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Teachers’ $1,000 bonuses, Bright Futures money for books at risk, $464M for school choice, and more

Budget negotiations: With two weeks left in the legislative session, the Legislature has moved into its “deal-making” days as the Senate and House begin to piece together a state budget. Early reports from conference committee negotiations indicate cuts are likely in funding for teacher bonuses and textbooks for Bright Futures students, but the House would set aside $464 million to expand school choice. Gov. Ron DeSantis’ proposed $1,000 bonus for teachers is on the block. State Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, suggested the bonuses were unnecessary because of the $500 million appropriated for teacher raises last year and the $550 million proposed for this year. “We just thought there were other things that could be done with that money other than giving teachers bonuses,” said Fine. The $600 annual textbook stipend for students with Bright Futures Scholarships is part of $144 million in cuts being considered to higher education. That would save more than $37 million, and is already drawing protests. But, cautioned Sen. Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, “This is our first meeting, and I think you’ll see some of those numbers change.” Because there’s a 72-hour “cooling off” period between reaching a budget agreement and voting on it, a deal must be reached by April 27 for the Legislature to adjourn as scheduled April 30. News Service of Florida. Politico Florida. Associated Press. Miami Herald. Budget conference committee assignments were announced Friday in the Senate and House. Florida Politics.

Also in the Legislature: Legislators who want to reshape the state’s early education program said they are worried the legislation may die in the Senate for the third straight year. The House and Senate bills are at odds after the Senate cut accountability measures last week when private preschool operators complained about the regulations. House members signaled they are trying to salvage the bill by rewriting it to phase in accountability standards, but the bill is in the Senate Appropriations and is not scheduled to be discussed at today’s meeting. Politico Florida. The House Ways & Means Committee signaled its support Friday for a $61.5 million tax holiday package. Part of the package is seven tax-free days in early August when residents can buy school clothes, supplies and technology, and there also are tax-free periods for disaster preparedness and a “freedom week” in early July for people to buy tickets to live music events, athletic contests and in-theater movies. News Service of Florida. State Rep. Sam Garrison, R-Orange Park, the sponsor of a House bill that could have eliminated school board members’ salaries, said he changed the bill after “good dialogue” with other legislators. It now proposes term limits. The original bill drew concern because state school board members were the only elected officials targeted, and most are female. Florida Phoenix. A bill affecting alcohol sales in the city of Freeport, in Walton County, has been revised to align its provisions with a town ordinance. H.B. 1645 originally would have allowed the sale of alcohol within 500 feet of a planned middle school. That’s been changed to 1,000 feet, as it is in the town law. Northwest Florida Daily News.

Coronavirus concerns: A month after the end of spring break, the number of state residents infected with a COVID-19 variant has gone up sixfold and 122 people have been hospitalized, according to Florida Department of Health records. As of last Thursday, there have 5,177 reported cases of one of five coronavirus variants. Thirty-one of those people have died. “This is kind of what a lot of public health folks have been afraid of, and why we’re trying to emphasize the need for continued caution as we move forward,” said Zinzi Bailey, a social epidemiologist at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. “My biggest fear is that, if we become more lax with our masking and our social distancing, we will actually start creating our own variant” that might be resistant to the current vaccines. Orlando Sentinel.

Around the state: A statewide grand jury is expected to issue its report about school safety in a few weeks but could also touch on other longstanding issues in Broward County, Lee County school Superintendent Greg Adkins announces he is retiring, 104 Hillsborough teachers have been notified that they are unlikely to have jobs in the next school year, Manatee students will have more hours of instruction under a plan approved by the school board, the Palm Beach County police union wants the sheriff’s department to bid to take over the school district’s police force, and Escambia school officials said they are doing away with their virtual learning option and mandatory face masks for the 2021-2022 academic year. Here are details about those stories and other developments from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Broward, south Florida: While a statewide grand jury is expected to focus on school safety in its report that could be released in a few weeks, it may also point out other issues mentioned in other grand jury reports in 1997, 2002 and 2011 but never resolved by the district. Chief among them could be public corruption and mismanagement of school construction projects. The district’s chief technology officer was indicted on bid-rigging and bribery charges this year, and the $800 million bond program approved by voters in 2014 to repair and replace schools has been plagued with delays and cost overruns. In 2011, a grand jury considered the corruption and mismanagement in the school district so bad that it wrote, “But for the constitutional mandate that requires an elected school board for each district, our first and foremost recommendation would have been to abolish the Broward County School Board altogether.” Superintendent Jim Notter resigned after the report, and seven of the nine school board members resigned, lost in the next election or decided not to run for re-election. Sun Sentinel. South Florida students learn that putting out a yearbook isn’t easy when most students aren’t in school. Sun Sentinel.

Hillsborough: More than 100 teachers who have been with the district for just a year or two have been informed that they are unlikely to have jobs with the district next fall. One teacher, Stacie Emory, said she was congratulated by her principal a week ago for being retained, then was informed Friday by human resources that she had been laid off. She said the majority of the layoffs were music, art and physical education teachers. WFTS. Two graduating seniors at Carrollwood Day School have received more than $1 million in scholarships. “I’ve never seen it happen before,” said Joseph Runge, director of college counseling at the school. “I could literally live three lifetimes as a college counselor and never see one kid get close to $1 million as opposed to two in one year.” Juliana Pironti and Chloe Wang each received offers from at least 13 colleges or universities. Tampa Bay Times.

Palm Beach: The Palm Beach County Police Benevolent Association is calling for the sheriff’s office to make a bid to take over the school district’s police department. The association’s vote Friday came just a day after the school district’s police chief, Frank Kitzerow, announced his resignation to “take on new challenges.” Union president John Kazanjian said a merger would allow officers to stay at their schools and provide them with better equipment, better benefits and more backup. WPTV.

Duval: The Southern Poverty Law Center is suing the school board on behalf of a Duval County teacher who was reassigned after refusing to remove a Black Lives Matter flag from her classroom at Robert E. Lee High School. The suit is asking the district to reinstate Amy Donofrio, and the court to ban school policies that restrict teachers’ First Amendment rights. Florida Times-Union. WJXT. Orlando Sentinel. The first black-owned elementary charter school in Jacksonville will open next fall in the Norwood neighborhood. Cameron Frazier said the K-5 Becoming Collegiate Academy will be “an option for all families to know that their kids are going to receive an education in which they see they’re reflected in.” WJXT.

Lee: Superintendent Greg Adkins announced Friday that he is retiring at the end of the school year. He’s been in the job since replacing Nancy Graham in 2015. His tenure was marked with record graduation rates, getting 23 schools removed from the state’s list of underperformers, passage of a special tax for schools and the expansion of early education, but also clashes with members of the school board over communications. “Serving as your superintendent in Lee County for the last five and half years has truly been an honor and privilege beyond my highest expectation,” Adkins told members of the staff. His contract ends in June, but at least two school board members are calling for the 56-year-old superintendent to step down immediately with an interim replacement named at the next school board meeting April 26, or before at a special meeting. Fort Myers News-Press. WINK. WFTX. WBBH.

Manatee: School board members approved changes in the 2021-2022 school calendar to give students more time in class to recover learning lost during the pandemic. Seven early-release days have been eliminated, creating an extra 16-plus hours of instructional time for elementary students and more than 4 hours for middle and high school students. Union leaders objected to the changes, which they said were approved by the board before teachers signed off, and may file an unfair labor practice charge. Bradenton Herald. Two substitute teachers have been arrested in separate incidents. John Wingate, 25, is accused of possessing child pornography. Robert Morse, 66, is accused of child abuse after allegedly hitting a 12-year-old student Friday at Rogers Garden Elementary School. Bradenton Herald. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. WWSB. WTVT.

Escambia: School district officials said last week that they will be doing away with their remote learning option and face mask requirements for the 2021-2022 academic year. The changes will begin this summer. “I think that will give us an opportunity to just make sure we’re back to functioning,” said Superintendent Tim Smith. “I think it’ll be a time where we will find our rhythm again and I think that’s even more time for case loads to go down and more people to get immunizations.” Pensacola News Journal. WEAR. A 2018 candidate for a school board seat is suing the state board because he was fined $200 for telling voters he was a “lifelong Republican.” By state law, candidates for nonpartisan positions such as the school board may not mention party affiliation or campaign on it. Kells Hetherington, who lost that election, said the fine was a violation of his First Amendment rights. Pensacola News Journal.

Leon: Tallahassee Classical Academy charter school officials said they will not require students to wear face masks in the fall. The decision aligns with Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran’s call for districts to make face masks optional when schools resume in August. In its email announcement, the school said it “will always err on the side of liberty and free will. … We respect the opinions of others, and believe that the choice to wear a mask is protected by the same guiding principles as the choice not to wear a mask.” After Corcoran’s memo to districts Wednesday, Superintendent Rocky Hanna called it “heretical” and said it “should be immediately recanted.” Tallahassee Democrat.

Charlotte: The former education director at the Crossroads Hope Academy in Punta Gorda has been arrested and accused of sexual misconduct with students. Reeghan Lynn Burgess, 30, has been charged with unlawful sexual activity with certain minors, soliciting to engage in sexual conduct with a student, and interference with custody of a minor. She began working at the school for foster boys in June 2020, but was put on administrative leave Nov. 30 and fired Dec. 2 after allegations were made about her conduct with students. WBBH. Charlotte Sun.

Colleges and universities: About 5,000 fewer students enrolled at Palm Beach State College this spring compared to last spring, going from 29,668 students to 24,276, according to school officials. Nationally, college enrollment is down about 4.5 percent. Palm Beach Post.

Around the nation: Gwen Graham, an attorney, former U.S. representative and Florida gubernatorial candidate in 2018, will be appointed as an assistant secretary for legislation and congressional affairs in the U.S. Department of Education, President Joe Biden said Friday. News Service of Florida. Politico Florida. Tampa Bay Times. USA Today Florida Network.

Opinions on schools: Transgender women playing sports isn’t even the slightest concern among high schools or colleges in the state. The only people who have made it an issue are our grandstanding politicians who are once again trying to fan the flames of division while unnecessarily putting our state in a precarious position. Mike Bianchi, Orlando Sentinel. Banning transgender athletes from women’s sports is poor sportsmanship from Republicans. Brianna Titone, Tampa Bay Times. Six schools bearing the names of Confederate leaders are a torment to black and white people who value inclusion, equity and social justice, and must be changed. Florida Times-Union. The Pinellas County School Board should be protecting the West Klosterman Preserve, not trying to sell it for development. Liz Drayer, Tampa Bay Times. The answer to the shortage of black students in high school calculus courses isn’t found in high school. Instead, the work to correct this issue must begin at least in middle school, if not before. Paul Cottle, Bridge to Tomorrow. School closures in two small Bradford County towns are soul-crushing for the communities. Steve Acree, Gainesville Sun.

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BY NextSteps staff