‘Several red flags:’ Questions raised over departure of Superintendent now going for DCPS top job

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The Duval County School Board will choose one of two candidates for its next Superintendent. The two finalists are Dr. Christopher Bernier and Dr. Daniel Smith.


Action News Jax investigates found one finalist is still being paid by his former school district after abruptly stepping down. The Lee County School District is not only paying Bernier, but its representing him in two pending lawsuits.

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Bernier is not mentioned specifically in the suits or accused directly. He is, however, listed as a defendant.

Bernier’s contract with the Lee County School District was set to go until November 2024. After a “separation agreement,” Bernier stepped down on April 8. That same day, he was named in a lawsuit filed against him and his former school board.

The separation agreement stated the Lee County School Board agreed to continue paying his more than $275,000 a year salary, contribute 20% to his retirement plan, and cover his health care benefits for the next five months. If Bernier secures another job as Superintendent or a position at cabinet-level within the 20 week agreement, those obligations will come to an end, according to the separation agreement.

The agreement also said Lee County Schools will continue representing and defending Bernier in any legal matter, that includes two lawsuits, in which he is named.

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Two separately filed lawsuits accuse the school district of failing to protect two students from racial discrimination while Bernier was Superintendent. Both state, in February of 2023, a Lee County Assistant Baseball Coach sent a text message with a racial slur to a group chat. The coach was fired.

A lawsuit filed in February of 2024, alleges that after one student complained about the comment, they “began to encounter a barrage of harassment and racially discriminatory conduct that was perpetrated, tolerated and condoned by the defendants.” It went on to say, this led to “discriminatory practices in team selection and coaching decisions.”

An April lawsuit, filed by another parent, said despite the termination of the coach, district administrators “did not take direct action to address it [the slur]” instead, “insisted that related behaviors were unrelated.”

The parents of the two athletes believe this led to a racial divide between White and Black players on the team.

During an interview with the Duval County School Board back on May 13, Bernier alluded to the incident when asked about the most difficult thing he has ever had to deal with as a Superintendent.

“One of the most complicated issues I’ve dealt with is potentially going to become an ESPN story,” Bernier said. “It was a very difficult decision and some of the ramifications are still being played out and it’s an ongoing investigation, so I’m being very not as revealing as I could.”

These factors resulted in concerned teachers and parents reaching out to Action News Jax.

“There’s several red flags, which I really think should disqualify him at this point,” Chris Guerrieri said. He’s been a teacher for 23 years, and currently works for the Duval County School District. “We need a leader that’s gonna get out there and educate people -- to let people know, to explain to people what the problems are and how to solve these problems.”

Guerrieri believes the district needs a transparent leader, especially with mounting issues including the dip in enrollment, school consolidation and closures. It’s something Colleen November, a member of the ‘Save Atlantic Beach Elementary’ group is passionate about.

November is fighting, alongside others, to keep Atlantic Beach Elementary open. She’s attended several meetings, participating in public comment asking for another plan.

“I’m not convinced the consultant is willing to change their proposal at all,” November said. “We’d like to see the [new] Superintendent come up with their own plan to place in front of the board.”

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We reached out to the Duval County School District in regards to Bernier. A spokesperson sent us this statement:

“We are aware of this litigation, and this information was provided to school board members as part of the background check process. It is common for superintendents to be named in lawsuits involving their districts. It has happened to the superintendent in our district as well. Florida law allows school boards to provide legal representation to superintendents named in such suits. Again, this is a common practice. Nothing has changed regarding Dr. Bernier’s status as a finalist for our superintendent position.”

We also reached out to Lee County Public Schools for a statement on Bernier’s departure. A spokesperson said: “We have provided only one statement regarding the departure of Dr. Bernier. As to why he left, only Dr. Bernier can address why he chose to leave, so I would refer you to him for an answer.

This is the joint statement provided by a spokesperson for Lee County Public Schools:

“It is with a sense of great accomplishment that we agree to allow the School District to prepare for an elected superintendent. Over the past two years we have seen student achievement increase, graduation rates rise and our students and staff honored at the local, state and national level. We have implemented new proximity based student assignment zones, prepared a 10-year capital plan to meet student growth projections and refreshed the Envision 2030 strategic plan so our values align with our mission. Together, we also supported our students, staff and community through Hurricane Ian and the rebuilding that followed. We have much to be thankful for and proud of, and wish the best for each other and the School District.”

We also emailed the Duval County School Board members, but have not heard back.

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