Escambia board signs charter contract and fires superintendent, Manatee’s school board hires a new leader, Sunshine Law concerns, and more

Around the state: Escambia County School Board members signed a contract Tuesday to turn control of a struggling middle school over to a charter school company under the state’s threat of withholding state funding and then fired Superintendent Tim Smith, Manatee school board members hire a Seminole County administrator as the district’s new superintendent, the Broward school district and a Seminole charter school face allegations of Sunshine Law violations, Duval’s school board wants to hire an interim superintentendent before Diana Greene leaves June 6, several false panic alert system alarms have been reported in St. Johns County schools, and a study of federal data shows Florida has filed far fewer Title IX complaints than all but four other states between 2012 and 2022. Here are details about those stories and others from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Broward: School board members recently met privately to discuss requiring students to have clear backpacks and wear uniforms, which some experts believe were a violation of the state’s open government law. On May 5, district officials informed parents that all student backpacks, purses and lunch containers had to be see-through for the 2023-2024 school year, and on May 9 school board members confirmed that decision was made at a closed-door meeting on security. On May 12, board member Brenda Fam said on Facebook that the district was also considering a uniform dress code. District spokesman John Sullivan wouldn’t say when the closed-door meetings were held, but that “ALL closed-door sessions are held and conducted following state statutes. If clear backpacks and school uniforms were discussed in a closed-door session, those topics would fall under security plans. Security plans … are allowable topics for a closed-door session.” Sun-Sentinel. A Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School teacher has been reassigned after a female student alleged he acted inappropriately toward her. He will not have contact with students during the investigation. WPLG.

Palm Beach: How five new state laws, including universal school vouchers and later start times for middle and high schools, will affect the school district and students. Palm Beach Post.

Duval: School board members said they want to hire an interim superintendent for up to six months while they look for a permanent replacement for Diana Greene after she steps aside June 6. Board chair Kelly Coker said the idea of a short-term superintendent is “to get them situated” while “we have those conversations as a board but also with our community” on a permanent leader. The board meets again May 23 to discuss candidates for the interim position. WJAX. WJXT. Jacksonville Today. Florida Times-Union.

Lee: The director of security at the Canterbury School in Fort Myers was arrested Monday and charged with possession of a weapon by a convicted felon. Wyatt Henderson is a former Charlotte County sheriff’s detective who was convicted of pistol-whipping a teenager during a drug bust in Port Charlotte in the early 2000s and served 27 months in prison. He was hired by the private school for this school year, and was armed. WINK. WBBH.

Seminole: A charter school’s governing board is under investigation for potential violations of the state’s laws requiring meetings to be open to the public and school records to be available to members of the community, according to court records. A county judge ordered the Choices in Learning Elementary Charter School’s board of directors to turn over relevant records from Oct. 1 through the end of March by June 2. Orlando Sentinel.

Manatee: School board members opted Tuesday for a set of “fresh eyes” as the new school superintendent. Jason Wysong, deputy superintendent of Seminole County School District since 2021, was chosen over two other finalists in a 4-1 vote to replace Cynthia Saunders, who is retiring June 30. “I think Mr. Wysong is the best total package we can pick today,” said board member Richard Tatem. His colleague, Cindy Spray, liked having an outsider coming from a different school district. “We need change,” she said. “A great deal of change? Not so much maybe, but we do need fresh eyes in here. A different perspective.” Wysong will shadow Saunders through June and take over July 1. The other finalists were Doug Wagner, the district’s deputy superintendent of operations, and Scott J. Schneider, chief of schools in Duval County. Bradenton Herald. WWSB. WUSF. WFLA. WTSP.

St. Johns: The school district’s new remote panic alert system has sent false alarms to three schools this year, including two Monday at Liberty Pines Academy. The alarm is carried by every school employee, and is activated by touching a single button. “We’ve had a few schools through the year that have had some inadvertent pushes,” said Paul Abbatinozzi, the district’s senior director for school services. “We certainly respond quickly, in conjunction with law enforcement who we are certainly blessed to have as a partner in this school district. I think it’s part of the growing pains with utilizing a new system.” WJXT.

Escambia: School board members voted 4-1 Tuesday to approve a contract with a charter school company to take over the struggling Warrington Middle School, then fired Superintendent Tim Smith. The state had given the district until 10:45 a.m. Thursday to sign a contract with Charter Schools USA, or funds for the salaries of the superintendent and board members would be withheld. The local school board and Charter Schools USA had been at an impasse over the contract terms and failed to reach an agreement by the May 1 deadline, leading the state to intervene. Smith recommended that the board approve the contract, then was fired shortly after the vote. Board members cited his leadership, staff shortages and resignations, book ban decisions and lack of communication with the school board over the charter school contract as reasons for the dimissal. Assistant superintendent for human resources Keith Leonard will act as interim superintendent, starting May 31. Pensacola News Journal.

Clay: The school district is again offering free summer meals to all children 18 years old or younger. Meals will be available weekdays at nine locations from early June to July 20 or 21, at one location on Mondays and Wednesdays and another site on Tuesdays and Thursdays. WJAX.

Hernando: A representative from the Florida Department of Education’s Office of Professional Practices is expected to visit Winding Waters K-8 school in Brooksville as soon as today to investigate a complaint about a teacher who showed her 5th-graders the 2022 Disney movie Strange World, a PG film that includes a gay character. The teacher, Jenna Barbee, said school board member Shannon Rodriguez filed the complaint with the state. Barbee said she resigned from her job a week before showing the movie. Miami Herald. Washington Post.

Indian River: A preschool teacher at the World Class Academy in Vero Beach has been arrested and accused of child abuse. Deputies said Olivia Tyree, 25, struck a 5-year-old boy in the head May 12 with a Crocs-style shoe, “as if she (was) going to hammer a nail, and with full force,” according to her arrest affidavit, then dragged the child around the room by his arm and threw him in a bed and to the ground. TCPalm. WPEC.

Colleges and universities: University of Miami provost Jeffrey Duerk will step down in July, take a one-year sabbatical, then return as a fulltime faculty member in 2024. He’s the second of six school vice presidents to exit since March. Duerk offered no reason for his decision. Miami Herald. The University of South Florida College of Nursing has received more than $40 million from legislators that will be used to hire staff to teach more students and increase the number of registered nurses in the workforce. Florida Politics. St. Petersburg College’s faculty union has filed a complaint with the state Public Employees Relations Commission alleging the school has excluded union members from raises others have received and is refusing to bargain over pay after 13 months of negotiations. Tampa Bay Times.

Florida’s Title IX underuse: While Florida is 12th in the nation in K-12 student population, it is fourth from the bottom in use of the federal law that protects students from sex discrimination between 2012 and 2022, according to an analysis of federal data. The state filed an annual average of 2.2 complaints that led to investigations of teacher sexual misconduct during that time frame. The failure to file could put students at risk of enduring further harassment and abuse. Naples Daily News. Lee County has been an exception to the underuse, according to the data. Fort Myers News-Press.

High school graduations: High schools around the state are holding graduation ceremonies. Here are reports and photos from some of them. Tampa Bay Times. Palm Beach Post. Charlotte Sun. Palm Beach Post. Palm Beach Post.

Around the nation: U.S. Department of Education officials are issuing new guidance on prayer and other religious expressions in public schools. It states, “Teachers, school administrators, and other school employees may not encourage or discourage private prayer or other religious activity,” and was revised after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Washington public school district could not stop a football coach from praying on the 50-yard line after games. NPR. Florida and other southern states will soon receive federal grants to hire more mental health professionals to help K-12 public school students. The state will get enough money to hire more than 1,000 new counselors and other mental health professionals. WMFE.

Opinions on schools: If you’ve considered taking the reins when it comes to your children’s education, it’s a great time to act on it. Whether you choose a full‐​time, in‐​person option, a hybrid schedule, or full home-schooling, you’ll be able to customize a learning plan that works best for your kids and your family. Colleen Hroncich, Cato Institute. Florida’s higher education leadership is terribly tarnished by excessive secrecy, power plays and backroom deals. Everything but educational excellence. Sun-Sentinel. In a state where politicians are too often focused on divisive culture wars, GOP lawmakers in Florida led the way in pushing for something that’s medically proven to be better for learning. But now they need to finish the job. Before this law is slated to take effect in 2026, legislators need to back up their mandate with funding to make it happen. Scott Maxwell, Orlando Sentinel. The last five Manatee school superintendents have been tainted by scandal of questionable behavior, so the school board, which hired Jason Wysong on Tuesday, had better get this one right. Chris Anderson, Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

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BY NextSteps staff