” Staff should be given training in “cultural competence,” and methods to address “racial disparity in education and discipline” should be “data driven solutions.”