Bay County media specialist named state teacher of year, Broward board rejects $100K compensation for teachers, district budgets and more

Teacher of the year: Adrianna Swearingen, a media specialist at Northside Elementary School in Panama City, has been chosen as Florida’s teacher of the year, the Florida Department of Education recently announced. The Bay County educator credited her energy for winning the award, which gifts her with $50,000, a one-year stint as the Christa McAuliffe Ambassador for Education, a tuition waiver to pursue a graduate degree from the Florida State University College of Education, and a two-year Florida College scholarship from the Florida Prepaid College Savings Plan to present to a student of her choice. Other finalists were Kimberly Crowder of Hamilton County, Sarah Idsardi of Hardee County, Jennie Goffe of Hendry County, and Kayla Jackson of Highlands County. Each wins $20,000. WJHG. WMBB. Florida Department of Education.

Around the state: Broward’s school board narrowly rejects a proposal to raise teacher pay and benefits to $100,000 a year by 2025, Leon County School Board members vote to keep the book I Am Billie Jean King in elementary school libraries, Alachua and Bay school board consider budgets for the next fiscal year, materials from a conservative nonprofit started by a radio host are approved for use in Florida classrooms, a Palm Beach County principal and four school employees have been arrested and accused of failing to report suspected sexual assaults against a student, and Florida Polytechnic University President Randy Avent is the latest college leader in the state to step down. Here are details about those stories and others from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Miami-Dade: A new group has been formed that describes itself as “concerned parents fighting back against the DeSantis administration’s politically motivated censorship of books and education for our children.” Moms for Libros is encouraging parents to apply for spots on book review committees “rather than letting that process be saturated with the Moms for Liberty extremists.” Moms for Liberty cofounders Tina Descovich and Tiffany Justice said, “Are they (Moms for Libros) opposed to parents having the final say in their child’s public education? Because opposing our group opposes parental rights.” Axios.

Broward: A proposal to raise total teacher compensation to $100,000 a year by 2025 was rejected Tuesday in a 5-4 vote by school board members. Board member Allen Zeman pushed the plan presented by John Sullivan, the district’s director of legislative affairs, that called for paying $100,000 in salaries and benefits to teachers and $150,000 to principals and assistant principals. Teachers now make $83,452 in salary and benefits. But the proposal also would have cut services, and Superintendent Peter Licata said he worried some would be essential. He was asked to work on a plan and have a new proposal ready for the board by January. Sun-Sentinel. WPLG. WTVJ. WSVN. WFOR. Florida’s Supreme Court has reprimanded a judge for her conduct during the trial of Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz. Justices said former Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer “allowed her emotions to overcome her judgment” by “unduly” chastising defense attorneys and embracing members of the prosecution after Cruz was sentenced to life in prison. She resigned June 30. Sun-Sentinel. Associated Press. WFOR.

Hillsborough: Christine Wasylkiw, who has been an assistant principal at Sumner High School, has been elevated to the principal’s role at the 3,800-student school. She replaces Rob Nelson, who recently was named a region superintendent for the district. Tampa Bay Times.

Orange: All students can eat free breakfasts and lunches at district schools this year, officials have announced. Free meals for all were provided during the pandemic, but cut back last year based on family income. The district applied for the federal “community eligibility provision” since it met the requirement that an average of 40 percent of students must qualify as low-income. “We believe this will enhance our students’ well-being and academic performance and reduce the stigma associated with receiving free or reduced-price meals,” a district spokesperson said. Orlando Sentinel.

Palm Beach: Palm Beach Central High principal Darren Edgecomb and four school employees were arrested this week and accused of failing to report suspected sexual assaults against a 15-year-old student in 2021. Also arrested were assistant principals Nereyda Cayado de Garcia and Daniel Snider, choral teacher Scott Houchins, and Priscilla Carter, a case worker in the district’s SafeSchools office. All are alleged to have repeatedly failed to report two off-campus sexual assaults even after receiving a letter from the victim’s friend detailing the attacks. Failure to report child abuse to the Department of Children and Families is a felony that carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison. All five employees have been reassigned to positions that have no contact with students during the investigation. Palm Beach Post. Sun-Sentinel. WPTV. WPEC.

Brevard: More than 210 teachers resigned or retired from the district in June and July, which continues the trend in the past three years of higher than normal summer departures. In 2017-2018, 86 teachers resigned and 41 retired. This year, 130 have resigned and 82 have retired. Anthony Colucci, president of the teachers union, said, “State legislation, low pay, student discipline issues and a general lack of respect for the profession are the major reasons.” District spokesman Russell Bruhn said teachers are being hired, but there are concerns. “The closer we get to the new school year the more concerned we are about resignations and retirements,” he said. Florida Today.

Collier: Leslie Ricciardelli said Tuesday that she will focus on goals of collaboration, engagement and inspiration as she begins her job as superintendent of schools. “I’m not going to be any different than I’ve always been,” she said in an address at Gulf Coast High School. “Teachers first, students first, administrators first.” She took over as interim superintendent in December after Kamela Patton departed, and the school board voted in May to drop the interim label. WFTX. WINK. WBBH.

Marion: A new student code of conduct has been approved by the school board that spells out when students’ cell phones can be confiscated, stricter absence policies, dress codes and behavior on school buses, and allows students the right of self defense on campus. WCJB.

Leon: School board members voted this week to follow the recommendation of a hearing officer to keep the book I Am Billie Jean King on elementary school library book shelves. The story describes King’s rise as a tennis champion, and also mentions that she’s gay. It was challenged by Katie Lyons, who said, “It is important that it be made clear that this book was challenged not because the book mentions Billie Jean King is gay. The book was challenged because it defines sexual orientation. Regardless of orientation, homosexual or heterosexual, the topic of sexual orientation is not age-appropriate or developmentally-appropriate for elementary students” and therefore violates state law. But board members agreed with the hearing officer that the book doesn’t qualify as instructional, and that “incidental references” in books to LGBTQ people are not prohibited. “This book is not about that she’s gay; the theme is about championing equality,” said board vice chair Rosanne Wood. Tallahassee Democrat. WTXL. WCTV. WFSU.

Alachua: A $604.2 million budget for next year has been tentatively approved by the school board. About $156 million would be used for capital projects. A public hearing will be held Aug. 1, and a final vote on the budget and millage rate is scheduled for the Sept. 11 meeting. Mainstreet Daily News. Board members also met with Brian Moore, the general counsel for the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, about how new state laws and rules will affect classroom procedures and instruction. Gainesville Sun.

Bay: School board members are considering adopting a budget of $701.3 million for the 2023-2024 school year, which is nearly $100 million more than last year’s $608 million spending plan. Much of the increase is related to enrollment growth. “When you look at those numbers it’s easy to say man, the school board has a lot more money,” school board chair Steve Moss said. “Holy smokes, $100 million more or whatever it might be, but the caveat of that is we’re going to spend a lot of that on the growth that generated it in the first place in regard to the new students coming in and populating those single-family homes, condos, apartments, and those kinds of things.” A final vote on the budget is scheduled Aug. 3. WMBB. WJHG. A teacher at Rosenwald High School in Panama City has been arrested and accused of  lewd conduct against a student by an authority figure. Deputies said David Wayne Pittman, 53, had conversations with a former student through social media in which he made comments about her body parts and requested lewd photographs. He’s been suspended with pay pending the outcome of the investigation. WEAR. WJHG.

Charlotte: A former Charlotte High School English teacher pleaded no contest last week to a charge of interfering in the custody of a minor and was sentenced to five years of probation. Kelly Simpson, 32, hid a missing student in her home and initially lied to deputies about her actions. Charlotte Sun.

Flagler: Construction has begun on a $22.6 million addition to Matanzas High School in Palm Coast. The project will add classrooms, a larger media center, expanded cafeteria space and a new central energy plant in the 20,000-square-foot building, and is expected to be completed by May 2025. Flagler Live. The financial structure of the Flagler Youth Orchestra is satisfactory, a Tallahassee attorney told the school board this week after a review. Board member Will Furry asked for the review after he learned that the orchestra’s financial accounts hadn’t been audited since it was opened in 2005. A transactional audit of the account is still pending. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

Okeechobee: A former teacher and soccer coach at Okeechobee High School who is accused of having sex with a teenage girl was arrested this week at Orlando International Airport after arriving on a flight from Mexico. Okeechobee deputies said Omar Ayala, 31, has been on the run since April, when a friend in the sheriff’s office tipped him that an arrest warrant was being issued for him. WPTV. WPEC.

Colleges and universities: Florida Polytechnic University President Randy Avent is the latest college leader to step down. Avent said this week that he will resign in July 2024, take a sabbatical and then join the faculty at the 1,540-student school that focuses on science, technology, engineering and math. Avent, 64, has been president since Florida Poly opened in 2014 in Lakeland. Florida Atlantic and New College are also searching for presidents, and Florida Gulf Coast, University of Florida, Florida State University, University of North Florida, University of South Florida and Florida International all have hired new leaders within the past two years. Lakeland Ledger. Lakeland Now. News Service of Florida.

Conservative materials approved: Content from the conservative nonprofit PragerU has been approved for use in Florida classrooms, according to a spokeswoman for the Department of Education. “The Florida Department of Education reviewed PragerU Kids and determined the material aligns to Florida’s revised civics and government standards. PragerU Kids is no different than many other resources, which can be used as supplemental materials in Florida schools at district discretion,” said the DOE’s Cassandra Palelis. PragerU’s material includes videos covering topics such as historical events and figures, religious and Biblical stories, and America’s system of government. The company was founded in 2009 by conservative radio host Dennis Prager, and is not an accredited academic institution. News Service of Florida. Miami New Times. Daily Beast.

Alternative test: Florida has become the first state to accept the Classic Learning Test as an alternative to the SAT and ACT exams for college applications and eligibility for Bright Futures Scholarships, starting this fall. The CLT offers a two-hour test in English, grammar and mathematical skills, and emphasizes “meaningful pieces of literature that have stood the test of time.” Politico Florida.

Laws affecting unions: Teachers unions are again asking a judge to block the part of a new state law that forbids union dues from being deducted from paychecks. “(Unions) are already suffering from a reduction in irreplaceable revenue that is about to get much worse,” the unions argued in a legal memo that accompanied the motion. They also contend that the ban unconstitutionally violates contracts requiring payroll dues deductions that were reached before the new law took effect. News Service of Florida.

Threat assessments study: Required school threat assessments have been “widely, but not uniformly, successful” in Florida, according to researchers from the University of Virginia who studied 23,000 threat assessment reports from the 2021-2022 school year. Assessments are conducted by teams of educators, student support personnel and school administrators who analyze reports of threatening student behavior, judge their severity, and create a response plan. The report indicated that about 6 percent of the threats from students were carried out, and 0.23 percent resulted in serious injuries. “What we found in Florida is that, on a very large scale, we got good results,” said Dewey Cornell, a professor of education at the University of Virginia who co-authored the report. “What we hope to show in our future studies are the factors associated with good quality outcomes.” Education Week.

Opinions on schools: I’ve changed my mind on educational choice scholarships for all because of the simplicity of eligibility, the stability they provide, and the lack of stigma attached to them. As they become open to broader swaths of students, educational choice scholarship programs should still prioritize students with the highest needs. Travis Pillow, reimaginED. More states are offering relatively robust private choice by 2024. but the inevitability of the decline of district schooling does not dictate the pace. Matthew Ladner, reimaginED. Nothing good came from slavery, America’s original and ongoing sin. Yet, here’s our state once again on a national stage facing a thunderous laugh track response to its defense of a teaching standard that’s indefensible. Palm Beach Post. That upside-to-slavery teaching mandate may sound nutty on its face. But what some people are missing is just how ugly that new order is when considered alongside the other historical- whitewashing orders Gov. Ron DeSantis and GOP legislators have passed in recent years. Scott Maxwell, Orlando Sentinel. We in south Florida, of all people, should see how wrong it is to dishonor others’ history by making their suffering seem less than it was. When we denigrate someone else’s history, we dishonor ours, too. Fabiola Santiago, Miami Herald. The infusion of $190 billion in federal funds, not to mention state “hold harmless” provisions, has allowed districts to hold off difficult school closure conversations. But that’s a mistake. Chad Aldeman, The 74.

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BY NextSteps staff