‘Parental rights’ state legislator indicted for fraud, what Brevard’s ‘crackdown’ won’t be, and more

School bill sponsor indicted: State Rep. Joseph Harding, R-Williston, has been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of illegally obtaining $150,000 in pandemic-related small business loans. Authorities said Harding, 35, used the names of dormant companies to apply for the loans. He pleaded not guilty and vowed to fight the charges. His trial is set Jan. 11. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in prison for wire fraud, up to 10 years for money laundering and up to 5 years for making false statements. Harding was elected to the Florida House in 2020 and is best known for being a sponsor for the Parental Rights in Education law, which bans discussion of gender identity or sexual orientation in classrooms in grades K-3. Politico Florida. Associated Press. News Service of Florida. USA Today Florida Network. WKMG. Gainesville Sun. WCJB. WGFL. Tampa Bay Times. Florida Politics.

Around the state: Brevard’s school board chair says corporal punishment and a change in law enforcement’s role won’t be a part of any proposed crackdown on student discipline, a former Broward school board member is cleared of an ethics violation, the state says Hillsborough schools remain out of compliance with state laws on gender identity and racial issues, Polk County schools name their teacher and school-related employees of the year, three northeast Florida school districts change their school calendars to make up some time lost to Hurricane Nicole, Escambia teachers and school officials reach a tentative agreement on starting pay, a slowdown in enrollment growth in Flagler’s public schools has put a pause on plans for a new middle school, and a Pinellas County program aims to teach parents how to help their preschool children get ready for kindergarten. Here are details about those stories and others from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Broward: Former school board members Donna Korn and district administrator Shawn Cerra have been cleared by an ethics investigation into their relationship with the vendor who had an exclusive contract to provide graduation caps and gowns for Broward schools. Both Korn and Cerra stayed multiple times in the Marco Island home of Chuck Puleri, the distributor for Herff Jones, which overcharged students and their parents, according to a recent audit. Complaints against Korn and Cerra were filed by two Broward residents. Sun-Sentinel.

Hillsborough: State officials have warned school officials that some district policies do not comply with its laws on gender identity and racial issues. In a letter dated Nov. 18, Florida Department of Education senior chancellor Jacob Oliva specifically flagged a policy on racial equity that mentions “institutional racism,” an approach that could be counter to the state’s Stop WOKE Act. In its response written Dec. 7 and due to the state by Friday, district officials said they are working to make sure they comply with state law. School board members will discuss the issue at next Tuesday’s meeting. Tampa Bay Times.

Palm Beach: School officials have halted state progress monitoring testing for the rest of the week because of intermittent Internet problems districtwide. WPTV. WPBF. High school graduations have been scheduled from May 11-25, with most of them taking place at the South Florida Fairgrounds in West Palm Beach. Palm Beach Post.

Duval, St. Johns, Nassau: Three northeast Florida districts have made changes to their school calendars because of instruction time lost when Hurricane Nicole affected the area. Duval school officials have changed May 17 from an early dismissal day to a full day. In St. Johns, Feb. 6 is now a regular school day. It had been a day off for students and an in-service day for staff. And students in Nassau County will return to classes from winter break on Monday, Jan. 9, instead of Tuesday, Jan. 10. WJAX.

Polk: Natalie McSwain, a Spanish teacher at Lake Gibson High School in Lakeland, has been selected as the school district’s teacher of the year. Julie Whiteley, the principal’s secretary at Fred Garner Elementary in Winter Haven, was chosen as the school-related employee of the year. Both are now eligible for statewide honors. Lakeland Now. Polk County School District. Mildred Bennett Foster, a longtime music teacher at Jewett Primary School in Winter Haven, which was renamed Jewett Elementary after desegregation and is now Jewett School of the Arts, has died at the age of 83. The school named one of its buildings in her honor after she retired in 2000. Lakeland Ledger.

Pinellas: A program sponsored by United Way Suncoast is trying to improve academic outcomes for toddlers by teaching their parents how to help them learn at home. Once a week, parents and their children attend the Learn & Play program at the Campbell Park Resource Center in St. Petersburg. “If you’re not talking to your child, if you’re not helping your child learn and grow and become familiar with language in those years, then when they enter kindergarten, they’ll already be at a disadvantage,” said Ulas Butler, a program supervisor. “That’s why we’re here. To make sure our kids are prepared.” About 41 percent of Pinellas children entering kindergarten are unprepared, according to state data. Tampa Bay Times.

Brevard: School board chair Matt Susin said today’s board meeting about cracking down on student disciplinary problems in the district will not address corporal punishment or change law enforcement’s role in protecting schools. “There will be no talk of bringing back corporal punishment. Period,” Susin said Wednesday. He added, “The sheriff’s office, they manage and do our security for our school district and have done a stellar job (but) their role in the process will not change at all. … What everybody’s fears are is not actually what’s going to happen.” Some parents and groups had worried that spanking and other phsyical punishment might be considered after a press conference last week at which Sheriff Wayne Ivey vowed a “brand new day” for discipline in schools and said, “If you’re a little snot that’s coming to our classes to be disruptive, you might want to find some place else to go to school because we’re going to be your worst nightmare starting right now.” Florida Today.

Osceola: County commissioners have extended a program that covers tuition costs for all 2023 high school graduates in the county. The Osceola Prosper Program pays for students to work toward associate or technical degrees at Valencia College or Osceola Technical College. It began last year, and about 2,000 students participated. The extension will cost about $8.3 million. Orlando Sentinel. WKMG. WESH.

Collier: An Immokalee Middle School student was arrested this week after allegedly making social media threats against the school. Deputies said the boy faces a charge of making written threats to kill or do bodily injury or conduct a mass shooting or an act of terrorism. WINK. WFTX. WBBH.

Sarasota: Superintendent Brennan Asplen has signed a separation agreement with the school board, which will vote on it at next Tuesday’s meeting. The negotiated agreement will pay Asplen $170,000 in severance, plus moving and legal fees, and keep him as a consultant to the school board and interim superintendent for 12 weeks. Asplen’s wife, Mari Ellen Asplen, is a professional development supervisor for the school district and also signed a separation agreement dating her resignation as Jan. 9. Charlotte Sun.

Escambia: School officials and the teachers union have reached a tentative contract agreement that will improve starting teacher pay from $44,100 to $45,500 and provide bonuses. Still unresolved are such issues as a mandatory 25-minute lunch break for teachers and job security. Union membership and the school board also have to sign off the agreement. WEAR.

Clay: Fleming Island High School senior Brady White is one of two state students chosen for the 2023 U.S. Senate Youth Program. He and others from around the nation will receive a $10,000 undergraduate scholarship and an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C., from March 4-11 to interact with appointed and elected government officials “to gain an in-depth view of the Senate and the federal government overall as well as a deeper understanding of the interrelationship of the legislation, judicial and executive branch,” according to the program website. WOXV.

Leon: Sidewalks will be built from Tallahassee neighborhoods to Hawk’s Rise Elementary School and Springwood Elementary School, the city commission decided Wednesday. The project will be financed with almost $1.3 million from the Florida Department of Transportation and $388,000 from city’s new sidewalk program master project. WCTV.

Flagler: A slowdown in enrollment growth projections for district schools has delayed plans for a new middle school. “We don’t believe we will grow as fast for the middle school grades and have pushed our middle school out beyond the five-year plan,” said Dave Freeman, the district’s facilities director. Work will continue toward building a third high school that would open in the fall of 2024. District officials attribute the slowdown in enrollment growth to more students choosing home-schooling or moving to private schools. About 1,200 students are now-homeschooled, an increase of 70 percent in the past five years. A similar rate of growth has been seen in private schools, which 1,750 now attend. Flagler Live. School board members Colleen Conklin and Cheryl Massaro both said this week that they would not run for re-election in 2024, although Massaro said there is a small chance she could change her mind. She’s been a board member for two years, and Conklin been on the board for 22 years. Flagler Live.

Washington: A student at Roulhac Middle School in Chipley has been arrested and accused of making threats against the school on the social media platform Snapchat. “The content of the post was related to a threat of a school shooting, warning students not to go to school on 12/7/2022,” deputies said. WJHG. WMBB.

Gulf: Leah Beene, a junior from Wewahitchka High School, has been chosen as the school district’s Sunshine State Scholar. Each year the state chooses the top junior in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields from every district. The students attend a conference in Orlando in April to connect them with employers that specialize in the STEM fields. Port St. Joe Star.

Colleges and universities: A new logo for Florida Gulf Coast University was introduced Wednesday. It features capital letters F, G and C in a deep blue, the U in a dark green and a drawing of an eagle. A school logo redesign committee worked with a branding company Ologie, which offered three options. University constituents then selected the winner. WFTX.

DOE ex-staffer faces sanctions: Florida’s Commission on Ethics has found probable cause that a former staffer violated state law by spending gift cards meant for educational training on personal purchases, requesting payment for training never provided, and stashing state technology at his home amid the pandemic. The commission is now asking for a public hearing on the accusations that Justin Feller misused almost $100,000 in state grants that were intended to go to K-12 teachers. Politico Florida.

Around the nation: The number of U.S. students visiting hospital emergency rooms for mental-health issues increased 59 percent between 2016 and 2021, according to a recent report in the journal Pediatrics. That trend is being mirrored in Florida hospitals. At Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, for instance, the number of children visiting the emergency room with suicidal thoughts doubled from 2019 to 2021, according to Jennifer Katzenstein, co-director of the hospital’s Center for Behavioral Health. WUSF. Membership in the two large national teachers unions declined by 59,000 during the 2021-2022 school year, according to a U.S. Department of Labor report. That follows a drop of 82,000 members the year before. The National Education Association now has 2.5 million members, which is 40,107 less than last year. The American Federation of Teachers has 1.12 million members, down 19,078. The dip comes at a time when overall school employment was up by 95,000. The 74.

Opinions on schools: Florida’s original A+ Plan for Education started our state down the school choice path more than 20 years ago. A New A+ Plan for Florida Education would enable us to reach our destination: providing scholarship eligibility to all students, while retaining our state’s special concern for families facing difficult circumstances. William Mattox, Florida Politics. We need to encourage innovation in our education system and explore learning opportunities that can work alongside traditional public schools. We can start by providing education grants directly to students and their families to help accelerate learning, from tutoring to online programs to additional educational materials and expenses. Craig Hulse and Derrell Bradford, The Hechinger Report. By creating and cultivating political wedge issues in school, usually revolving around the teaching of American history and marginalizing LGBT people, Gov. Ron DeSantis has stoked condemnation of public education and used that condemnation as a way to groom and cultivate voters. Frank Cerabino, Palm Beach Post.