How a tough move by the governor turned into a drain on taxpayers and a cash bonanza for a once-suspended school superintendent

By: - August 30, 2019 7:00 am

Former Okaloosa School Supt. Mary Beth Jackson. Photo, YouTube.

Just three days after his inauguration in January, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order suspending a Panhandle school superintendent over alleged “neglect of duty and incompetence.”

Six months later, after court fights, Senate hearings, school board concerns and community strife, DeSantis reinstated Mary Beth Jackson, the twice-elected Okaloosa school superintendent, paving the way for her to resign — which has myriad benefits.

As it stands now, Jackson still has her educator license to teach, work as an administrator, or do guidance and counseling, state certification records show. She’s able to draw on a lucrative educator pension, worth thousands of dollars in retirement after decades of service.

Meanwhile, taxpayers in Okaloosa County are stuck with tens of thousands of dollars in bills related to Jackson’s back pay, and potentially hundreds of thousands in legal fees, raising questions about who should be blamed for the hefty price tag.

Gov. Ron DeSantis. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

After all, it was DeSantis who originated the initial suspension on January 11, school officials say.

Jackson had been a subject in two grand jury investigations in 2018 in connection with incidents in the district. Neither of the grand juries led to criminal charges.

The incidents involved a teacher accused of  inappropriate physical conduct with special needs students that led to charges of child abuse. Other district employees were charged with failure to report suspected child abuse, according to the governor’s executive order of suspension.

“Superintendent Jackson has failed her responsibilities and duties to the parents and students of the Okaloosa County School District due to her failure to provide adequate, necessary and frequent training, a lack of supervision of school district personnel, and a failure to implement adequate safe-guards, policies, and reporting requirements to protect the safety and well-being of the students,” the executive order said.

Jackson fought for months, facing off with DeSantis, a Harvard-trained lawyer. There were Jackson fans and detractors along the way.

Now, the Okaloosa school board doesn’t appear to be happy about the drama that evolved in Tallahassee.

“This was not an action of this school board. This was an action, actually by the executive branch of the government, by the governor,” said School Board chairman Lamar White, speaking at a meeting earlier this month.

“This was all driven by the state and not anything locally,” said Rita Scallan, the district’s chief financial officer, who explained at the meeting that Jackson was now entitled to back pay and benefits from her superintendent’s job.

The gross amount of back pay and benefits adds up to $70,986.13, Scallan said. On top of that, the district had to cover the salary for another superintendent while Jackson was suspended, which Scallan estimated to be $50,000 or $60,000.

Next came a lawsuit on Aug. 23. Former superintendent Jackson sued the Okaloosa school board seeking $282,678.69 in legal fees and costs.  Board members are opposed to paying that money.

But the complaint states that it’s the board’s public duty to pay the costs incurred by Jackson “in successfully defending against unfounded allegations of neglect of duty and incompetence.”

The lawsuit also described the outcome of Jackson’s case, stating that after litigation and hearings, “wherein the truth regarding plaintiff’s (Jackson’s) faithful and upstanding service as superintendent was revealed, the Governor determined it appropriate to reinstate plaintiff to her rightful position as superintendent of schools for Okaloosa County.”

Not everyone has the same view.

Gene Earley, an Okaloosa resident who has spoken before the school board and is concerned about public corruption, believes the governor caved in on pursuing the Jackson case. In written comments to the Phoenix, Earley said:

“Gov. DeSantis sells his integrity and his own inauguration promises for a deal, a deal that lets a corrupt and criminal elected public official retire with full Florida state retirements and benefits; pays that corrupt official all back pay and benefits; and pays for all of that corrupt official’s legal fees. A deal that only has upsides for the criminal, none for the state, and none for the victims. And, he lets another criminally corrupt politician walk free without a suspension, a removal, or even an arrest record.”

Earley told the Phoenix in an interview that he doesn’t really know why the governor caved in.

Joe Jacquot, the governor’s chief legal counsel, said DeSantis’ only goal was to ensure Jackson was no longer leading a school district, involved in a school, or overseeing students.

“He (the governor) reinstated her for the purpose of her resigning – you can’t accept a resignation if you are not in (public) office.”

At the Florida Department of Education, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, who had recommended Jackson’s suspension, said his office was not involved in Jackson’s reinstatement and subsequent resignation, according to spokeswoman Cheryl Etters.

Jackson did resign on July 17, thanking DeSantis in her resignation letter for reinstating her to her public position as superintendent.

Earlier this month, Corcoran visited an Okaloosa school, and later discussed the Jackson case with the media.

On her Facebook page, Jackson was critical, describing Corcoran as a “political operative.”

She wrote in her post: “Please remember, the Governor reinstated me. Do you really think he would have done that if he felt he would prevail in the Senate vote? Of course not. By the way, would you like me to post the letter from Mr. Corcoran’s office dropping his investigation. You know why he did that, because he could not substantiate his claim that I had done anything wrong.”

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Diane Rado
Diane Rado

Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.