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State budget proposals between $95B and $97B, guns in churches with schools, vaccinations and more

Proposed state budgets: On Friday, Senate leaders released their proposed $95 billion budget bill, which includes $22.1 billion for K-12 education. Other notable priorities are $50 million for the child welfare system, a raise in the minimum wage for state employees and contractors to $13 an hour, and putting $5 billion into reserves. It does not include funds from the coronavirus relief bill passed by the U.S. Congress. The Senate also proposes spending $6.9 billion for higher education, a decline from $7.3 billion last year. One of the items in that budget would lower the maximum amount the state would contribute to college employee salaries from $200,000 to $180,000, which would save about $39 million. The House budget proposes spending $97 billion, including $22.6 billion for K-12 education, while Gov. Ron DeSantis’ budget calls for spending $96.6 billion, with $22.8 billion of it going for K-12 education. News Service of Florida. Associated Press. The Capitolist. WFSU.

In the Legislature: The Florida House voted voted 76-37 on Friday to approve a bill that would allow people to carry guns into religious institutions that share locations with schools. The Senate version of the bill has to clear one more committee before it goes before the full chamber. News Service of Florida. Florida Phoenix. A proposal to shield schools, businesses and health-care providers from coronavirus-related lawsuits was approved by the House, 83-31. The bill has already been approved by the Senate, and it’s now headed for the governor’s desk. Associated Press. Capitol News Service. News Service of Florida. Florida Politics. Florida Phoenix. The Parents’ Bill of Rights legislation is headed for a House vote. It still has to clear one more committee in the Senate. The bill would prohibit government agencies from infringing on the rights of parents to make educational and health care decisions for their children. WFSU. The bill requiring a moment of silence at the beginning of every school day is scheduled to be heard by the Senate Judiciary Committee today. It’s been approved by the House. Fresh Take Florida.

Coronavirus vaccinations: Gov. DeSantis’ announcement last week that Floridians 18 and over would be eligible to get coronavirus vaccinations starting April 5 omitted any mention that the federal government was making Pfizer shot available to 16- and 17-year-olds the same day. “The state will follow the (authorization) for all vaccines,” said Florida Department of Health spokesman Jason Mahon. “The only vaccine currently authorized for 16- and 17-year-olds is the Pfizer vaccine, which will be available to them in Florida.” Federal authorizations for the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccinations are only for those 18 or older. USA Today Florida Network. WFLA. WFTS.

Around the state: More than 1,200 students were involuntarily committed for psychiatric evaluation by the Palm Beach County School District under the Baker Act between 2016 and 2020, six semifinalists are named for the superintendent’s job in Polk County, Volusia County School Board members are expected to discuss an end to mandatory face-mask wearing in schools, the Florida Department of Education is threatening to sue over the ongoing contract impasse between the Martin County School District and its teachers, and students in the Keys will have the option of returning to school fulltime today. Here are details about those stories and other developments from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Miami-Dade, south Florida: Summer school will be revamped and expanded this year in south Florida school districts. For one thing, they’re not calling it summer school any more, instead opting for such tags as “Reclaim and Elevate” and “Smart Start Camp.” Sylvia Diaz, chief academic officer for Miami-Dade School District, said, “We are concerned about the negative connotations of the name and want to draw people in.” Districts also are offering activities such as music, drama, robotics and sports to encourage students to participate. Sun Sentinel. A Hialeah High School reading teacher has been arrested and accused of sexually molesting a student from 2009 to 2013. Police said Jeanette Barbara Valle-Tejeda, 41, began abusing the girl when she was 14 and a student at Henry H. Filer Middle School, and continued until the girl was 18. They also said there are more victims. WFOR. WPLG. WSVN. WTVJ.

Hillsborough: The financially strapped Hillsborough County School District is expecting to receive about $400 million in federal coronavirus relief funds. Superintendent Addison Davis said the money will be used to help students who have fallen behind academically, expand mental health services and hire more school nurses, and pay for personal protection equipment and cleaning supplies. Bay News 9. A college success coach at Lenard High School in Ruskin has been arrested on charges of unlawful sexual activity with a minor involving a student. Deputies said Anthony Errol Witter, 37, had a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old student at the school from November through March. Tampa Bay Times.

Central Florida: A former teacher in central Florida has pleaded guilty to “concocting a hoax involving biological agents and toxins,” according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida. Maria Bassi Lauro, 66, faces up to 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Prosecutors said she sent letters that included a suspicious powder to people at four schools where she used to work in central Florida. Police in hazmat gear responded, but the powder was determined to be baking soda. Lauro had been fired from each of the schools. “Lauro admitted she had sent the mailings because she was upset with each victim and school,” prosecutors said. “Additionally, she admitted she sent the mailings with the intent to threaten each victim and cause them to believe he or she had been exposed to a deadly biological toxin.” Miami Herald. WBBH.

Palm Beach: More than 1,200 students were involuntarily committed for psychiatric evaluation by the school district under the Baker Act between 2016 and 2020, according to a report from the Southern Poverty Law Center. Among the 1,217 children were 254 elementary school students. Students under the age of 8 were committed 59 times, and 5-year-students were detained eight times. District officials said they use the Baker Act “as a last resort when students are in danger of hurting themselves or others.” Palm Beach Post. Educators, parents, students and school board members are speaking out against proposed changes in the way the Bright Futures Scholarships program is funded. S.B. 86 would end the fixed funding of percentages of tuition and fees for high-achieving students, and instead have the Legislature allocate funding on a yearly basis. “It’s very rare that the School District of Palm Beach County finds it necessary to issue a call to action in opposition to legislation,” said Superintendent Donald Fennoy. “However, in the case of S.B. 86, the Bright Futures Scholarship Funding bill, we feel we must.” Palm Beach Post. WPTV.

Polk: Six semifinalists have been named for the soon-to-be-open superintendent’s job. Jacqueline Byrd, who has led the district since 2016, said last May that she would be retiring. A citizens advisory board narrowed the applications to seven, though one subsequently dropped out. The semifinalists are: Harold Border, the chief of high schools in Orange County; Jennifer Cupid-McCoy, an area superintendent in Orange County; Frederick Heid, superintendent of the Community Unit School District in Algonquin, Ill., and a former Duval County administrator; James McIntyre Jr., director of the Center for Educational Leadership at the University of Tennessee and an assistant professor; Michael Ramirez, a deputy superintendent for the Denver school district who previously was an administrator in Broward County; and Nakia Towns, deputy superintendent of Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga, Tenn. School board members will decide April 13 which of the semifinalists to interview, then select a superintendent April 27. Lakeland Ledger.

Lee: In the two-plus years since voters approved an extra half-cent of sales tax for schools, the district has collected about $163 million, according to the district’s first report on how it’s spent the money. About $31.6 million has gone toward maintenance, with $29.2 million being spent on safety and security, $16.6 million on construction and $16 million on technology. WFTX.

Volusia: Tuesday, school board members are expected to discuss a suggestion that they make the district’s face mask requirement optional before the end of the school year. “I would love to be able to have that last month of school without having to wear these things,” said board member Carl Persis. Three of the five board members said they want to hear from health experts first. “I can tell you right now, there is nobody from the Department of Health that is going to tell us between now and the end of the year it will be safe not to wear masks,” said Ruben Colon. “That is not happening.” Florida Today. WOFL. LGBTQ students were disappointed when school board members declined to designate spring break week as “LGBTQ+ Health Awareness Week,” but remain hopeful that the discussion will make a difference for future students. Florida Today.

Manatee: One of the two finalists for the interim county administrator’s job has withdrawn, leaving school board member Scott Hopes as the last person standing. Hopes said he is able and willing to handle both jobs, but will give up his school board role if county commissioners require him to. Other school board members and at least two county commissioners are dubious that anyone could hold both jobs and be effective. “That would put both the school district and the county in a poor position. He won’t do either of them well if his time is split like that. I’m pretty emphatic that he’s got to come to us with his full attention,” said county commissioner Misty Servia. Commissioners are expected to discuss a contract with Hopes on Thursday. Bradenton Herald.

Lake: District officials are planning end-of-year celebrations, with all proms being outdoors but graduations indoors for some schools and outdoors for others,. “We’re following CDC guidelines and protocols,” said Mount Dora High School principal Marlene Straughan. “We feel it’s very important our students get to experience all the traditional high school activities they deserve.” Daily Commercial.

Leon: The school district has agreed to pay $75,000 to settle a racial discrimination lawsuit brought by former Sabal Palm Elementary School principal Ann Johnson. She said she filed the suit in 2017 when she transferred from Sabal Palm into a position as K-12 science coordinator after she tried to report what she called racist hiring and firing practices at the school. Tallahassee Democrat.

Bay: School officials are criticizing FEMA for its response in addressing repairs to county schools damaged by Hurricane Michael in 2018. “It’s frustrating,” said Jonathan McQuagge, principal at Rosenwald High School in Panama City. “We’re already under a lot of stress as it is. I think district-wide you get to a point where kind of enough is enough. But I think we’re doing the best we can to get our facilities back to where they were pre-storm. It would be nice for them (FEMA) to step up and be able to reimburse us so we can continue and make a better learning environment for our students.” WMBB. More than 200 school district employees received Johnson & Johnson vaccinations on Saturday. WMBB.

Martin: Florida’s Department of Education is threatening to sue over the contract impasse between the school district and the teachers union. Martin is the only county school district in the state that has failed to submit its plan for teacher pay raises. It’s been 10 months since Gov. DeSantis signed a bill into law allocating $500 million for teacher raises, with 80 percent being used to increase starting teacher salaries and 20 percent going to veteran educators, and the deadline for submitting a plan was Oct. 1. But the district and the union have failed to agree on a contract, primarily because the union wants more than the 20 percent for veteran teachers. TCPalm.

Flagler: Sheila Knighton, a teacher and principal in the school district for more than 35 years, has died at the age of 60 of cardiac arrest. She taught home economics at Flagler Palm Coast High School and was an assistant principal at Indian Trails Middle School and Buddy Taylor Middle School until she retired in 2019. Palm Coast Observer.

Monroe: District students who want to return to classrooms can do so full-time, starting today. Those who are learning remotely or prefer a hybrid schedule of being in class a couple of days a week and remote the others may continue to do so. Safety precautions, such as wearing face masks and social distancing of at least 3 feet, will stay in place. Key West Citizen.

Colleges and universities: Enrollment was down sharply for the 2020 summer and fall sessions at Santa Fe College, according to school officials. About 8,000 students enrolled in summer, a drop of about 1,000 from the previous two summers, and fall attendance dropped from 15,857 in 2019 to 13,996 last August. Gainesville Sun. The entire faculty of the Florida State University Askew School of Public Administration and Policy has denounced the way the school handled sexual misconduct allegations against a former professor who was allowed to retire, and wants him retroactively fired for cause. Florida Phoenix. A book written by Katheryn Russell-Brown, a law professor at the University of Florida, has won the 2021 NAACP Image Award for outstanding children’s literature for her biography of Shirley Chisholm. Gainesville Sun. The five finalists for the president’s job of New College in Sarasota  begin two weeks of meetings today with trustees, faculty, students and alumni. News Service of Florida. Florida Politics. Many U.S. colleges and universities are again planning nontraditional graduations this spring. New York Times.

Personnel moves: Ben Gibson, a lawyer for the Tallahassee firm Shutts & Bowne in Tallahassee, has been reappointed to the state Board of Education by Gov. Ron DeSantis. He’s been on the board since 2017. The Florida Senate will have to approve the appointment. Florida Politics. Charlie Ward, the head coach of Florida State University Schools boys basketball team and the 1992 Heisman Trophy winner as a quarterback for FSU, has been appointed by DeSantis to the Tallahassee Community College District Board of Trustees. Associated Press. Tallahassee Democrat.

Test prep scams: It’s standardized testing season, and Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody is warning that scammers are capitalizing by offering preparation to people who send them a deposit. The test materials are never delivered. Anyone who’s come across such a scam is encouraged to call 1-866-966-7226 or file a complaint at WBBH.

Around the nation: Virtual schooling can be hazardous to students’ mental health, according to a survey conducted for the CDC. CNN. States had been advised by the Biden administration that standardized testing would go on as scheduled this spring. Friday, the U.S. Department of Education formally turned down requests from Georgia and South Carolina to cancel testing, though it did give Colorado the okay to cuts its testing in half. Chalkbeat.

Opinions on schools: The state senator who wanted to tie Bright Futures funding to a student’s choice of majors said student opposition “absolutely” influenced his decision to revise the legislation, saying, “Believe it or not, it always means a lot to us.” This is what an engaged, informed citizenry — no matter how young — can accomplish. Tampa Bay Times. More educational choices lead to better outcomes. That’s a win-win for Florida and its families. Scott Kent, redefinED. For all the reforms that have led to increased student success, there is still very little flexibility given to schools to innovate. Two bills being considered in the Legislature can help change that. Tom Feeney, Orlando Sentinel. The debate over renaming Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville isn’t a call to erase history or to forget the Civil War. It’s to remember why it was fought, why it sometimes feels like we’re still fighting it 150 years later. Mark Woods, Florida Times-Union. Good schools should welcome standards and accountability. The only people who don’t are those running shoddy schools and the politicians who don’t want you to see what’s going on. Scott Maxwell, Orlando Sentinel. The University of Florida is going to integrate the use of artificial intelligence across its entire curriculum, resulting in thousands of students a year graduating with AI skills, growing the AI-trained workforce in Florida and serving as a national model for institutions across the country. Joe Glover, Tampa Bay Times. Pathways and access to postsecondary education are absolutely crucial to building the workforce that Florida needs to remain competitive in the next decade and beyond. Peter Nowak, Pensacola News Journal. Advice students get from counselors about course selection and careers varies widely from district to district, and that makes an enormous difference in the career and economic prospects of high school graduates. Paul Cottle, Bridge to Tomorrow.

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BY NextSteps staff