Vouchers cap for special needs students could be lifted in special session, Clay disbands district police force, and more

Voucher bills set: A cap on the number of scholarships available this year for students with special needs would be lifted under bills the Legislature will consider in its special session next week. H.B. 3C and S.B. 4C would eliminate this year’s limit of 40,913 students eligible to receive funds through the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities, though the formula determining the cap would be used in the future. All students deemed eligible by the Florida Department of Education and the nonprofits that administer the scholarships, including Step Up For Students, would receive vouchers. Staff analysis of the bills gave no estimate of the additional cost, but the nonprofit research organization Florida Policy Institute said it was told by SUFS that 8,200 students are on a waiting list. The average voucher for a special needs student is about $9,900, so the expansion could cost the state another $81 million. Legislators set aside $350 million in reserves into the budget to accommodate potential cost overruns in the school choice expansion program. The special session begins Monday. News Service of Florida. Orlando Sentinel. Politico Florida. Other bills (S.B. 6C, H.B. 7C) would make $25 million available for Jewish preschools and day schools to hire security guards and install security measures such as surveillance cameras and shatterproof windows. WKMG. News Service of Florida.

Around the state: Clay’s school board votes to disband the district police force and turn the responsibility for school security over to the sheriff’s office, Hillsborough school board members unanimously approve the hiring of interim leader Van Ayres as superintendent, Lee County’s enrollment of nearly 103,000 students is the highest in the history of the district, the opening of two new schools in Palm Beach County eases overcrowding at nearby schools, Miami-Dade schools are launching a fentanyl awareness campaign, Ben Sasse is formally inaugurated as president of the University of Florida, and don’t forget to set your clocks back one hour Sunday morning. Here are details about those stories and others from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Miami-Dade: District officials are launching a fentanyl awareness campaign this month to educate students at all 62 public high schools and their families about the dangers of the drug. Assemblies will be held at schools to teach students how to recognize signs of overdosing, how to administer naloxone, a medication that can reverse the effects of an overdose, and how to spot fake pills. Florida is second in the nation in fentanyl-related deaths, and overdoses in students 14 to 18 years old increased by 94 percent from 2019 to 2023. Miami Herald. WPLG. WFOR.

Hillsborough: Van Ayres was promoted from interim to permanent superintendent Thursday in a unanimous vote by school board members. Formerly the district’s deputy superintendent, Ayres, 49, was appointed as the interim in June when Addison Davis resigned. Ayres will be paid $330,000 in the first year of a four-year contract, and get get annual raises if the pay of other administrators is boosted. He also agreed to a provision allowing him to be fired by a simple majority of the seven-member board. He’ll get early challenges as he continues the process of closing and consolidating underenrolled schools and leading a campaign to convince voters to approve a property tax increase to improve employee compensation. “We have a lot of work to do,” Ayres said. “Much, much work to do. But I’m up for the challenge. I will not let you down.” Board members also approved a contract agreement providing raises averaging 3.68 percent for teachers and support employees. Tampa Bay Times. WFTS. WTVT. Spectrum News 9.

Palm Beach: Two school district employees have gone through training to become armed guardians, Superintendent Michael Burke said this week. One is an unnamed assistant principal, and the other is Ed Tierney, deputy superintendent and chief of schools. Burke said he was impressed with the 180-hour training provided, but the district has no plans to arm teachers or expand the guardian program. Palm Beach Post. The opening of two new schools, Dr. Joaquin Garcia High and West Boynton Middle, has significantly changed enrollments in neighboring schools. Four of the five high schools closest to Garcia that had been at more than 100 percent capacity declined by 4 to 9 percentage points. At Woodlands Middle, which sent students to West Boynton, enrollment is down 20 percent, the largest drop in the district. Palm Beach Post.

Lee: Nearly 103,000 students are enrolled in traditional and charter county schools this year, according to latest figures from the district. It’s the most ever, by more than 3,000, and makes Lee the eighth-largest district in the state and in the top 30 nationally. Enrollment has gone from 92,682 in the 2016-2017 school year to 102,791 this year; 89,337 attend traditional schools and 13,454 attend charter schools. “The continued growth in enrollment speaks to the high quality of education we offer in the school district of Lee County,” said Superintendent Christopher Bernier. Lehigh Acres Citizen.

Volusia: The union representing support personnel has reached an agreement with the district that includes a 2.5 percent raise and an increase in longevity pay. Paraprofessionals, teacher assistants and clerical workers will vote on the deal Nov. 7 and, if they approve, it goes to the school board Nov. 14. Spectrum News 13. Charter schools that were forced to scramble when the district decided to end transportation for them last spring say they’re concerned the district will continue to cut ties in other areas as well. “I don’t think transportation is going to be the only place that we see disconnect between the district and its charter schools,” said Reading Edge Academy principal Sue Smith. “In a sense, it’s just the start of the relationship between us and the school district that we’re more on our own.” Daytona Beach News-Journal. More than 1,600 students are enrolled in the new French immersion programs at Spruce Creek and Citrus Grove elementary schools. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

Manatee: Two candidates have filed to run in 2024 for the District 1 seat on the school board: Heather Felton, a former English teacher at Southeast High School, and local Republican Party activist Mark Stanoch. Gina Messenger, first elected in 2016, currently holds the seat but has not announced if she plans to seek a third term. Bradenton Journal.

Sarasota: Free weekly classes about black history will resume Saturday at Girls Inc. in Sarasota. The local chapter of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History will offer age-appropriate lessons for K-12 students on such topics as the contributions of African Americans throughout history, origins of the slave trade, the economics of the antebellum South, emancipation and the civil rights movement. The group’s goal is to have a diverse group of about 100 students. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Clay: School board members voted 4-1 Thursday to disband the district police force and turn over responsibility for school security to the sheriff’s office. Board member Beth Clark said the decision doesn’t change security in the schools, and that the current school resource officers have the option of switching to the sheriff’s office. She added that she voted in favor after reading a grand jury report on what happened in Broward County after the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. “We have to have two separate entities review investigations, make sure that they’re being investigated correctly, and that they’re being investigated totally,” she said. “We can’t pick and choose … not saying that’s what we’re doing but that is what the grand jury report discovered what is happening when you have district police within the presence of the school district.” Contract negotiations now begin with the sheriff, and board members anticipate the changeover to be in place for the 2024-2025 school year. WJXT. WJAX. WTLV.

Bay: School Superintendent Keith Leonard is asking the local legislative delegation to approve a law that would deny bond to anyone who commits a violent crime near a school. A Sept. 22 shooting outside a basketball game at Workman Middle School prompted Leonard’s request. The person accused of attempted murder in that shooting was out on bond seven minutes after being booked into jail. WEAR.

Flagler: Two Buddy Taylor Middle School students were bitten by wild rats at the school farm in September when a teacher decided to flush the rats out of a hole with a water hose. Neither was seriously injured, but the school’s agriculture program was temporarily suspended and the teacher was placed on administrative leave and reprimanded. Flagler Live.

Colleges and universities: Ben Sasse, who’s been president of the University of Florida for nine months, was formally inaugurated Thursday. He promised to make practical majors “even more practical,” refine the core curriculum, defend faculty tenure, and increase transparency and accountability at the university. “Too much of higher education wants to resist change,” he said. “Too many institutions are complacent. This place has somehow been relatively insulated against complacency and self-satisfaction, and that’s darn attractive.” Gainesville Sun. Florida Politics. Fresh Take Florida.

Around the nation: Fewer U.S. high school students are vaping, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fourteen percent of students said they had vaped within the past month last year, but that declined to 10 percent this year, the CDC said. Use of tobacco products also declined this year. Associated Press. Two educational choice advocacy groups have announced they will partner to defend future legal challenges to school choice programs. The Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm that successfully argued a case beforre the Supreme Court that established parental freedom in state school choice programs, is collaborating with the national research nonprofit EdChoice to form the Partnership for Educational Choice, and launch the EdChoice Legal Advocates. reimaginED.

Opinions on schools: There’s more to spelling and vocabulary than rote memorization, which is how schools are teaching it. Critical thinking, context and right-track answers all broaden knowledge. National Spelling Bee winner Dev Shah, Tampa Bay Times. The political appointees who drafted a proposed rule aimed at cracking down on social activism at Florida’s public universities are proposing something so ridiculously vague the universities’ only safe response will be to ban pretty much all forms of activism and free speech. Tampa Bay Times.

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BY NextSteps staff