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Florida Department of Education stacks Black history task force with DeSantis allies

Weeks after 10 Investigates exposed the African American History Task Force has been shrinking for years, the state appointed six new members.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The Florida Department of Education has appointed six new members to the Florida Commissioner of Education’s African American History Task Force weeks after 10 Investigates exposed the task force has been shrinking for years.

10 Investigates looked into the backgrounds of the new appointees and found the state is stacking the task force with allies of Gov. Ron DeSantis.

In their first task force meeting together on Wednesday, the six new members voted to put the task force’s virtual Summer Institute on pause – a move the four old members voted against. Hundreds of educators were scheduled to attend the Summer Institute next week.

Five of the six new members are active in Republican politics. 

Some are openly anti-woke, against diversity, equity and inclusion programs, and opposed to the AP African American Studies curriculum.

And the current task force members say the Department of Education didn’t consult them; the agency informed them of the appointments after they’d already happened.

“It wasn't a good feeling. It really wasn't,” said the vice-chair of the African American History Task Force, Dr. Samuel Wright.

Credit: 10 Tampa Bay
Dr. Samuel Wright, vice-chair of the African American History Task Force.

When we met up with Wright, he was surrounded by images of civil rights figures and educators. We were on a path called Leaders’ Row in Tampa’s Perry Harvey, Sr. Park.

“All our students need is an opportunity, first of all, to find out who they are and to understand the richness of their culture,” Wright said. “We shouldn't just talk about Harriet Tubman or talk about Rosa Parks. We need to talk about all of the contributions that Black folk have made in America.”

Florida law requires schools to teach Black history. The African American History Task Force helps districts to comply.

In April, we reported that the task force had shrunk to just four voting members.

Only two of them showed up to the most recent meeting.

The Department of Education hadn’t appointed any new people for years, despite members recommending nominees to the state.

Days after our investigation came out, Wright wrote a letter asking the Florida Department of Education to appoint new members before July 1 and for a list of nominees they were considering “immediately.”

A couple of weeks later, on May 12, task force members got an email saying the Department of Education had appointed six new members, effective May 11 – the day before that email was sent.

Task Force members tell 10 Investigates they were not consulted and did not nominate any of the people selected.

“We don't need things to be shoved down our throats about what needs to be done. And I thought it'd be nice, had they shared those [names] with us prior to making those final appointments,” Wright said.

It’s unclear who nominated or vetted the appointees since the Department of Education hasn’t responded to any of our questions.

The letter those new members got says it was Education Commissioner Manny Diaz, who ultimately appointed them.

10 Investigates dug into each new member’s background and found five out of the six are active in Republican politics.

Four of the six have previously been appointed to positions by DeSantis.

Only two have been a school board member or worked for a school district.

“As long as they don't stifle the progress of the committee, then fine, we welcome them,” Wright said.

State Rep. Berny Jacques

Credit: 10 Tampa Bay
Rep. Berny Jacques

First, let’s talk about the five Republican appointees.

Out of the six new members, State Rep. Berny Jacques is the only one who agreed to talk to us.

He represents Largo and parts of Seminole, Pinellas Park and Clearwater in Dist. 59.

“So, my goal at the task force is to make sure, when it comes to African American history, that we are involved in education, which is very important, and not indoctrination,” Jacques said. “Really just teach our students the basics and not ideologies that makes them either hate each other or hate their country.”

DeSantis previously appointed Jacques to Florida’s 6th Circuit Judicial Nominating Commission.

In his first legislative session, he co-sponsored a bill that the governor signed into law in May banning Florida colleges and universities from spending public money on programs or campus activities that promote diversity, equity, and inclusion – also known as DEI.

Jacques told 10 Investigates he does not believe DEI has a place in K-12 public schools.

“This DEI concept, it really puts a damper, especially if you're a minority student, that somehow the chips are stacked against you. That somehow past occurrences are holding you back now,” Jacques said. “This is a land of tremendous opportunities. And when we teach history, we should teach it all, right? The good, bad, the ugly, everything in between. But to tell somebody today in 2023 that because of the way they look, that they’re somehow less likely to succeed, I think it's wrong… I would not be where I am today if I thought that.”

Jacques said he opposes the AP African American Studies curriculum that DeSantis’ administration blocked earlier this year.

“This course on Black history – what’s one of the lessons about? Queer theory,” DeSantis said in January. “They have stuff about intersectionality, abolishing prisons. That’s a political agenda.”

Jacques told us he’s a supporter of the Stop WOKE Act that DeSantis signed into law last year.

Among other things, the Stop WOKE Act changed Florida’s law requiring students to learn about Black history, adding that "classroom instruction and curriculum may not be used to indoctrinate or persuade students to a particular point of view."     

We asked Jacques what “woke” means to him.

“Well, ‘woke’ to me is Marxist ideology. So, it's a divisive ideology that pits people against each other based on the way they look,” Jacques said.

That’s not how DeSantis’ lawyer defines it, according to a report by Florida Politics.

During court proceedings in December over the governor’s ousting of Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren, Florida Politics reported that DeSantis’ General Counsel Ryan Newman was asked to define "woke," and he responded that it’s “the belief there are systemic injustices in American society and the need to address them.”

Torey Alston

Credit: LinkedIn
Torey Alston

Torey Alston is the only new member who’s worked for a school district.

Alston previously worked for Miami-Dade County Public Schools as its Economic Equity and Diversity Compliance Officer and then as its Executive Director for the Office of Economic Opportunity.

DeSantis appointed Alston to the School Board of Broward County last year. He’s now the chair.

Before that, the governor appointed him to fill a vacancy on the Broward County Commission.

Alston also worked as chief of staff at the Florida Department of Transportation during the DeSantis administration.

Glen Gilzean

Credit: WKMG-TV
Glen Gilzean

Glen Gilzean was recently voted in as the new District Administrator by the DeSantis-appointed Central Florida Tourism Oversight District Board.

He’s also Chair of the Florida Commission on Ethics, a spot that DeSantis appointed him to last year.

Republican Florida governors have appointed Gilzean to six positions since 2012.

He also used to be on the Pinellas County School Board.

Gilzean wrote a guest commentary for the Orlando Sentinel opposing the AP African American Studies curriculum.

His commentary said the curriculum “clearly has a component that does nothing to advance the teaching of Black history, but only the political agenda of a small minority.”

Dr. Frances Presley Rice

Credit: Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium
Dr. Frances Presley Rice

Dr. Frances Presley Rice is Chair of the National Black Republican Association.

She’s a retired lawyer and U.S. Army Colonel.

According to her Facebook, she works on documentaries about African American history.

John Davis

Credit: Florida Lottery
John Davis

DeSantis appointed new task force member John Davis to his current gig: Secretary of the Florida Lottery.

He previously held a leadership role with the Republican Party of Florida, according to Politico and News Service of Florida.

State Rep. Kimberly Daniels

Credit: Florida House of Representatives
State Rep. Kimberly Daniels

The lone Democrat of the newbies is State Rep. Kimberly Daniels, who represents part of Duval County.

The Florida Times-Union once described her as “perhaps the most conservative Democrat in the Legislature.”

Daniels is on the Florida House Education & Employment Committee, the Education Quality Subcommittee, and the PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee. 

In 2019, she filed a bill that would require all public school districts to offer elective courses on “religion, Hebrew Scriptures, and the Bible.” Daniels also sponsored a bill requiring public schools to display the slogan "In God We Trust."

The new and old task force members came together for their first meeting on Wednesday.

Things got heated.

At one point, Wright and Daniels were talking over each other.

John Duebel, the liaison between the Department of Education and the African American History Task Force said, “Please excuse the interruption. I would like to remind you that all task force members – and I’ve not heard anyone say otherwise – are educated, accomplished professional adults. So, let’s please maintain a tone of respect and civility as you represent the Commissioner of Education in the public eye.”

The task force’s first vote since the membership shake-up was a 6-4 split, precisely divided between new members and old, to postpone the task force’s virtual Summer Institute next week.

Hundreds of educators were scheduled to attend.

“The motion on the floor is to postpone the scheduled Summer Institute that is currently scheduled for June 14 and 15 for a short time until after the state board of education has adopted the revised African American History – I’m sorry, the new African American History standards,” Duebel said.

That adoption is expected to happen next month, but no new date has been set for the Summer Institute.

“Just hearing that, you know, new standards go into effect come July 1, I think we’re slighting the opportunity for all our educators to have the new standards,” Gilzean said.

Task force member Dr. Donna Austin voted against postponement.

“I find it very interesting that the new task force members – it seems like all of them – have made a decision that they want to pause something that many of them have said that they don’t even know anything about,” Austin said.

“This has been one of the most asinine discussions I’ve had in a long time,” Wright said.

Wright told 10 Tampa Bay he plans to keep speaking out.

“I’d prefer to die than to sit here and be put back 50 or 100 years in the State of Florida. That's not what I signed on for. And I've worked too hard. I'm 69 years old, close to 70. I've lived too long to see this kind of nonsense,” Wright said.

The Florida Department of Education hasn’t answered a single question 10 Investigates has asked about African American History Task Force membership since March, nor have they responded to any of our public records requests.

At the end of March, we showed up to Education Commissioner Diaz’s Office in Tallahassee and to an African American History Task Force meeting, but the Department of Education leaders there wouldn’t answer our questions in-person, either.

We’ll keep reaching out.

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