Vouchers expanded under new bill, former Miami-Dade board member arrested, and more

Voucher expansion proposed: House Republicans introduced a bill Thursday that would expand the universal school choice law passed in 2023 by increasing the number of special-needs students who can get vouchers. HB 1403 would raise the cap on scholarship growth for students with disabilities from 3 percent a year to 5 percent, require that companies administering the funds make payments to students within seven days of approval by the parent and private school, and limit what parents can buy with the scholarships by specifying that the “instructional materials” permitted under the law can go only toward “equipment” tied to language arts and reading, math, social studies and science. Last year’s bill didn’t detail what could be bought, and was widely criticized after it was reported that parents were using voucher funds to buy paddleboards, kayaks, surfboards, treadmills and more. The bill sailed through the House’s Choice & Innovation Subcommittee. “We are trying to, in this legislation, learn from some of the hiccups that have been throughout this process and just make sure that this is as streamlined as it can be,” said state Rep. Josie Tomkow, R-Polk City. Politico Florida.

Also in the Legislature: Social media companies would have to bar anyone younger than 16 from creating an account and kill existing accounts for children under 16 under a bill approved Thursday by the House Regulatory Reform and Economic Development Subcommittee. House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, said the sites are “highly addictive and also highly damaging” to children. Politico Florida. News Service of Florida. Florida Politics. WFSU. Another proposal approved by the committee would require websites with adult content to use “reasonable age verification methods” to restrict the content to people over the age of 18. State Rep. Chase Tremont, R-Port Orange, said it’s imperative to protect children from such content. News Service of Florida. Florida Politics. Politico Florida. A House committee gave its approval to a bill that would provide state retirees, including teachers, an annual cost-of-living increase of 3 percent. The estimated pricetag is $2 billion. USA Today Florida Network.

Around the state: A former chair of the Miami-Dade County School Board is arrested and accused of using a district credit card to make $100,000 worth of personal purchases, Alachua’s school board agrees with Superintendent Shane Andrew’s recommendation to postpone any school boundary rezoning until the 2025-2026 school year, State University System Chancellor Ray Rodrigues says the executive order waiving fees and deadlines for Jewish university students who want to transfer because of anti-Semitism at their current schools also applies to any student who fears religious prosecution, an e-mail from Pasco Superintendent Kurt Browning to staff about “professional dress” causes a stir, and conservatives are making a push to flip the Pinellas County School Board. Here are details about those stories and others from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Miami-Dade: A former chair of the school board was arrested Thursday and accused of using her district-issued credit card to pay for $100,000 in personal expenses such as groceries, appliances and vacations over several years. Lubby Navarro, 49, resigned from the board in December 2022, a day before a new Florida law went into effect that prohibits elected officials from working as lobbyists, and became a registered lobbyist for the South Broward Hospital District. “She knew better than to have gone down this very pathetic path,” said State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle. Navarro’s attorney, Ben Kuehne, said she is innocent. Miami Herald. WLRN. WPLG. WSVN. WFOR. WTVJ. In the past calendar year, school board members proposed 124 personal initiatives, but 72 of them had no direct relation to classrooms or district students, an analysis has found. Only 13 were directly related to classroom changes affecting students, and another 39 were partially related. Former school board member Marta Perez called the proposals “a waste … put it up for political purposes to make it sound like they’re encouraging this or that.” Miami Herald.

Hillsborough: Speed detection cameras will be placed in 13 school zones in the city of Tampa next fall, the city council decided Thursday. Cameras will take pictures of the license plates of cars going 10 mph over the speed limit in those zones, and the automatically generated tickets will cost $100. Tampa Bay Times. School board members approved spending $200,000 to buy 8,000 copies of the Classic Learning Test, which was recently approved by the state as an alternative to the SAT and ACT college entrance exams. Results from the CLT, which was pushed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and conservatives, can be used to satisfy graduation requirements and apply for Bright Futures Scholarships. WUSF. James Villacorteza, a 5th-grade science teacher at James Elementary School in Tampa, has been arrested for allegedly trying to arrange a sexual encounter with a minor. Deputies who were posing as young boys and girls online said Villacorteza thought he was arranging a meeting with a 15-year-old boy. District officials suspended Villacorteza after his arrest, and he then resigned, according to a school district spokesperson. Tampa Bay Times. WTVT.

Palm Beach: The trial of a high school principal charged with failing to promptly report an allegation of sexual assault to authorities in 2021 has been set for March 18. Darren Edgecomb, 59, was the principal at Palm Beach Central High School until he was arrested last July. He was then reassigned and has been working in the maintenance and plant operations department. Four other school employees were also arrested, though the charge against one of them was dismissed late last year. WPTV. WPEC. Hawazin Wright, a district teacher who was arrested three times in less than two weeks in November, has been fired. He was arrested for allegedly harassing a woman, aggravated assault and drug possession, and carrying a concealed weapon at a pro-Palestinian rally. WPTV.

Polk: Another false threat was phoned in to George Jenkins High School this week, leading to a lockdown of the school and nearly an hour of anxious moments for students and employees. The increasingly common threats, nearly all of which are false alarms, and mandatory drills are taking a mental toll on students and teachers, according to psychologists. Berney Wilkinson, a former psychologist with the district, said the lockdowns tend to increase anxiety for some students and apathy in others. Lakeland Now.

Pinellas: Three of the seven seats on the school board are up for election this year, and conservatives are pushing to win at least two of the seats to give them a majority of board members. Two newcomers are challenging incumbent board members who have been singled out for replacement by Gov. DeSantis: private religious school operator Danielle Marolf is running against incumbent Laura Hine in District 1, and district high school guidance counselor Erika Picard is taking on incumbent Eileen Long for the District 4 seat. In District 5, incumbent Carol Cook is not running, and conservatives are pushing business owner Stacy Geier for the seat. Platforms for the three are nearly identical , emphasizing parental control, cutting access to books with adult and sexual content and advocating a reduction of authority for “unelected bureaucrats.” Tampa Bay Times.

Pasco: A recent e-mail from Superintendent Kurt Browning to teachers and other school employees about “professional dress” at school touched a nerve for many. They ask if the way teachers dress is really an issue, think Browning should focus on bigger issues and suggest the e-mail questions their professionalism. Browning isn’t backing down on his request to return to “more traditional appearance expectations,” though he didn’t include lists of acceptable and unacceptable attire, and said he won’t apologize for being “old school.” Tampa Bay Times.

Volusia: Eight years ago, Lonnie Tidmarsh started growing a beard when he was hired as the assistant principal for Timbercrest Elementary School. Four years later he was named the principal and vowed he’d shave it when the B-rated school earned an A. Last week, the beard came off during a pep rally celebrating the school’s A grade for the 2022-2023 school year. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

St. Johns: Otis Alphonso Mason, a longtime teacher and principal in St. Augustine who became the county’s first black superintendent and had an elementary school named in his honor, has died at the age of 94. Jacksonville Today.

Alachua: Superintendent Shane Andrew recommended Thursday that the school board not proceed with proposed school rezoning maps, and board members agreed to delay any zoning changes until the 2025-2026 school year. District employees have been working on the maps for nine months, but have encountered significant community criticism and have revised the maps several times. “Students … are reaching a crucial point of stabilization that may be compromised by changes in their attendance zones at this time,” said Andrew. Main Street Daily News. WCJB. High Springs city commissioners are considering placing speed detection cameras in school zones, starting in the fall. Police Chief Antoine Sheppard said studies show hundreds of speeding violations through those zones. The cameras will take photos of license plates of vehicles that are going more than 10 miles per hour over the speed limit, and the driver will get a $100 fine in the mail. The money collected will go to the city to pay for crossing guards and other safety measures. WCJB.

Bay: The historic St. Andrews School in Panama City, which has been closed since Hurricane Michael roared through the area in 2018, could be transformed into a creative and cultural arts space by Destination Panama City. Tourism leaders say the project will cost up to $5.5 million, and could be reopened in 2026. WJHG.

Jackson: District schools are closed today due to the threat of severe weather, Superintendent Steve Benton said. Winds in excess of 50 mph are forecast for the county this afternoon. WMBB.

Colleges and universities: State University System Chancellor Ray Rodrigues said the executive order issued this week waiving fees and deadlines for Jewish university students who want to transfer because of anti-Semitism at their current schools would also apply to any student who fears religious prosecution. To not extend it to other students, Rodrigues acknowledged, could violate the state’s regulations ending diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. Tampa Bay Times. Starting in the second semester Jan. 29, New College will offer an online degree that uses materials provided by Ricketts Great Books College, a program created by billionaire and Gov. DeSantis donor Joe Ricketts. The program offers a bachelor’s degree, an associate’s degree or a one-year certificate from the college. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

COVID’s effect on education: The format of state assessment tests, called Florida Assessment of Student Thinking, had an impact on school grades and demonstrate the impact the pandemic had on students’ ability to learn, says Christopher Redding, an associate professor at the University of Florida. WFTS.

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BY NextSteps staff