Collier County School Board Chairwoman Jen Mitchell is being challenged in her reelection bid by former board member Kelly Lichter and newcomer Jana Greer for the District 3 seat.
The district covers a central region of Collierto the north at the boundary of Lee County, Wilson Boulevard to the east, Interstate 75 to the west and to the south near Radio Road.
School board members are elected by countywide votes for four-year terms to oversee a school district with 48,000 students in public schools, including charter schools. Board membersmust live in their districts.
The nonpartisanAug. 23 primary could be the final election if a candidate gets more than 50% of the vote. If no, the two top vote-getters will move on to the general election Nov. 8.
By the way:What you need to know for primary voting in Collier County
Collier County School Board District 1: Three candidates vying for seat
Mitchell, 49, a Realtor who has served on the school board since 2018, said the top three issues are selecting a new superintendent following Kamela Patton’s announcement she is stepping down next year, increasing student achievement, and attracting and retaining teachers.
She favors having an executive search firm for Patton’s replacement on board before the election but says selecting a new superintendent should be up to the new board after the election.
“I think it will be important to engage the community in the process as well,” she said.
Improving student achievement is a more difficult task because students come from vastly different backgrounds.Some have attended preschool while others have not.
“We are an A-rated district,” she said, adding that 62% of the students are proficient in their math and reading skills in fourth and six grades. But that still means 38% are not at the skills level where they should be.
“We know the bar is set high,” she said.
In terms of attracting great teachers, Mitchell said they first have to be able to live in Collier. The school district has identified a potential site for some workforce housing. Being second in the state for highest paid salaries for new teachers is a help but not enough to address the housing crisis, Mitchell said.
New initiatives that create more work for teachers and take time away from their planning time needs to be limited to foster recruitment, she said.
Greer, 39, a consultant in theflexible workspace industry,said her top priorities are the budget, teacher retention and academic achievement.
"(Spending) is at an all-time high and needs to be cut in areas that don't pertain to the classroom and academic achievement," she said. She is calling for an efficiency audit a and a zero-based budget approach.
When it comes to teachers leaving the profession, the district needs to dissect why that is happening, she said. Part of the issue is culture and another is pay.
"I hear from so many that they are just weighed down and don't get to actually teach," she said. "The discipline policy needs to be shored up so that kids learn to respect the classroom and their peers more, which helps empower the teacher to be able to teach."
Her priority of academic achievement is tied to having good teachers and the curriculum.
"We need to do better for our students and not continue to do the same things or types of things when they aren't producing a better result," Greer said. "While we have an increased graduation rate, the percentage of students that come out not on grade level should be addressed."
More:Elections 2022: Collier County School Board candidate forum
Related:Collier schools Superintendent to leave district after 2022-23 school year
Lichter says board went after her
Lichter, 43, founding board president of the public charter school, Mason Classical Academy in 2014, served on the school board from 2014 to 2018. She decided it is time to run again after opting not to four years ago.
She also says her “skin is pretty thick” now to stand up to vitriol she faced when she was previously on the board, where she said she fought against a power grab by Patton that the other school board members allowed.
“I speak the truth so they marginalized me,” she said,
While on the board, Lichter battled with the district over operations of Mason academy. More recently she is a party in several lawsuits involving the charter school that are still pending.
Hillsdale College in Michigan, which provided guidance to Mason academy, severed ties to the charter school in 2019 after a probe by the school board’s general counselJon Fishbane allegedfinancial mismanagement and Sunshine Law violations at Mason academy. The report recommended Lichter and others at Mason resign.
Lichter said the Fishbane investigation aimed to force new leadership at Mason. She said Fishbane never interviewed her duringhis year-long investigation so she was unable to defend Mason.
In response, Mason hired Naples-based attorney Michael Coleman and his law firm, which conducted its own investigation that challenged the allegations raised by Fishbane.
The 50-page Coleman report in 2019 exonerated the charter school, Lichter said. The school district at the time disagreed with Lichter's assessment of the report.
The Coleman investigation reviewed all of the evidence, including external audit reports, and the firm “has found no issue with MCA’s financial oversight or management,” according to the report.
Lichter says Mitchell and Roy Terry, who is seeking to be reelected to the school board, conspired to get her removed from Mason, which Lichter said isthe top-performing school in the district.
Ultimately the school district and the charter school went to mediation.
Hillsdale sued Lichter in 2020 for hostile interference with the college’s business relationships with other charter schools, according to the lawsuit filed in November 2020.
Moreover, Lichter and Greer are bothdefendants in a lawsuit filed by a former Mason board member, Matthew Mathias, for slander and libel, according to the complaint in October 2021 that is pending.
Lichter is a party in a lawsuit that Mason academy filed against the school board in 2020 after the district issued a probationary warning to Mason. The charter school says the probationary warning is no longer allowed under state law, according to the complaint.
Lichter’s top issues
As a candidate for the school board, Lichter says her top three issues are academic achievement, the district’s “obscenely bloated” budget, and addressing political agendas by the current leadership.
Too much of taxpayers’ dollars are being wasted, Lichter said.
For the amount of money and resources that Collier has, academic achievement is too low, she said.
For instance, pass rates for ninth-grade English scores in Collier last year were55% and math at 65%, but the graduation rate is 92.7%.
“That doesn’t add up,” she said. “They push them through (graduation).”
Mitchell denies anything of the sort.
“I’d like to see proof of that,” she said.
When Lichter argues Mason is a top-rated school, it’s the same data that says Collier is an A-rated school district, Mitchell said.
“We are all accountable to the Florida Board of Education,” Mitchell said.
Lichter said the superintendent and the current school board care more about how they look than setting goals, she said.
She wants to see different qualifications used in the next superintendent search and hiring.
“I want someone with honesty and integrity and someone who has actually had children,” she said. “(Patton) doesn’t see our experiences and the direct consequences (of policies), and that is important to me.”
What about critical race theory?
On the issue of critical race theory, which sets forth that racism is embedded in U.S. laws and social institutions, the candidates support Gov. Ron DeSantis for banning it in Florida schools. They disagree on what was taking place in Collier schools before the ban.
“It is not present in our schools,” Mitchell said. “I have had four children attend (Collier) schools from K-12 and have not seen any evidence of it, nor have I found it to be present in my role as a school board member.”
Lichter said it wasn’t directly being taught to students or in books but it infiltrated in learning in other ways, such as in surveys that students filled out. And she said she doesn’t believe the school district is in compliance with the law.
“It doesn’t belong in the schools,” she said.“That is why I am for the core knowledge sequence as it is a knowledge-based curriculum.”
Core knowledge isa research-based, teacher-tested curriculum that engages students in diverse historical, scientific, and cultural content, according to the Core Knowledge Foundation.
Greer said thedistrict needs to make sure there is a clear policy in place that keeps teachers from not bringing in supplemental materials that have this embedded in them.
"The standards needto be set and raised so that we are following the law and keeping transparency to the public," she said.
LGBTQ and ‘Don’t Say Gay’
When it comes to the law signed by DeSantis that prohibits teachers from any instruction on sexual orientation or gender in kindergarten through third grade, Lichter said she was fighting against inappropriate books in school media centers when she was on the board.
“I was accused of being a book burner,” she said.
She also doesn’t believe that all the books that need to be removed from school media shelves have been removed. “It’s still in the process,” she said.
“It is not appropriate for the school district to push sex or the gay agenda on children at any age,” she said. “The school districts have gone too far in my opinion.”
Greer said the school district has not adopted policies "that secure the prevention of instruction of sexual orientation or gender identitynor has there been a policy put in place on how to report" when and if a teacher or staff member violates the law.
"There has also not been a policy amended or created that reinforces the right of the parents to make decisions on the upbringing and control of their children," she said.
On the LGBQT issues and the new bill, Mitchell said the district always updates its policies to comply with new legislation and this is no different.
“We have not had any complaints as of yet, but should they arise we will investigate as we would with any parent or community concern,” she said.
In terms of books in the schools, there is a textbook review committee that includes parents, Mitchell said, adding that there is nothing in textbooks in Collier schools that contain sexually explicit materials.
“I stand firm on that,” she said.
Books in school media centers area separate issue and some of them should require parental permission to be read though some parentssay these books should be pulled out of the media centers, Mitchell said.
The district is trying to figure out whether pulling the books from the media center shelves and requiring parental permission before students can check them out complies with the governor’s law.
“That is what we are trying to figure out,” she said.
Guns and school safety
When it comes to school safety and guns, candidates agree arming teachers is not something they support.
“No, they have enough responsibility on their plate,” Lichter said.
There are deputies in every school, and the district has a good relationship with the Collier County Sheriff’s Office, but more could be done to beef up safety, she said.
“I would not be opposed to arming administrators,” she said, adding that she would look at a program that allows retired law enforcement to be in schools.
Mitchell does not support arming teachers, which she said would contribute to more teachers leaving the profession, or arming other administrators in schools.
She said the district’s relationship with the sheriff’s office “sets us apart frommost other districts."
“We take a comprehensive approach so we have implemented layers of safety,” she said.
There is an armed deputy at every school and two at every high school, she said.
Schools have been hardened with video doorbells, single points of entry, locked door policies for classrooms, video cameras and radios accessible to law enforcement, and lock down capability for every staff member, she said.
Greer said she is thankful DeSantis is working to create a guardian program with trained civilians who can be armed in schools.
"I would like to also see the camera system integrated with (the sheriff's office) and other pieces of security technology to even take it a step further," she said.