Polk teachers who march threatened with firing, bills on aid forms and parental rights 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 LedgerTampa Bay TimesOrlando 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.

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BY NextSteps staff