MIAMI — Six weeks before he was set to open Florida’s first charter school, Jeb Bush had yet to recruit a principal. Then he met Katrina Wilson-Davis, a 32-year-old social studies teacher with no management experience but a positive spirit that gave him hope.
“We need someone who carries a knife in her teeth and can swing through the vines,” Wilson-Davis recalls Bush telling her on that summer day in 1996.
Recovering from an ego-bruising election loss, Bush was looking for chances to soften his image as a callous Republican who proclaimed he would do “probably nothing” as governor to help African Americans. As a private citizen likely to run for governor again in 1998, Bush created the Liberty City Charter School as a way to educate black children from Miami’s poorest neighborhoods. The school would give him a way to mend ties with the black community while testing a controversial, conservative education theory that was drawing the ire of teachers unions.
“My friends told me I was being used,” Wilson-Davis remembered. She figured it was worth a try. “I said: ‘So? Everyone’s being used.’ ”
As he runs for president nearly two decades later, Bush points to his time working on the school as evidence of his early commitment to a reform agenda. He has said the experience “still shapes the way I see the deep-seated challenges facing urban communities today.” He points to the school’s opening as “one of the happiest, proudest moments of my life.”
But for Wilson-Davis and others who walked the halls of Liberty City, that happy moment has been obscured by the complicated years that have followed.
Over time, Bush’s tightknit relationship with the school and his handpicked principal fizzled. After he won election as Florida governor, in part by touting the school, Bush stepped down from the board — a move his aides say avoided any perceptions of favoritism. He was unable to help the school overcome steep debt or help it resolve a dispute with the building’s landlord. By 2008, the year after Bush left office, local officials voted to close the school.
As Bush campaigns in Florida today to revive his struggling presidential campaign, many in this beleaguered community wrestle with his legacy in their lives. There are feelings of adoration and feelings of abandonment. Many here wonder: Why couldn’t a man so well connected and powerful help raise money or strike a deal with a local landlord? How could he step away from a cause that was so dear to him?
A project that intended to close the chasm between Bush and the black community ended up broadening the distance between them.
Bush’s presidential campaign — in which he has promised to broaden the Republican Party’s appeal to minorities while, on one occasion, appearing to suggest that Democrats win black votes by offering “free stuff” — serves as a reminder of the two sides of the man they knew.
“It’s like I’m reliving the sadness all over again,” Wilson-Davis said.
“Everyone wants me to bash Jeb,” she added. “I can’t just bash Jeb. He did so much for me. He introduced me to so many good people, white people, who cared about our community.”
Bush, in a recent interview, said he could not have saved the school. He had helped negotiate with the landlord early on, but he said little could be done about the landlord’s desire to kick the school out.
“The problem is that they didn’t own the school. They tried to own the school,” Bush said. “But you can’t operate a school if you don’t have the real estate.”
The idea for a charter school in Liberty City stemmed from a new kinship between Bush and T. Willard Fair, a local black activist.
In Fair, head of the Urban League of Greater Miami, Bush found his first full ally within Miami’s black community. Fair had been swayed by the “probably nothing” remark because he long believed black people needed to rely more on themselves, not the government, for their uplift. It took only 90 minutes for them to agree to start the charter school, which would be privately run but publicly funded.
Bush attempted to get another prominent local black activist to serve as principal, school board member Frederica S. Wilson. She rebuffed his efforts but recommended Wilson-Davis, who always dreamed of being a principal.
“I knew I could educate those children,” Wilson-Davis said. “I know these children. I was one of them.”
In an hour, they agreed to work together.
Bush knew he was asking Wilson-Davis to take on a difficult task that would put her at the center of a intense political debate over the future of public schools. But he had confidence in her.
“She had a heart for these kids,” he said.
Their meeting spawned a fruitful partnership.
The young, black schoolteacher — granddaughter of sharecroppers and daughter of a cafeteria worker and a truck driver — gained a mentor and powerful friend who introduced her to the upper echelon of American politics and wealth. The privileged white politician got a charismatic leader for his school who taught him to use bits of slang like “off the chain.” He also got a useful anecdote for his next campaign, and he doubled his share of the black vote.
Soon, Wilson-Davis was going to fancy parties with the son of a president. Hillary Rodham Clinton, first lady at the time, invited her to the White House for a forum on education. “You’re now swimming with big fish,” Wilson-Davis recalled someone telling her at a fundraiser for the school, after which she wondered, “What have I gotten into?”
Bush, too, was acclimating to a different kind of pond. On Saturdays, he drove from tony Coral Gables to a neighborhood of scraggy lots, barbed-wire fences and malls scarred by riots from nearly two decades before.
At first, Fair recalled, Bush looked uncomfortable when he met young mothers in subsidized housing who were interested in his school.
“It was an extraordinary experience,” Bush said.
Sixty students enrolled in the school when it opened in August 1996.
When Bush would visit, he would pat students on the head and call them by name. They would try to scare him with pictures of alligators they drew, and he dressed up as Santa Claus at Christmastime. His mother, Barbara Bush, came to read “Goodnight Moon.”
TV cameras and reporters captured Bush’s big experiment. Educators and donors wanted tours. The school was mocked by the teachers unions when it performed poorly on tests, praised in the papers when it performed well. The attention helped the school with its fundraising, even as Wilson-Davis tired of being a tour guide.
She was more focused on intensive reading and math instruction and weekly positive-reinforcement assemblies. When she heard students arguing about whether zebras were donkeys with painted stripes, she arranged a trip to the zoo. Many children were being raised by their grandparents, so Wilson-Davis started a quilting night to connect the community.
“Don’t let me call your mama,” became one of Wilson-Davis’s best-known threats to the students. About a dozen former students contacted by The Washington Post recalled how she offered Jolly Rancher candies when students visited her office and kept a small mattress there in case anyone needed a nap.
“It was really this custom education that was developed for the kids at the school that made us able to succeed,” said Maurice Jackson, now 22.
Jackson, who interned this summer at the White House, said his views on school turned around after Wilson-Davis placed him in more-advanced classes.
Bush was in the background as much as the foreground. He was a strict taskmaster who could not stomach seeing so much as a wad of paper on the ground.
“ ’Trina,” he would say to Wilson-Davis, she recalled, “poor doesn’t mean dirty.”
The school received the same per-pupil funding as traditional schools, but additional expenses such as rent meant that teachers at first were paid less. Bush’s fundraising prowess helped, but he warned that it would not last forever.
“He’s a fiscally frugal guy, so the goal was you have to learn how to operate with what the state gives you each year,” Wilson-Davis recalled.
Whenever she asked for money, she said, Bush would lean in. He would cross his legs, look into her eyes and ask her why.
“He taught me to trust myself,” Wilson-Davis said. “He would say you can make mistakes, but just not a lot of them, because success was the only option.”
As he walked through the school hall on the day after his successful 1998 election, the cheerleading squad yelled: “Give me a B! Give me a U! Give me an S! Give me an H!”
“I used to love seeing him, and he was there so much,’’ said Michelle Turner, now 25, who was captured by news photographers hugging Bush on that day in 1998.
But then, Turner and others recall, something changed.
“In later years, I don’t remember him being there at all,” Turner said.
Bush had left the board by 2000, two years after being elected governor, but Wilson-Davis continued to reach out to him, often using e-mail. He would respond with brief words of encouragement.
“I hope that you will find time to come by the school and see the children,” Wilson-Davis wrote in July 2001.
“i will try to make it,” Bush responded. There was no indication whether he paid a visit.
In January 2002, Wilson-Davis bragged to him that the school was operating entirely from its state allotment after “many years of prudent and fiscal conservatism.”
By 2006, though, trouble was mounting. The school incurred hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. The growing importance of high-stakes standardized tests, pushed by Bush, led to the school spending more on new textbooks. And a devastating hurricane season in 2005 left the school with a leaky roof that, she said, the landlord was slow to fix.
“You know that I don’t run to you for everything because I know that you have a whole state and the country to contend with,” Wilson-Davis wrote to Bush on Oct. 13, 2006. “I am in a position where I need some intervention and direction from YOU!”
Bush wrote back, telling Wilson-Davis that “I will work on both issues.” He told her that as a public school, “you should receive the same benefits . . . that all public schools receive.”
Bush attempted to connect her with FEMA, according to e-mails that have been released publicly. But Wilson-Davis said she worried the process was moving too slowly. Fearing for her students’ safety, she used the school’s money to fix the roof.
The landlord, Patrick Beauregard, sued. The repairs violated the lease, and he wanted the school out. Beauregard did not respond to several phone calls from The Post.
Fair and Wilson-Davis wondered: Is it time to get Bush more involved? Fair opposed the idea. His reasoning: Beauregard was black, as were Fair and Wilson-Davis. Some racial lines, he felt, could not be crossed.
“There was nothing in the marrow of my bones that could allow me to ask some white man to bail me out for what a black man did,” Fair said.
Wilson-Davis reached out to Bush anyway. She recalled Bush telling her that his hands were tied. The $500,000 debt was too much for him to recoup. The legal fees continued to mount, and debt grew to $1 million. Parents held walks and protests to generate attention, but their efforts were futile. They wondered what happened to their powerful founder.
After Bush left office in 2007, he made a lucrative reentry into the private sector.
Asked at the time about the school’s difficulties, Bush told the Miami Herald, “I am not aware what this is about.”
In 2008, the county school board shut the school down.
Wilson-Davis was so distraught, she said, that she could not bring herself to find work for two years. One day, she got a phone call from a concerned Wilson, the former school board member who introduced her to Bush. Wilson, who was Bush’s most ardent opponent when she was in the state legislature and today is a congresswoman, had a new recommendation: “Grab your purse and start working again.”
Wilson-Davis eventually joined Wilson’s mentorship program for black boys.
As she discusses her experience with the school, Wilson-Davis likes to focus on the successes. She estimated at least 85 percent of her students graduated from high school and 40 percent went on to college.
“I don’t think [Bush] was a racist or tried to pimp out these children; that wasn’t his heart,” Wilson-Davis said. “But I think it’s a fair question for a community to want to hold him accountable.
Even so, Wilson-Davis retains warm feelings for Bush. The last time Wilson-Davis texted Bush was in 2011. She hoped to catch up with him during his trip to a majority-black high school in Florida that was excelling on standardized tests.
That day, Bush was sitting in the front row of the auditorium with President Obama. Security stopped her outside. The room was so crowded with so many well-wishers that his past protégée couldn’t get in.
Ed O’Keefe, Steven Rich and Alice Crites in Washington contributed to this report.