Federal aid for schools, budget assessments, new superintendent, district joins vaping suit and more
Marching teachers threatened: The top attorney for the Florida Department of Education says teachers who are taking today off to join the rally for education in Tallahassee could be fired for striking illegally. “A concerted failure to report for duty constitutes an illegal strike under Florida law,” Matthew Mears wrote Friday in an email sent only to Polk County Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd. Byrd said she asked the department for “guidance” and simply forwarded the email to employees to make them aware of the law, and “not as a threat from me to fire staff.” Teachers and their union leaders said they took it as a veiled threat. “Everything about that email was a disaster from the state level [to] the local level,” said Polk County School Board member Billy Townsend, who is attending the march and rally. “If this is a local decision, over my dead body will anybody be fired.” More than 1,000 Polk teachers are planning to make the trip to Tallahassee. Spectrum News 13. Lakeland Ledger. Tampa Bay Times. Orlando Sentinel. WTSP. WFLA. WFTS. More about today’s march by teachers in Tallahassee, and the legislative session that begins Tuesday. News Service of Florida. GateHouse. Orlando Sentinel. WLRN. Tallahassee Democrat. Politico Florida. Florida Politics. TCPalm. Florida Today. Lakeland Ledger. WSVN. WKMG. WTVT. WFTX.
More education bills: Several bills were filed just before Friday’s deadline to be considered by the Legislature. Among them are one that would require all high school students to file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid form to graduate, another spelling out parental rights in their child’s education and health care, and one that would make temporary funding increases to 29 school districts permanent and require districts to share any future voter-approved tax hikes with charter schools. Gradebook. Lakeland Ledger. Local government officials, such as school board members, would be allowed to carry weapons to meetings under a bill filed in the Legislature. S.B 1524, filed by state Sen. George Gainer, R-Panama City, would make an exception to the law prohibiting weapons at government meetings for school board members and other local officials. Members of the public attending the meetings would still be barred from being armed. News Service of Florida. Two bills would make significant changes to the way students are handled under the state’s Baker Act. Tampa Bay Times.
Students and suicide: Florida’s youth suicide rate has increased by 50 percent in the past 10 years, an epidemic that school and other officials say is hidden in plain sight online. There are 632,000 Instagram posts with with the hashtag #lifesucks, and another 550,000-plus tagged with #hatemyself. But there are also 2 million Instagram posts with the less obvious hashtag #kms (kill myself), hundreds of thousands under such #secretsociety123, and online users have developed code names for mental health disorders, such as Annie for anxiety and Sue for suicidal. Many teens who are depressed or suicidal say the first place they turn for help is not a mental health professional, a counselor or parents, but to social media. Sun Sentinel.
Mental health instruction: To meet the state requirement of giving students five hours of instruction about mental health, the Volusia County School District will provide monthly lessons conducted through PowerPoint presentations. In Flagler County, students will have 10 30-minute lessons in subjects designed to be age-appropriate. Daytona Beach News-Journal.
Native language testing: Some education officials say a bill that would require the state to allow Spanish and Haitian-Creole speakers to take required tests in their native languages raises issues of fairness for speakers of other languages. The Florida Department of Education says Florida ranks third in the country in the number of English language learning students, and they speak more than 300 languages. TCPalm.
Educators honored: Rob Paschall, a 5th-grade teacher at West Creek Elementary, has been named the Orange County School District’s teacher of the year. Others honored: James Leslie of Lake Weston Elementary was named principal of the year, Fred Ray of Carver Middle was chosen as the assistant principal of the year, and Maria Seijo, who works in the district’s Innovation Office, was selected as support person of the year. Orlando Sentinel.
Superintendent search: Politics and race have crept into the search for a new Hillsborough County school superintendent, tinging the process with strong feelings about certain candidates. The six outside candidates and the lone internal candidate, Harrison Peters, will interview Thursday. Despite the factions, school board member Steve Cona said, “I really believe that this job will be won in the interview.” Superintendent Jeff Eakins is retiring no later than June 30. Tampa Bay Times.
Vaping lawsuit: Lee County School Board members are giving consideration to joining the Brevard, Seminole and Palm Beach school districts in a class action lawsuit against Juul Labs, the manufacturer of e-cigarettes. The suit alleges that the company targets teens in ads, leading to health issues for students and disruptions in schools, which are forcing the districts to divert resources from other issues to deal with the vaping problems. Board members are expected to discuss the lawsuit within the next month. Fort Myers News-Press.
Partial dismissal sought: Attorneys for the Broward County School Board are asking for a partial dismissal in the case filed by families of the shooting victims at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018. They claim the suit goes beyond the scope of Florida law in the areas of school districts’ duties and responsibilities. WFOR.
School repairs: The Palm Beach County School District has spent about $61 million repairing and replacing school air conditioning systems since 2017. That investment has resulted in an overall decline in A/C problems by 7 percent, but an analysis of district records shows that some schools have had persisting problems. Palm Beach Post.
More on graduation rates: The Florida Department of Education reported last week that 86.9 percent of the state’s students who started high school in 2015 graduated last spring. But it also reports that the dropout rate is 3.4 percent. So what happened to the other 9.7 percent? Gradebook. More reports about Florida school districts’ graduation rates. WFSU. WMBB. Charlotte Sun. Space Coast Daily. Orlando Sentinel. Panama City News Herald. WUWF.
Spelling bee winner: Caleb Rimpel, an 8th-grader from Christ the King Lutheran School, won the Flagler County Spelling Bee to qualify for the regional spelling bee in Jacksonville on Feb. 27. Daytona Beach News-Journal.
Personnel moves: The Sarasota County School District’s interim superintendent since mid-November, Mitsi Corcoran, was given a contract last week by the school board. Corcoran will paid $207,000 a year and receive an extra $1,150 a month for expenses. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
Notable deaths: Dr. Ed Anderson, an Ocala dentist and one-term Marion County School Board member who helped the district desegregate schools in the late 1960s, died Jan. 3 at the age of 90. Ocala Star-Banner.
Charters and candidates: Charter schools have been among the most divisive issue among the leading Democratic candidates for president. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have vigorously opposed them, while Mike Bloomberg is a strong supporter and has said he would push for more of them. Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg have been less vocal but have called for great accountability for charters. There are about 7,000 charter schools in the United States, and they education about 6 percent of the country’s students. Politico.
School elections: A third candidate has entered the race for the Clay County superintendent’s job. Melanie Dawn Walls joined former superintendent Charlie Van Sant in challenging incumbent Addison Davis. WJXT.
District marketing: The Hernando County School District is rolling out a new marketing plan that includes a new, soft blue and green district logo reading: Hernando School District: Learn it. Love it. Live it. The district paid the Sarasota marketing firm Voss & Associates just over $20,000 to develop the plan. Tampa Bay Times.
Hackers change school names: Hackers temporarily changed information provided from Google searches about several central Florida schools last week. Leesburg High School, for instance, was changed to Tatas High School, with the location changed to Skeezeburg and the principal being named “Megamind.” School officials from several districts are investigating. WOFL. WKMG.
Students and the law: Lee County sheriff’s deputies arrested an Estero High School student and accused him of having a stun gun and six bullets in his car in the school parking lot. Deputies also found cocaine residue in the student’s clothing. Fort Myers News-Press. A 15-year-old Flagler County student has been arrested and accused of hitting a teacher who was trying to break up a fight at Flagler Palm Coast High School. The teacher was not injured. Daytona Beach News-Journal. Flagler Live. A 13-year-old Lee County student was arrested and accused of threatening to kill students at the Alva School. WINK. WFTX.
Opinions on schools: Florida students deserve better than to have one of the lowest-paid education workforces in the nation at work in their classrooms. FEA president Fed Ingram, Miami Herald. Mass marches, such as the one planned by teachers today in Tallahassee, don’t change many minds. But they do focus public attention on what organizers want lawmakers to know their constituents care about. Bill Cotterell, Tallahassee Democrat. Legislators need to put students first for a change, and teachers a close second. Sun Sentinel. Republican legislators will have to deliver to fulfill Gov. Ron DeSantis’ pledge to make 2020 the year of the teacher. Tampa Bay Times. Name an issue proposed by a Republican but viewed favorably by 97 percent of Florida Democrats … AND that increases government spending yet is supported by nearly 9 in 10 Florida Republicans. The answer: raising Florida’s base salary for public school teachers. Karen Cyphers, Florida Politics. Teacher pay and student performance must be the top priorities for the Legislature. John Legg, Florida Politics. Florida school districts are looking to the courts for help fighting vaping manufacturers to recoup costs for the damage they’re doing to students and the problems they’re causing the districts. Scott Maxwell, Orlando Sentinel. Florida needs to make sure that high school students earn credentials that will actually prepare them for life after graduation including college, further vocational training or entering the workforce with a high-paying job. Patricia Levesque, Tampa Bay Times. Non-English-speaking students should get the chance to show what they’ve learned by allowing them to take required state assessment tests in their native languages. Jochua Cora Santiago, Orlando Sentinel.
District joins vaping suit, student killed by school bus, education spending, teacher pensions and more
District joins vaping suit: Seminole County School Board members vote 4-1 to join school districts in Palm Beach and Brevard counties and around the country in suing the e-cigarette manufacturer Juul Labs. Superintendent Walt Griffin recommended the board join the lawsuit because of the health risks to students and the resources the district has been using to deal with vaping-related problems. If the districts win the suit, Griffin said any money collected would go toward anti-vaping education programs. Orlando Sentinel.
Student hit, killed by bus: A 15-year-old Palm Beach County student was struck and killed by a school bus as she crossed a street in West Palm Beach on Wednesday morning. Natasha Dwyer, a sophomore at Inlet Grove High School, was in the crosswalk when she was hit by the bus. The bus driver had a green light, according to sheriff’s deputies, and he told them he didn’t see the girl. Grief counselors are at the school to provide assistance for students. The death is thought to be the first time in a decade that a county school bus has hit and killed a pedestrian. Palm Beach Post. Sun Sentinel. Miami Herald. WPTV.
U.S. education budget: U.S. spending on education would increase by $1.3 billion under the budget approved this week by the House of Representatives. The Senate is expected to pass the bill by Friday. Title I funding would increase by $450 million, an extra $410 million would go into grants for the education of children with disabilities, early learning and child-care programs would get $1 billion more, and the federal Charter Schools Program budget would remain at $440 million. Education Dive. Education Week.
Retirement funds concerns: The Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating a retirement investments company that has arrangements with several affiliates of the Florida Education Association teachers union. Those affiliates are urging members to buy investments from Valic Financial Advisors Inc. as a way to help the union make money. But left unmentioned are the higher fees associated with the products, which cut down on the retirement savings of teachers. Wall Street Journal.
Contract negotiations: While contract negotiations are moving slowly in Palm Beach and Broward counties, new taxes approved by voters are putting teachers on track for significant boosts over the next few years. Those tax increases are increasing teacher salaries by 7 percent in Broward and 14 percent in Palm Beach County, and union representatives in both districts are pushing for another raise of 3.5 to 5 percent in contract talks. The average Florida teacher makes $48,395 a year, the fourth-lowest salary in the United States. Sun Sentinel.
Educators honored: Samantha Hower, an art teacher at Mariner High School in Cape Coral, has been named the Lee County School District’s teacher of the year. She is now eligible for the Florida teacher of the year award, which will be announced in the spring. Fort Myers News-Press. Nancy Crowder of Shadowlawn Elementary has been named the Clay County School District’s principal of the year, and Matt Boyack of Oakleaf High was named assistant principal of the year. District officials also announced the 10 finalists for the teacher of the year award. Clay Today. Rakeem “Rock” Quinn, a paraprofessional who works with students with anger issues in the Bridges program at Port St. Joe Jr./Sr. High School, has been named the Gulf County School District’s employee of the year. Port St. Joe Star.
Medical marijuana in schools: The Monroe County School District could soon be out of compliance with a state law that requires districts to make accommodations for students to receive medical marijuana treatments at schools. A majority of school board members declined to pass such a policy this week, saying it would be in conflict with federal law. Florida Department of Education officials have given districts until Dec. 31 to create a policy. If the district doesn’t comply, it risks being ineligible for grants and other payments from the state. The board meets again Friday to reconsider. Key West Citizen.
Using sales tax funds: The Independent Citizens Oversight Committee has approved the Brevard County School District’s spending of money from a half-cent sales tax increase approved by voters in 2014. The tax has generated more than $210 million for construction projects at the district’s 83 schools. The 11-member committee was established by the referendum to monitor the spending. “As the sales surtax program enters the final stages, the ICOC is confident the district continues to implement the program in accordance with the ballot initiative and district policies and procedures,” said committee chair Gary Shiffrin. Florida Today.
School construction: The Bay County School District is borrowing $35 million from PNC Bank to begin repairs to several schools damaged by Hurricane Michael in 2018. The loan will allow work to begin while the district waits for reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The projects will begin early in 2020, district officials said. WMBB.
From homeless to teaching: Four years ago, Jacob Fricke was homeless, had poor reading skills and was working in a cleaning business. Today, he’s a new graduate of Florida Gulf Coast University in Estero and has been hired as a reading teacher at Varsity Lakes Middle School in Lehigh Acres. Fort Myers News-Press.
School shooting aftermath: An appeals court has upheld a ruling that Scot Peterson, the resource officer who didn’t confront the shooter who killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, does not have immunity against a negligence lawsuit filed by the parents of one of the victims. Peterson argued that because he was an agent of the state, he should have immunity from civil action. A Broward circuit judge denied that logic, and the appeals court upheld her ruling. Sun Sentinel. News Service of Florida.
School insurance: Polk County School District employees will have to produce legal paperwork to prove that the dependents they list on their health insurance are eligible for health, vision and dental benefits from the district. “I mean, basically, it comes down to dollars and it can be an extensive amount of money,” said Linda King, director of the district’s office of risk management. “The dependent process is painful. Everybody has to go in and verify their relationships. And this is marriages, these are guardians, this is their children.” She expects that 3 percent of the current dependents will be ruled ineligible, saving the district about $800,000 a year. Lakeland Ledger.
Superintendent search: As the Martin County School Board begins searching for a superintendent, board members can’t agree on how the search should be conducted. The Florida School Boards Association superintendent search services committee has recommended the district create a marketing plan and set up a website, both for transparency and to show off the district. Some members question the need, saying they don’t have the expertise and don’t need to spend the money. TCPalm.
Personnel moves: Cindy Lesinski has been named the chief financial officer for the Brevard County School District. She replaces Pennie Zuercher, who resigned in October. Lesinski had been the CFO of the U.S. Air Force Global Strike Command at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. Space Coast Daily.
Employees and the law: A recently retired custodial and grounds supervisor for the Broward County School District has been arrested and accused of accepting bribes from a district vendor over the past three years. Richard Ellis Jr., 49, is charged with bribery and interfering by threats or violence. He is accused of taking $6,130 in bribes from someone doing work for the vendor. Ellis retired in September. Sun Sentinel.
Students at the law: A Palm Beach County student has been arrested and accused of bringing a gun to Roosevelt Middle School in West Palm Beach. The gun was found in the boy’s backpack after students alerted administrators. Palm Beach Post.
Opinions on schools: Spending on education in the United States has increased over time, not decreased, but the ways in which school leaders and lawmakers use these resources still matters more for student success than how much is spent. Jonathan Butcher, redefinED. I believe that every student deserves a gifted education, and that kids will give their best efforts when they know their teachers support them. Heather Young, Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Before lawmakers follow the statewide grand jury’s recommendation of harsher punishments for schools districts that don’t comply with state laws, state and local officials should collaborate on a sober evaluation of school-security policies and make adjustments where necessary. Daytona Beach News-Journal. Among the eight education lessons learned from research in 2019: school segregation affects whether black students are identified as having a disability, students of color benefit from working with adults of color, and police inside and outside schools can depress student learning. Matt Barnum, Chalkbeat. The FHSAA failed two schools in 2015 by failing to know the history of these schools and prayer, and by not employing a little pragmatism and common sense. Lakeland Ledger.
Student enrichment: Hear the Youth, an advocacy group made up of high school students in Duval County, recently won $2,000 from T-Mobile for its idea to provide free high-speed Internet access to qualified students who have no access at home. Florida Times-Union. Fifteen Marion County students graduate from the Phoenix Rising YouthBuild program, which provides mentoring and high school degrees to at-risk people between the ages of 16 and 24. The students helped build a Habitat for Humanity home during the 20-week class. Ocala Star-Banner. Four Clay County elementary schools are getting free 3rd-grade National Integrated Cyber Education Research Center STEM educational modules from the Nolan Carroll Foundation. Clay Today.
Poll shows strong, wide support for school choice, Baker Act and students, contract ratified and more