Grand jury urges four Broward school board members be removed for ‘neglect of duty’

Around the state: The statewide grand jury investigating the 2018 Parkland school shooting and school safety around the state recommends removing four school board members in Broward County for “incompetence” and “neglect of duty,” the grand jury’s report also accuses Duval’s former school police chief of criminal misconduct and is critical of the actions of several other school districts, the Florida Department of Education is reportedly planning to require school districts to notify parents if their policies allow transgender students to access bathrooms and locker rooms, Palm Beach County school officials will revise the district’s LGBTQ+ support guide again after it was criticized by a state official last week, Sarasota school officials’ decision to suspend purchases and donations of books to school libraries means hundreds of dictionaries donated by a Rotary club won’t be displayed for months, attorneys for Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz begin his defense today, and school board elections in several districts are previewed. Here are details about those stories and others from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Broward: The long-awaited report from the statewide grand jury investigating the 2018 Parkland school shooting and the operation of the school district is recommending that Gov. Ron DeSantis remove four current school board members. Patricia Good, Donna Korn, Ann Murray and Laurie Rich Levinson “engaged in acts of incompetence and neglect of duty,” the report concluded. A fifth board member recommended for removal, Rosalind Osgood, left the board last November to run in March for a state Senate seat, which she won. All five were supporters of former superintendent Robert Runcie, who was indicted for perjury and stepped down a year ago. “It should be obvious that …. attempts to hold the superintendent and his district staff accountable have been routinely and openly thwarted by the majority of the board, the very same majority we seek to remove from office,” the report said. Only Korn is on Tuesday’s primary ballot, facing three challengers for the District 8 seat. Over the weekend, she rejected a call from one of her opponents to suspend her campaign. Sun-Sentinel. Miami Herald. Associated Press. Politico Florida. WPLG. Attorneys trying to convince a jury to spare Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz from the death penalty begin their defense today. Their success will hinge on whether they can overcome testimony describing Cruz’s continuing fixation on murdering people, his own statements, including that he’s glad to wear a mask in court so people can’t see him smile or laugh, and the jury’s walk-through of the crime scene, which remains untouched since the shooting. Sun-Sentinel. Politico Florida. Associated Press.

Orange: The statewide grand jury also concluded that some of Orange County School District’s school safety data was “suspect,” and that some of the 10 schools in Apopka had interfered with at least three police investigations from 2016 to 2019. Apopka school officials seemed “to make concerted efforts not only to suppress reporting of serious incidents but also actively hamper police investigations,” the report said. Orlando Sentinel.

Palm Beach: School officials are again revising the district’s LGBTQ+ support guide after a member of the Board of Governors questioned whether it complied with the law. A change was made to the section on field trips. Originally, a line said that transgender students “should be allowed to room with peers that match their gender identity.” Now it’s covered by a box containing the words “UNDER REVIEW.” The guide has been reviewed at least twice since July 1, and district officials said it will continue to be updated as needed. Palm Beach Post. A “technical” glitch mistakenly sent false alerts Friday morning to families with children in district schools. The alert originated with a drill at one school and inadvertently was shared with other schools through an app. “The district is currently working with the vendor of the primary app on which the notification of the drill originated and taking steps to avoid any future situations like this,” the district said in a call to parents to explain the confusion. Palm Beach Post.

Duval: The statewide grand jury also is accusing the former Duval school district police chief of manipulating, underreporting and covering up crimes in schools. It originally recommended that the Office of Statewide Prosecution pursue charges against Micheal P. Edwards on two felony counts and a misdemeanor, but the final report that Edwards had “essentially been offered a diversion disposition in lieu of formal prosecution.” In one case, the grand jury said Edwards ordered the release of a student who had been arrested for fighting at a football game. The student was shot to death near the end of the game in a continuation of the fight. In another case, it said Edwards refused an officer’s request to lock down a school after a student was reported to have a gun on campus because he didn’t want to alarm parents. The report called Edwards’ conduct “absolutely criminal.” Edwards resigned early in 2021, a month after an initial grand jury report used the district as an example of how districts were underreporting school crimes. Florida Times-Union. WJAX. WJXT.

Pinellas: District 7 school board incumbent Caprice Edmond talks about her qualifications, platform and priorities. She’s running against Maria Solanki. Florida Politics. District 3 school board incumbent Dawn Peters talks about her qualifications, platform and priorities. She’s running against Keesha Benson and Carl Zimmermann. Florida Politics.

Lee, Collier: Both the Lee and Collier school districts continue to struggle to fill open teaching jobs. As of the first day of school Aug. 10, Lee had 208 open jobs, or 3.5 percent of its 6,000 positions, and Collier still had 60 open jobs, which is 2 percent of their total of 3,100. The shortages are forcing teachers in noninstructional positions into the classroom until jobs can be filled. Fort Myers News-Press.

Brevard: A report that a transgender student sexually assaulted a female in a middle school bathroom this summer has not been confirmed, but it’s now being reported that the Florida Department of Education is considering requiring schools to notify parents if their policies allow transgender students to access bathrooms and locker rooms. The assault allegation has been denied by district officials and is under investigation by the DOE and Melbourne police. Florida Today.

Osceola: District 1 school board candidates Terry Castillo, the incumbent, and challengers Jennifer Arguello and James Nickles discuss their top priorities if elected. Arguello said she wants to restore the district’s culture. Nickles hopes to address the teacher shortage and improve decorum at school board meetings, and Castillo said she wants to improve parent engagement, keep schools safe and close the achievement gap. WESH.

St. Johns: Bev Slough is running for re-election to her District 1 school board seat against Racheal Hand and Nancy Tray. In District 3, Lauren Abell, Rita Baldwin, Jennifer Collins and Doug Russo are competing to replace the outgoing Bill Mignon.  Each of the candidates recently answered questions about themselves, their community service, qualifications for the job, reasons for running, goals if elected, how they’d keep the district at the top of the state rankings, and managing population growth. St. Augustine Record. St. Augustine Record.

Sarasota: A freeze imposed by school officials on purchases and donations of books to Sarasota County School District libraries means hundreds of dictionaries donated by the Venice Suncoast Rotary Club won’t be delivered until January, at the earliest. District officials said they’re waiting on guidance from the state on how they can comply with new laws. The decision is puzzling to members of the club. Gar Reese said the club has been donating dictionaries to Sarasota elementary schools for almost 15 years. “I would suspect somebody, anyone, could approve a dictionary in less than one minute,” Reese said. “Why are we going through all this trouble?” District spokesman Craig Maniglia, the district’s director of communications, said, “Once we receive guidance from our legal team and receive direction from FDOE we will certainly reach out to our education partners with updates. We value their support and don’t wish to jeopardize the wonderful relationships we have in place.” Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Leon: With only 95 school bus drivers for 115 bus routes, the first few days of school have been marked with persistent transportation delays. Middle schools, which start the latest, have been most affected. “We apologize for the delays at the start of the school year,” Superintendent Rocky Hanna said. “I can assure you we are working each and every day to ensure the safety of our children and to make sure they’re getting to and from school in a timely manner.” Tallahassee Democrat.

Martin: County voters are being asked Tuesday to renew a special half-mill property tax to support the school district. If approved, the tax would raise about $50 million over the next four years, which will be used to improve teacher pay, school safety and mental health services for students. WPTV.

Charlotte: A Charlotte High School student made a threat against the school last week, according to sheriff’s deputies. School officials said he has been temporarily barred from the campus until an investigation is concluded. WFTX. WINK.

Hernando: A judge in the 5th Judicial Circuit Court ruled last week that the county commission had the authority to place a school sales tax renewal on the November 2024 ballot instead of this Nov. 8, as the school board wanted. The school board had argued that the 2024 election was too close to the 2025 end of the extra sales tax, and it needed to know earlier so it could budget properly. Suncoast News.

Walton: Jason Catalano, the District 5 school board incumbent and building plans review manager for the Planning & Development Department, is running for a third term against MH Carr, who retired in 2021 after six years as executive director of the Walton Education Foundation. Both recently answered questions about what the district can do about the teacher and staff shortages, incentives that might be offered to help district employees find affordable housing, and what part board members should play in reviewing books that are challenged for content. Northwest Florida Daily News.

Colleges and universities: Florida A&M University’s classes begin today, and about 300 students are still on the waiting list for on-campus housing. WCTV. Florida Gulf Coast University held its first class last week in its new $58 million Water School building on campus. The curriculum includes climate change, natural resources, ecosystem health and well-being, restoration and remediation. Fort Myers News-Press. WINK.

Endorsement edge? The increasingly partisan nature of school board elections was intensified this year by Gov. DeSantis’ decision to endorse candidates, campaign for them and direct donations to them. How much will the governor’s endorsements matter? “It absolutely helps,” said Megan Wright, a Brevard County candidate who scored DeSantis’ endorsement. “It lets people know this is where my policies are, where I stand.” Justin Kennedy, a candidate in Volusia County, said if DeSantis’ efforts are successful, “this politization of schools will spread like wildfire.” Politico Florida.

Sex education differences: What Florida students learn about sexual health largely depends on where they live, according to a review of school district curriculums. Twenty of the state’s 67 school districts say they teach only abstinence, while just six districts receive funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to offer comprehensive sexual health education. “Sex education in Florida public schools is very inconsistent,” said University of North Florida professor Elissa Barr, who has studied policies for more than two decades. “Because it’s not consistent we have kids in our state who are receiving quality sex education and learning the skills and resources and information to really protect themselves and advocate for themselves. Then we have other counties where kids aren’t getting that information.” WFTS.

Around the nation: Many school district budgets are flush now because of federal coronavirus relief aid, but they’re just two years away from difficult times, say finance experts. By the 2024-2025 school year, they say, district finances will be at risk due to the end of federal aid, declining enrollment, inflation and labor shortages, and the possibility of an economic slowdown. “Really, the forecast ahead is for continued longer-term decline,” said Marguerite Roza, director of Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab. “And that is something that districts really haven’t had to wrestle with in the last several decades.” K-12 Dive.

Opinions on schools: Educational choice is on a roll precisely because it’s provided families a refuge from school closures, COVID-19 and ideological extremism. That’s a lesson worth taking to heart. Frederick Hess, Fox News. Gov. DeSantis has missed the point about the crisis of the teacher shortage. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with offering incentives for first responders like retired police officers to work in the classroom. But the way to fill teacher vacancies is to pay what the profession demands. Let’s stop with the half-measures and start putting students first. Tampa Bay Times. Gov. DeSantis wants to tap retired veterans, firefighters and police officers to fill the classrooms. What the governor doesn’t seem to realize is that veterans have been in Florida classrooms for years. Yet many got out, saying the same thing other teachers say: that teaching in this state stinks. Scott Maxwell, Orlando Sentinel. Florida’s schools do not just need civics and history standards; they also need to increase the training and mentorship resources available to educators so that they can teach the state’s new requirements in the most efficient and effective manner possible. Greg Balan, Orlando Sentinel. Gov. DeSantis’ rhetorical excess excites his base, but it won’t encourage teachers, many of them grads of “magnets of ideology,” to stick around. Fred Grimm, Sun-Sentinel. Student achievement depends on investing in research-based early literacy policy and raising, not lowering, expectations. Jeb Bush, Miami Herald. When this year’s ugly district school board campaigns in Florida are over, will anybody remember that one of the responsibilities of our public schools is to give students the opportunity to achieve at the highest level? Paul Cottle, Bridge to Tomorrow.

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BY NextSteps staff