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District unemployment bills soar, disputes over pay hikes, taxes for repairs, lead testing and more

Districts’ unemployment claims: School districts around the state are questioning second quarter unemployment reimbursement bills from the state Department of Revenue that are anywhere from 2 to 328 times higher than what they owed from the first quarter, since there haven’t been mass layoffs. The Hillsborough district, for example, paid $3,204 in the first quarter but was sent a bill for $1.05 million for the second. Sarasota went from $4,008 to $439,958, Pinellas from $26,709 to $606,620, and Pasco from $5,397 to $326,634. “What we’re now being billed for in a quarter is twice the annual budget for that,” said Kathy Scalise, Pasco’s director of employee relations. “How do we make that up? It’s quite frightening.” An official for the Department of Economic Opportunity said the state has done nothing to cause the spike, and that districts and businesses can challenge the charges. Tampa Bay Times.

Lead testing in schools: The Environmental Protection Agency is considering enacting a rule that would require water providers to test for lead in drinking water at 20 percent of K-12 schools, preschools and child-care centers in their service area every year. Any building constructed after Jan. 1, 2014, would be exempt. Ingestion of lead has been shown to cause developmental delays in young children. If the rule is approved, it would be the first substantive change to the EPA’s rules on lead testing since 1991. Education Dive.

Around the state: Unions and school districts continue to fight over pay raises for veteran teachers, Hillsborough school officials cite lower revenue from a sales tax surcharge as a reason to cut back on the number of air-conditioning problems it will tackle next summer, the Duval district has met the criteria required before asking voters for more tax money, a feared explosion in coronavirus cases in Sarasota and Manatee schools hasn’t materialized, Lake County schools announce the principal and assistant principal of the year, and enrollment is booming at the Florida Virtual School but is down at most of Florida’s 28 state colleges. Here are details about those stories and other developments from the state’s districts and private schools, and colleges and universities:

Miami-Dade: Teachers union officials said it’s likely that more than 1,000 students have been placed into quarantine since classrooms reopened a month ago. District officials said they can’t confirm that number because they’re busy with contact tracing. At least 332 coronavirus cases have been reported. Miami Herald. Brother Eugene Trzecieski, who taught for 52 years and also served as a dean and treasurer at the private Christopher Columbus High School in Miami, has died at the age of 91. He retired from teaching 10 years ago to do administrative work at the school. Miami Herald. About 40 Miami-Dade educators received training last month on how to spot misinformation online, and plan to pass the skill along to their students. WLRN.

Broward: A school bus driver is being praised for saving five students from a bus that caught fire last week. The bus was taking students home from Indian Ridge Middle School when a fire erupted under the back end. The driver, Louis J. Pierre, pulled over and quickly got the students out of the bus to safety. Sun Sentinel. WTVJ. WPLG.

Hillsborough, Tampa Bay: The Hillsborough County School District is cutting back on its plans for air-conditioning system repairs next summer because of a projected 5 percent drop in revenues from an extra half-cent sales tax. In the first eight months of 2019, the tax generated nearly $81 million for the district. This year, it’s down to a little over $76 million, and the list of projects has been pared from 19 last summer to 14 in 2021. Tampa Bay Times. More than 200 education officials in the Tampa Bay area joined a conference call last week to urge the University of South Florida to reconsider its decision to phase out its College of Education undergraduate programs. Districts have relied heavily on USF for graduates to fill open teaching positions every year. Tampa Bay Times. The average weekly number of coronavirus cases in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando schools has almost doubled since the school year started. In August, about 100 to 125 cases a week were diagnosed. Lately that total has been over 200 a week. Tampa Bay Times.

Palm Beach: The school district has reached an agreement with all county law enforcement and fire agencies that details what those agencies are responsible for in case of an active-shooter situation in a school. Frank Kitzerow, the school police chief, said the agreement will provide a faster response to end the threat, provide help for victims and reconnect family members as soon as possible after the event. WPTV.

Duval: An audit by a Houston firm concludes that the school district has met or partially met all six criteria required to ask voters to increase the sales tax by a half-cent for repairing and replacing schools and upgrading security. “It’s really a review of policies and procedures as it relates to construction and management, potentially of the half-penny revenue that will come in,” said district spokesperson Tracy Pierce. “What it showed very clearly is the district is exceptionally well prepared.” WJXT. Students and teachers returned to Douglas Anderson School of the Arts on Friday after two weeks of remote learning because of a coronavirus outbreak. WTLV.

Polk: Debra Smith Wright, a teacher, principal and one of only five black school board members in the history of the county, has died at the age of 67 after a long illness. Lakeland Ledger.

Volusia, Flagler: Fifty new coronavirus cases were reported last week in Volusia schools, and seven in Flagler schools. Volusia now has had 190 cases and Flagler 47. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

Manatee, Sarasota: There are now 382 cases of the coronavirus in the Sarasota and Manatee school districts, lower than teachers feared when schools were reopened. “I think everything is going along, but no major outbreak at this point, which is good,” said Barry Dubin, executive director of the Sarasota teachers union. “Hopefully, we were wrong, yeah.” Sarasota Herald-Tribune. The latest Manatee County School District coronavirus dashboard update shows six more students and employees being infected, forcing the quarantining of more than a dozen people. Schools affected were Bayshore High, Braden River Middle, Jain Middle, Lakewood Ranch High, Palmetto Elementary and Palmetto High. Bradenton Herald. Manatee school board members agreed last week to borrow $100 million to begin several construction and renovation projects. More than $81 million will be used for renovations at Blackburn Elementary, Haile Middle and Tara Elementary. Bradenton Herald.

Collier: Employees at Bonita Springs Elementary School are currently working out of portables while repairs begin on the school’s roof, which collapsed in June after a storm. Naples Daily News. School board chair Stephanie Lucarelli said she intends to continue pushing her colleagues to begin a discussion about rezoning schools to even out enrollment, though district officials said they don’t expect rezoning will be needed until the 2023-2024 school year. “There’s always going to be a reason not to have the discussion and not to have the rezone,” Lucarelli said. “I have been asking for four years and every year there has been a reason not to do it.” Naples Daily News.

Lake: William Roberts, the principal of Windy Hill Middle School, has been named the district’s principal of the year, and Kevin Schichtel of Clermont Elementary is the assistant principal of the year. Both are now eligible for statewide honors. Daily Commercial.

St. Johns: District officials are offering financial incentives for substitute teachers who are willing to work on specific days or at certain schools. The usual $100 a day pay would grow by $20 for subs willing to work Mondays or Friday, and another $10 if they agree to work at one of 13 designated schools. WJXT.

Marion: An impasse has been declared in contract negotiations between the school district and the teachers union. The sides have agreed to raise the minimum pay for all teachers to $44,750. The starting pay has been $39,050. The dispute is over pay raises for veteran teachers, with the district offering 2.3 percent while the union wants 3 percent. That amounts to a difference of $700,000. School board members will settle the deadlock at the Nov. 11 meeting. Ocala Star-Banner.

St. Lucie, Martin, Indian River: Teachers in St. Lucie County have agreed to a contract with the district, while negotiators in Martin County have declared an impasse and those in Indian River continue to talk with the district. Starting salaries for St. Lucie teachers will go from $38,375 to $44,600, and teachers making less than that will also move up to the new minimum. More veteran teachers will get 2 percent pay raises. The stumbling point in the Martin County talks is the amount of money that would go for raises to veteran teachers. TCPalm.

Clay: County voters will decide Tuesday whether to add a half-cent to the sales tax for the next 30 years to raise money to build new schools and repair aging ones. District officials said they expect to spend $318 million in that period to repair older schools and $300 million to build new ones. If voters pass the proposal, the district also intends to lessen its reliance on portable classrooms. Florida Times-Union. WJXT. School and health officials aren’t saying how many school bus drivers and monitors have tested positive for the coronavirus or been placed under quarantine. One of the drivers for the district, 66-year-old Gail Brusseau, died in October after contracting the virus. WJXT.

Leon: An outdoor bicycle park has been opened for students at Sabal Palm Elementary School to learn the rules of the road and practice riding their bikes. The district spent $35,000 to convert an old basketball court. Tallahassee Democrat. WFSU.

Alachua: A middle school teacher has been arrested and accused of sending inappropriate photos to a student. Bill Burns French, 34, an 8th-grade science teacher at Oak View Middle School in Newberry, was placed on administrative leave last week. Deputies said he was exchanging sexually suggestive text messages with the student, then sent her a photo of his genitals. Gainesville Sun.

Citrus: An 11-year-old Crystal River Middle School student who made a threat against other students on a school bus last week will be disciplined by the district after deputies determined the boy had no means to carry out the threat. Citrus County Chronicle.

Monroe: A lawsuit over the arrest and attempted handcuffing of an 8-year-old boy at Gerald Adams Elementary School in December 2018 has been dismissed because the lawyers for the boy’s mother missed a deadline to file a joint scheduling report. The case, which named the school board, the Key West Police Department and individual officers and school employees, can be refiled. Florida Keys Weekly.

Franklin: The school district’s application for funding from the Triumph Gulf Coast Board has been approved. About $6.5 million has been awarded to expand the district’s career and technical industry programs. It’s the third round of grants from the board. The first, for $2.3 million, was used for a STEM building and welding facility. The second, for $1.2 million, provided instruction and certification in the field of unmanned space flights. WMBB.

Colleges and universities: Enrollment is down from 5 to 10 percent at most of Florida’s 28 state colleges, according to Joe Pickens, the president of St. Johns River State College and chairman of the college system’s Council of Presidents. He said the biggest decline is in the number of students who graduated from high school last spring. The drop mirrors the national trend. News Service of Florida.

More on the coronavirus: Enrollment in the Florida Virtual school is booming, said FLVS spokeswoman Tania Clow. The number of students in the fulltime FLVS fulltime school is up 98 percent from July 1 to Sept. 30, and enrollment in the part-time flexible program is up 57 percent. Citrus County Chronicle. The state expects to decide in the next two weeks whether all students should return to classrooms. “Many students are struggling virtually, and can’t continue that way,” said Department of Education spokeswoman Taryn Fenske. “We’ll still need options for medically vulnerable students and staff, and we’ll always fight for what’s best for students’ total health and safety.” Educators said they don’t have enough teachers or space for students in schools to be safety distanced from each other. WOFL. Most of the largest 15 U.S. school districts now have students in classrooms, even as the number of coronavirus cases has begun to rise. Up to now, most of the districts that were reopening were smaller. USA Today.

Opinions on schools: This is not the time for area school districts to endanger public safety by abandoning mask mandates. Masks are a valuable tool for limiting the spread of the coronavirus — both on-campus, and across the community — and school leaders should keep this simple precaution in place as Tampa Bay continues its march to safely reopen. Tampa Bay Times. Former Spanish River High School principal William Latson released a hostage video last week, an eye-darting, wooden reading of a scripted apology of sorts that is more than two years late — and yet still looking to put blame elsewhere. Frank Cerabino, Palm Beach Post. State Sen. Joe Gruters has a genius for exploiting wedge issues, and his new “Face Freedom Scholarship” combines two unrelated controversies in an attempt to divide us. Barbara Peters Smith, Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

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BY NextSteps staff