Indicted legislator resigns, conflict in librarian training group, contract talks, lawsuits and more

Indicted legislator resigns: The state legislator indicted by a federal grand jury this week on charges of illegally obtaining $150,000 in pandemic-related small business loans has resigned. State Rep. Joseph Harding, R-Williston, announced his decision to resign immediately in a Facebook post that read, in part, “Due to legal issues that require my complete focus, it is my opinion that now is the time to allow someone else to serve my district.” He has pleaded not guilty and vowed to fight the charges. His trial is set Jan. 11 in Gainesville. Harding is best known for being a Florida House sponsor for the Parental Rights in Education law, which restricts discussion of gender identity or sexual orientation in public schools. USA Today Florida Network. Associated Press. News Service of Florida. Politico Florida. Tampa Bay Times.

Librarian training issues: Disagreements are surfacing among members of a Florida Department of Education work group who have until Jan. 1 to put together a process for school-library workers to follow when selecting books and other materials. The group includes school media specialists and parents, and some of the parents don’t believe proposed recommendations go far enough in the “regular removal or discontinuance” of books for failing to align with state academic standards. Committee member Michelle Beavers, chair of the Brevard chapter of the conservative group Moms for Liberty, is pushing the group to form its own definitions of materials that are impermissible and should be removed from media centers, and also wants media specialists to avoid helping students register to vote. Beavers said she doubts the group will come to an agreement. “I believe we’re at an impasse,” she said. “I don’t believe that these librarians are going to in any way agree to any of this. So I think it’s going to be a shorter meeting than we think.” News Service of Florida.

Around the state: Attorneys for the state are asking a federal appeals court to place a hold on a district judge’s decision to issue a preliminary injunction against the implementation of new law that restricts the way race-related topics can be taught in colleges and universities, a hearing master is brought into the pay dispute between teachers and the Hillsborough school district, contract negotiations resume in St. Johns County after teachers rejected a tentative contract agreement because the raises weren’t big enough, Palm Beach County revises its equity statement after hearing from the state that it doesn’t comply with state law, Brevard school board members hear stories from teachers and bus drivers about the abuse they take from students, teachers are honored in Gulf and Duval counties, and Pinellas County’s school superintendent said the district will begin contacting families via text messages instead of robocalls and letters. Here are details about those stories and others from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Miami-Dade: The school board is being sued by the local chapter of a conservative advocacy organization that alleges the board broke Florida’s Sunshine Law by allowing a committee reviewing textbooks for the sex education curriculum to “exercise substantial governmental decision-making authority during meetings closed to the public.” The County Citizens Defending Freedom is an organization supporting “the protection of traditional American principles with an emphasis on civic engagement on the local level from ordinary citizens.” Florida Standard.

Broward: School board member Brenda Fam, defending herself against criticism after appearing at a rally last week that included anti-LGBTQ factions and an appearance by the Proud Boys, created even more controversy. In the Facebook post, Fam said she welcomed support from everyone, even the far-right Proud Boys, which some civil rights organizations call an extremist hate group. “If you support my cause to protect the children you are welcomed to stand next to me,” she wrote. “Doesn’t matter if you are gay, straight, black, white, Black Lives Matter, or the Proud Boys. The children don’t care who is rescuing them; they just want to be rescued.” At least two school board colleagues, Nora Rupert and Sarah Leonardi, said they were shocked by Fam’s comments. “This statement chills me to my soul,” said Rupert. “Our community does NOT need this vitriol coming from the Broward County School Board. Let’s lead with kindness.” Sun-Sentinel. A teacher at the Franklin Academy, a charter school in Pembroke Pines, has been fired for interrupting two students reciting a Muslim prayer. “Hold on, this in my office and y’all doing this magic?” she said as the students prayed. Another teacher then came into the office, started blowing a whistle and said, “I believe in Jesus so I’m interrupting the floor.” WPLG.

Hillsborough: Six months into contract negotiations between the school district and its teachers, a hearing master has been brought into the dispute over pay. Thursday, the district argued that the $13 million it’s offering in raises and bonuses is all it can afford. Union officials contend the district can dig into its reserves to better its offer, and that teachers make less per hour than their counterparts in other large districts. Hearing master James Stokes will also review written summaries from both sides and then issue an opinion on whether the union should get what it wants, accept the district’s offer or meet in the middle. The opinion is not binding. Tampa Bay Times.

Orange: Twenty-four district high school graduation ceremonies will be held May 17-30. Twelve will be held at the Amway Center, 11 at the University of Central Florida and one at the Dr. Phillips Center. Orange County School District. Orange Observer.

Palm Beach: School board members approved revisions to the district’s equity statement after being told by the Florida Department of Education that it and the district’s LGBTQ+ support guide did not comply with state law. DOE senior chancellor Jacob Oliva said in a recent letter to district Superintendent Michael Burke that the sections outlining students’ rights to use their affirmed name, to participate in sports aligning with their gender identity and to use the restroom or locker room matching their identities do not conform to state law. WPTV. WPEC. A school rezoning committee has delayed making a decision on boundaries for Dr. Joaquin Garcia High School, which opens next fall. Another meeting has been set for Dec. 30. Almost 2,000 students are likely to be affected by the new zones. WPTV. A former assistant school superintendent is suing the district, claiming she was demoted in retaliation for challenging Superintendent Burke’s decision to ban a school board-approved sex education poster and for her criticism of  Republicans on social media. Diana Fedderman had been the assistant superintendent of teaching and learning but was moved into the director of equity job, which is only being funded for two years and will leave her one year short of retirement eligibility. Miami New Times.

Duval: Five finalists have been chosen for the school district’s teacher of the year award. They are: Katrina Bias, who teaches several subjects to students in grades 3-5 at Garden City Elementary School; Argel Hipol, a biology teacher at Westside High; Andrew Lodge, a music teacher at San Mateo Elementary; Julia Mayeshiba, who teaches math and physics at Andrew Jackson High; and Ashley Watkins, who teaches 1st- to 3rd-graders at J. Allen Axson Montessori. The winner will be announced Feb. 10. WJXT.

Pinellas: Superintendent Kevin Hendrick said the district will begin experimenting with sending text messages to parents instead of relying exclusively on robocalls and written notes. As he met with various community groups to hear their ideas on what the district should consider, Hendrick said it became clear parents thought texting with incorporated links might be a more effective way to convey messages on a district level. If that works, he said, principals and teachers will be given access to a blast text-messaging system for their schools or classes. “It’s about time,” said board chair Lisa Cane, who has three children in the district and said the number of calls she gets from their schools can get overwhelming. Tampa Bay Times. A 9th-grader at Gibbs High School was arrested Thursday after police said he posted a picture of himself with a gun in a school bathroom on social media. WFLA.

Brevard: School board members heard story after story from teachers, bus drivers and other school employees about being “attacked, scratched, head-butted” by students in schools during a special meeting Thursday to discuss student misbehavior and what might be done about it. Potential ideas floated during the meeting included stricter enforcement of rules, greater accountability for students, an increased presence of parents in schools, the use of adults as hall monitors, and even banning students from using their phones in class. Board chair Matt Susin said 42 teachers and eight bus drivers have quit since school started in August because of student misbehavior. “Everybody in this room is agreeing our teachers and our students deserve a safe-learning environment to go to school in,” said county Sheriff Wayne Ivey. No decisions were reached, and the board agreed to continue the discussion at future meetings. WKMG. WFTV. WOFL. WESH.

Volusia: Palm Terrace Elementary School in Daytona Beach has received a $100,000 donation from local philanthropist L. Gale Lemerand, which will be used for academic support of the arts, English, math and science instruction as well as social-emotional learning. Palm Terrace is a Title I school, a federal designation given to schools that have a high percentage of students from low-income families. For Lemerand, 88, who has owned dozens of companies and restaurants over the years, it was his first donation to an elementary school. He said he was raised in a “very poor” family in Michigan and graduated high school but did not go to college. “I guess that’s one of the reasons I support education so much is because I had missed out on it myself,” he said. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

St. Johns: Union and school officials returned to the bargaining table Thursday to restart contract negotiations after teachers overwhelmingly rejected a tentative settlement last month. Teachers said the deal, which would have raised starting pay to $48,209 and increased pay for most teachers by at least $1,200, wasn’t enough. They say higher pay is necessary to recruit and retain teachers. WJXT. WTLV.

Santa Rosa: School board members have approved a contract agreement between teachers and the school district that raises educator pay by an average of $2,684, or 5.1 percent. The contract still must be approved by union members. WEAR.

Gulf: Jeannie Baumgardner, a 3rd-grade teacher at Wewahitchka Elementary School, has been named the district’s teacher of the year. Shannon Jo Martin, a paraprofessional for the Gulf Academy/in-school suspension program at Wewahitchka High, was chosen as employee of the year. Both are now eligible for the state honors. Port St. Joe Star.

Colleges and universities: Florida A&M University trustees have agreed to boost president Larry Robinson’s $436,436 pay by 3.5 percent, pay him a 17.5 percent bonus and extend his contract by a year. Robinson has led the school since 2017. WCTV. WTXL. Florida Gulf Coast University trustees have extended president Mike Martin’s contract to June 30, 2023, and reopened their search for a replacement. Martin wanted to leave earlier, but the search has taken longer than expected. News Service of Florida.

Stop WOKE case: Attorneys for the state are asking a federal appeals court to place a hold on a district judge’s decision to issue a preliminary injunction against the implementation of new law that restricts the way race-related topics can be taught in colleges and universities. If it’s granted, the stay would allow the restrictions detailed in the so-called Stop WOKE Act to remain in effect until the constitutionality of the law can be determined. “The constitutional question in this case … boils down to this: Who decides what is, and is not, to be taught in Florida’s college classrooms — individual professors or their employer, the state, in prescribing by law the content requirements and standards that govern public universities in setting their course curricula?” the state’s motion asked. News Service of Florida. Politico Florida.

Campus fees case: An attorney for a University of Florida graduate student who is suing to recover student fees paid for services the university did not provide during the pandemic shutdown is asking for a rehearing by the full 1st District Court of Appeal. A three-member panel of the court ruled last month that an Alachua County circuit judge should have dismissed the case because there was no specific contract between the school and students. News Service of Florida.

Opinions on schools: Florida provides a relatively large amount of choice to both students with disabilities and students generally. Florida has also spent decades of effort in promoting sound reading instruction for all students. The results, seen in the 2022 NAEP exams, are encouraging. Matthew Ladner, reimaginED.

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BY NextSteps staff