K-12 enrollment down by 84,000, COVID relief, end sought to state’s only charter district, and more

Budget takes more hits: The state’s beleaguered budget for the next fiscal year was complicated even further Thursday with the announcement that K-12 enrollment was down 84,000 students midway through the school year. “We have a lot of students across the state … that we don’t know how they’re being educated,” Senate budget chief Kelli Stargel, a Republican from Lakeland, said at a committee meeting where the projected $2.7 billion budget deficit was discussed. “We don’t know if they’re all going to all end up coming back to the school one day. And we’re going to have to fund those students when they show up.” An emergency rule has kept funding for districts steady despite declining enrollment, but it expires at the end of the school year. The revenue side of the budget is also a concern. The state’s lead legislative economist, Amy Baker, told the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday that revenue projections are higher than what she considers prudent because of a economic spike in the summer when the state was coming out of lockdowns. Politico Florida. Politico Florida.

Coronavirus relief: President-elect Joe Biden has announced a $1.9 trillion plan to fight the coronavirus pandemic, shore up the economy and local governments and provide assistance to citizens, including $1,400 stimulus checks for most Americans. Included in the package is $170 billion for education, with $130 billion going to K-12 schools to assist in reopening, buy supplies and help students make up for lost learning. Another $35 billion would go to higher education, and $5 billion would be directed to governors that can be used at their discretion to address educational needs. If the proposal is approved, it would bring the total aid for education from the three coronavirus relief bills to $283 billion. Politico. New York Times. Associated Press. States Newsroom. Education Week.

Around the state: Jefferson County school Superintendent Eydie Tricquet said she is making plans to retake control of the school district from the charter school company that now runs it, Manatee County School Board members have agreed to start their meetings with a prayer, a prominent state legislator denied accusations that he acted inappropriately with students when he was a teacher at a Miami-area high school in the late 1990s, and an Orange County private school with ties to another private school that closed in 2017 after accusations of wrongdoing is applying to open and receive scholarship money from the state. Here are details about those stories and other developments from the state’s districts and private schools, and colleges and universities:

Miami-Dade: Prominent state Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., a former teacher in the Miami-Dade County School District, has denied accusations made by former students at Hialeah-Miami Lakes Senior High that he acted inappropriately with them when he taught in the late 1990s. Diaz talked about clubs and drugs and made comments about girls’ appearances, they claim. Diaz taught at the school for four years and then was an assistant principal for two years. One of the students made the comments on social media and on a Miami Spanish-language radio show. Diaz threatened to take legal action against JennyLee Molina, a 2000 graduate of the school, and the radio station. Miami Herald. Florida Politics.

Broward: More than 21,000 students who had been learning remotely returned to Broward classrooms this week. That boosts the total number of students in schools to 58,465, pushing some schools to 60 percent of full capacity and prompting adjustments so as much social distancing as possible can be maintained. The teachers union, which is unhappy with the addition of in-person students and the corresponding move of hundreds of teachers back to the classroom, filed suit against the district last week and is now starting an ad campaign criticizing the district. WPLG. Florida Politics.

Hillsborough: The balance on the school board shifted after the November election, and now some of its members are questioning the way the district has dealt with the ever-growing number of charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run and has enrolled thousands of students who had been in traditional public schools. “Our board has taken a new shape,” said Jessica Vaughn, one of the new members. “It’s important to have these conversations.” Another new member, Nadia Combs, sparked a heated discussion at this week’s meeting when she questioned what has, in the past, been a routine decision on a charter school issue. “It seems to me that Hillsborough County, I look at the last five years of charter, and we have approved everything,” she said. “We made it so easy.” Board chair Lynn Gray said she would schedule a workshop to discuss charters and the process of approving them. Tampa Bay Times.

Orange: A new private school is proposing to open in the building that once housed the Agape Christian Academy, which closed in 2017 after it was banned from receiving state scholarship money because it had falsified fire inspections, hired people with criminal records and didn’t pay some of its teachers. The operator of the proposed Academy of Education School is the 23-year-old daughter of the woman who owned Agape. Because of that tie, the new school’s application was rejected last year by the DOE, which has to approve any school that intends to ask for money from one of the state’s scholarship programs. But an administrative judge overturned the denial and sent the application back to the DOE for reconsideration. Orlando Sentinel.

Palm Beach: The private Oxbridge Academy high school in West Palm Beach has announced it is expanding to include 7th and 8th grades for the next school year. Ralph Maurer, the head of school, said Oxbridge saw an opportunity to develop a curriculum to link middle and high schools, and to allow advanced 7th- and 8th-graders a chance to take high school calculus or Chinese language classes, or play any of the 22 high school sports offered. Palm Beach Post.

Duval: This week’s huge spike in coronavirus cases reported in schools was caused by a change in the way the district reports cases, school officials said. The district has begun posting cases when they report them to the county health department instead of waiting for health officials to confirm they’ve received the case and begun contact tracing. “This new approach will provide a clear picture of the reported cases potentially impacting a school,” said Superintendent Diana Greene, even if some reports are not ultimately confirmed by health officials. Florida Times-Union. WJAX. WJXT.

Polk: A substitute teacher was fired after being caught on video telling students in a middle school language arts class at Bok Academy that three members of the political protest movement Antifa were paid to riot at the U.S. Capitol last week. The FBI has said there is no evidence anyone associated with Antifa took part in the protest and subsequent violence. Principal Damien Moses said he met with the teacher and that “she has been dismissed not only from our school, but also from the Lake Wales Charter School System.” TMZ.

Osceola: Chronic absenteeism among some of the district’s 4,687 remote learners has become a problem, according to Superintendent Debra Pace. “We’ve identified students with between 5 and 50 percent absences for the first semester,” she said, and the district has begun texting parents to let them know. Social workers and resource officers will go to the homes of those students and parents who don’t respond to the texts. WKMG.

Volusia: School board members were scheduled to review the district’s coronavirus safety rules this month, but the recent surge in the number of cases has convinced them to not relax the rules requiring face masks, social distancing and heightened sanitization. “Our COVID numbers are through the roof,” said board member Ruben Colon. “We said we would revisit our mask policy in January, and I can tell you right now I have no intentions nor are there any recommendations to back down.” Daytona Beach News-Journal.

Manatee: School board members have voted to start meetings with a prayer for the first time in more than four years. Mary Foreman suggested that invocations resume, and the board voted unanimously to start the Jan. 26 meeting with a prayer led by member James Golden, who is a minister. Those interested in leading the prayer can sign up as long as it is non-sectarian or nondenominational and is solemn and respectful to all, according to the rules set. Bradenton Herald.

St. Johns: The number of coronavirus cases in the school district is going up, which associate superintendent for student support services Kyle Dresback called unsurprising after coming off the winter break. “We are seeing what we saw after Thanksgiving break, that after people and families have been together the numbers are going to go up,” he said. “I think it’s a reflection of what we’re seeing in the county and across the state.” Since the break, the district has reported 27 cases among employees, with 56 in quarantine, and 184 cases among students, with 1,945 in quarantine. St. Augustine Record.

Escambia: The school district and the teachers union are at an impasse over salaries, and the issue goes to the school board next Tuesday. The disagreement is rooted in the salary schedule. The district wants to raise starting teacher pay to $43,500 but compress the salary schedule, which would place 10-year teaching veterans in the same bracket as first-year teachers. “We feel dejected. We feel disappointed that in a year when we’re all doing double the work and we are putting our own health and safety on the line to keep schools running, they cannot do this small amount to recognize veteran teachers,” said union president Carol Cleaver. Pensacola News Journal.

Clay: Continuing growth in the county is putting pressure on the school district to plan for how it’s going to meet the increasing enrollment that growth is bringing into classrooms. James Fossa, the district’s coordinator of planning and intergovernmental relations, said that Oakleaf High School, for example, is at 106 percent capacity and will soon be at 115 percent if nothing is done. He suggested rezoning to try to even out the enrollment among schools. Clay Today.

Alachua: Former Buchholz High School band director Shawn Barat has submitted his resignation, citing personal reasons. The school board was expected to vote this week on the district’s recommendation to fire him for having inappropriate communications with a student, but held off after he filed a union grievance. Gainesville Sun.

Jackson: The school district is starting a new after-school learning program at Cottondale Elementary School to help students who have fallen behind in their academics because of Hurricane Michael in 2018 and the coronavirus pandemic. Superintendent Steve Benton wants to start the program two days a week for about two hours each day. WMBB.

Jefferson: Superintendent Eydie Tricquet told the school board this week that she has begun a discussion with the Florida Department of Education on how to regain control of the district from the charter school company that now runs it. She has started to put together a plan and budget that will need to be approved by the DOE. Somerset Academy, which is managed by the charter school company Academica, took over the struggling district in 2017, but its contract ends at the close of the academic year. Jefferson is the only district in the state being run by a charter school company. ECB Publishing.

Colleges and universities: The University of Central Florida has started the process of firing a psychology professor who is accused of making racist tweets, creating a “hostile” classroom environment, deterring students from filing complaints about his classroom conduct, and failing to report that a student said she had been sexually assaulted by one of his teaching assistants and then providing false information during the investigation. The professor, Charles Negy, said he disagrees “with almost all of the allegations, and that’s all I can say right now.” Orlando Sentinel. WKMG. A state auditor recently found that St. Petersburg College improperly used $453,172 in student fees for athletic scholarships in 2019, and school officials acknowledged they’ve been using the fees that way for the past 17 years. WTSP.

More on graduation rates: Here are more reports on high school graduation rates in districts around the state. Tallahassee Democrat. WMBB.

Opinions on schools: Education choice hasn’t “compounded the fiscal challenge of the state’s public schools,” as a recent newspaper editorial claimed. It’s eased that challenge. Better outcomes. Less cost. A rising tide that lifts all boats. That’s not a “ruinous path” for public education. That’s a better way to help it fulfill its promise. Ron Matus, Citrus County Chronicle. For this educator, relationships made at the faith-based The Rock School in Gainesville are a reward that she wouldn’t trade for a bigger paycheck. Alicen Crane, redefinED.

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BY NextSteps staff