MIAMI — “That’s where the classrooms were,” said Katrina Wilson-Davis, pointing at the deserted building that housed the school where she was once principal. She climbed the chipped stairs that children used to race down at recess in their cherry-red school uniforms and walked past a street sign that still warns drivers of a 15-mile-an-hour speed limit on school days.
Those days are over. Now trash and fronds from the palm trees that students planted litter the grounds, and cafeteria tables are folded away in a dark doorway. Jeb Bush’s charter school is a ruin baking in the Miami sun.
Co-founded in 1996 by Mr. Bush with what he called in an email a “powerful sense of pride and joy,” Liberty City Charter School was the first school of its kind in Florida and a pioneer in a booming industry and national movement. It became an image-softening vehicle for Mr. Bush’s political comeback, though the school’s road was anything but smooth.
It served a poor, often overlooked black population, and struggled with landlord problems and deepening deficits without the resources and infrastructure of a public school system to rely on. And by the time it closed, in 2008, the school did not have Jeb Bush to count on, either.
“He was a private citizen then,” said Ms. Wilson-Davis, an admirer of Mr. Bush’s. “He was trying to make money then. He was no longer in office.”
But with Mr. Bush all but certain to be running for office again, this time for the White House, the school he once championed is again useful. As he tries to sell himself to the conservative Republicans wary of his support for the testing standards they consider emblematic of government overreach, he can speak with authority on charter schools, funded largely by taxpayers but run by private companies, as a free-market antidote to liberal teachers’ unions and low performance.
And his firsthand experience in the education of underprivileged urban grade-schoolers lends him credibility in a party that has suddenly seized upon the gap between the rich and poor as politically promising terrain. In his first speech as a likely presidential candidate in Detroit last month, Mr. Bush credited Liberty City Charter School with helping “change education in Florida”
But Mr. Bush’s uplifting story of achievement and reform avoided mentioning the school by name or its unhappy ending. For all his early and vital involvement during his 1998 campaign for governor, and for all the help he offered from afar in the governor’s office, Mr. Bush’s commitment to his school project was not as enduring as some students and teachers might have hoped.
Critics of charter schools note that Liberty City, named after the impoverished African-American neighborhood from which many of its students hailed, also set an unfortunate precedent for the short life span of schools whose survival is dependent on their financial as well as academic success. And while Ms. Wilson-Davis does not blame Mr. Bush for the school’s demise, members of her former faculty and student body wonder whether it ultimately did more for him than he did for it. What everyone agrees is that Mr. Bush moved on.
His involvement began after his narrow loss in the 1994 governor’s race, which he ran as a tough-on-crime and solid-on-social-issues conservative who clumsily asserted that he would do “probably nothing” for blacks if elected. With defeat still fresh, he called T. Willard Fair, a president of the Urban League of Greater Miami, with a question: Would he accept leftover campaign funds for his organization?
“Are you on your way?” Mr. Fair answered.
The president’s son and the African-American activist ended up talking for an hour and a half, with Mr. Bush introducing and selling his new friend on the idea of charter schools. For the next couple of years, the two crisscrossed the state, making their case. Mr. Fair, who displays pictures of the Bush family and Liberty City Charter School students on his office walls, said he had no interest in whether Mr. Bush was sincere in his commitment to educating black children.
“If I can use Jeb Bush’s aspirations to be governor of the state of Florida to do that, so be it,” said Mr. Fair, whom Mr. Bush later appointed to the State Board of Education.
In 1996, their efforts paid off. Florida decided to allow charter schools, and Mr. Bush suggested that he and Mr. Fair start a school together. “There was no ‘let’s look at 1997 for a starting time,’ ” said Cory Tilley, Mr. Bush’s former spokesman. “The momentum was there.”
Jonathan Hage, a former member of the Heritage Foundation staff who would later start Charter Schools USA, a management company, wrote the school’s application to the Miami-Dade County School Board. Rosa Castro Feinberg, a board member at the time, called Mr. Bush’s school the “least worst” of three proposals. But she said the people working with him were aggressive to the point of bullying in pressing for approval.
“Staff felt intimidated,” she remembers. “I’m telling staff, ‘You can’t approve that,’ and they are saying, ‘Lady, but that’s Jeb Bush.’ ”
The board approved a three-year contract. One of its members, Frederica S. Wilson, now a member of the House of Representatives, had grilled Mr. Bush about his plans for the school, and apparently made an impression. “He asked the superintendent if I could be the principal of the school,” said Ms. Wilson, who declined the job.
Mr. Bush asked if she could recommend someone with “the same personality” as her. She suggested Ms. Wilson-Davis (no relation to Ms. Wilson), but she advised the young social studies teacher not to take the job because she lacked any managerial experience. Ms. Wilson-Davis took it anyway. The school wanted “an inexperienced person,” Mr. Fair said, who would not be beholden to teachers unions.
Next, Mr. Bush, using his connections, set about raising money to help fund the school’s first-year budget of about $312,000, a combination of private and public funding. And they needed students. Mr. Fair called the mothers of the affordable housing units developed by the Urban League, and asked for help.
In the days before school started, Mr. Bush arrived in corduroys and boat shoes to paint the school chairs primary colors. On Aug. 26, 1996, the first day of school, he stood with a teary-eyed Mr. Fair on the school steps as 60 children marched down the street.
Mr. Bush became a frequent presence at the school. Before each visit, Staci Schulster, a second-grade teacher, prepped the children by telling them that Mr. Bush was “famous.” The students would rush Mr. Bush and knock him off his tiny chair, “and all you’d see was his legs hanging out” said Ms. Wilson-Davis.
He came dressed up as Santa Claus, took students to Parrot Jungle and brought his mother, Barbara Bush, to read to the kids. But he also declined invitations for the school choir to sing at outside events.
“I’m protective of the school,” Mr. Bush said in December 1997. “The school is separate from my campaign.” Some former teachers and students found such an assertion risible.
Ajami Booth was one of the children who was chosen to stand behind him as Mr. Bush gave a speech. There was a campaign atmosphere to his visits, he recalled, and “we all had to dress up and look spiffy” for the cameras when he came by.
But some members of the school were happy to play a role in his political career. When Mr. Bush formally started another run for governor in 1998, his campaign paid for Cheri Perry, a board member at the school, to travel to Tallahassee, where photographers captured her delivering the paperwork.
During the campaign, Mr. Bush wrote in an email, “the school provided a firsthand look at the policy and real-life challenges in improving education.” That fall, the public school system gave Liberty City a “Best in Class” rating among poor black schools. And in November, Florida’s voters elected Mr. Bush governor. Exit polls showed he doubled his share of the black vote.
Mr. Bush’s election made him shift his priorities elsewhere. State law forced the school to strip his name off its letterhead, hurting fund-raising but granting more independence. “We wanted to just be a school, not a political animal,” Ms. Wilson-Davis said. “When Jeb was there, it was always about politics.”
She herself tired of all the political visitors to the school, including Mr. Bush’s unannounced visits. “I’m not a tour guide,” she said she had told him.
In June 1999, soon before a school board vote to renew the school, it got a D grade on the new standardized test in Florida that was part of what Mr. Bush called “the focus” of his 1998 campaign. His enemies in the teachers’ union howled with delight.
In the ensuing years, Mr. Bush “faded a little a bit,” rarely visiting the school, said Aubrey Davis, a former student and Ms. Wilson-Davis’s son.
Mr. Bush’s office said in response to questions that it would have been inappropriate for Mr. Bush to help the school as governor. But behind the scenes, Mr. Bush’s now partially public emails show that he kept tabs on Liberty City, congratulating Ms. Wilson-Davis on math bowl victories and improved standardized test scores, even receiving debriefings from an adviser who tutored at the school.
Mr. Bush rolled to re-election in 2002, and his first post-victory appearance was at the school, which by then was having problems with its landlord. In April 2004, Ms. Wilson-Davis requested a meeting with Mr. Bush to discuss “acquiring this property right across the street from our current school!!!!!” she wrote in one of the now-public emails, calling it “a deal that we simply cannot afford to miss.” But when the school went ahead with the purchase, Mr. Bush was not involved in the decision, his office said.
That November, when Ms. Wilson-Davis briefed him on roof damage caused by Hurricane Katrina, he wrote back: “Trina, have you applied for FEMA assistance? What do they say?” He was referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Liberty City earned an A grade for the 2005-06 year, a high mark in what was, over the years, an inconsistent report card as the school wrestled with Mr. Bush’s standardized tests and took over the management of other failing charter schools. But that October, Ms. Wilson-Davis wrote to him frantically that the school had missed a deadline for FEMA funding the repair of hurricane-related damages.
“I am in a position where I need some intervention and direction from YOU!” she wrote in an email. Mr. Bush wrote back that he would work on the issue and directed his office to look into the FEMA funding.
Ms. Wilson-Davis said that Mr. Bush had helped as governor, but that the roof was only one dispute with the landlord for a school that had become a financial catastrophe. There had been what Ms. Wilson-Davis called a “barrage” of complaints from the landlord to the authorities, who cited the school for fire-code violations, shoddy work by unlicensed contractors and unsafe conditions. A judge awarded damages and legal fees to the landlord.
“I am not aware of what this is about,” Mr. Bush told The Miami Herald in 2008, when the financial issues became public. He added that he knew that the school carried an A rating, “which warmed my heart.” School board documents show the school had a C rating for its last two years.
As for the school’s financial and landlord problems, “I did tell him,” Ms. Wilson-Davis said. She said Mr. Bush had looked into the issue, called back and said the school had a big hole of debt that would be hard to fill. “How do we survive this?” she remembers asking him. Mr. Bush’s answer, in an email response this month to questions from The New York Times, was that “I asked some friends to get involved on the board and help the school.” But he declined to expand on what efforts he had made.
Whatever they were, they were insufficient. On March 13, 2008, the Miami schools superintendent, Rudy Crew, notified Mr. Fair, Ms. Wilson-Davis and Ms. Perry, who had hand-delivered the paperwork for Mr. Bush’s 1998 candidacy, that the school board had voted to “immediately terminate the contract.”
Correction: March 7, 2015
An earlier version of this article referred to Katrina Wilson-Davis, the former principal of Liberty City Charter School, as Ms. Davis-Wilson in one instance.