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Legislative session hits halfway point, budget talks progress, property tax changes, and more

Mid-session overview: Several high-priority bills related to education are expected to get increased attention from legislators as the second half of the 60-day session begins today. Just this week, senators expressed support for the House’s proposal to ban social media accounts for students under 16 despite questions about the bill’s constitutionality. Also to be decided, among other things, are the relaxation of work restrictions for students 16 and 17, how funds for K-12 education will be used, and the final shape of the bill that would cut back on regulations for public schools, including accountability. News Service of Florida. USA Today Florida Network.

Budget discussions: Negotiations between the Senate and House on a state budget progressed Wednesday, with a vote scheduled today in the House on its proposal. The House plan calls for $115.55 billion in spending, while the Senate version is $115.9 billion. Both would increase per-student funding for K-12 students by 2.5 percent. Senate Appropriations Chairman Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, said the back-to-school and other tax holidays could be trimmed slightly from Gov. Ron DeSantis’ proposal. After today’s vote, senators will take up the House version and send it back to kick off negotiations. A final budget must be approved 72 hours before the scheduled end of the session, which is March 8. News Service of Florida.

Also in the Legislature: A House committee has approved a bill that would require a two-thirds vote by school boards and city, county and special district governing boards to approve increases in property tax millage rates, which help fund public schools. News Service of Florida. College teacher preparation courses would be required to not “distort significant historical events or include a curriculum or instruction that teaches identity politics” or be “based on theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political, and economic inequities” under a bill approved Wednesday by a House committee. News Service of Florida. Six “patriotic” organizations would be allowed to talk to students and distribute information at schools under a proposal that was passed Wednesday by a House committee. News Service of Florida.

Around the state: A former Duval County teacher who lost her job after placing a Black Lives Matter flag in her classroom in 2021 wants to return to a classroom, demonstrators opposing and supporting a flag in a Lee County classroom square off at a school board meeting, a Bay County middle school vacant since being damaged in 2018 by a hurricane will be demolished, a Marion County elementary school is selected to take part in the state’s year-round schools test, two Brevard schools are closed today because of a power outage, and Sarasota school board member Bridget Ziegler says she will not resign or discuss the recent disclosure that she and her husband had a sexual relationship with another woman. Here are details about those stories and others from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Miami-Dade: Parents of iPrep Academy, a preK-12 public school in downtown Miami, are mobilizing for a fight over the use of a piece of property that’s at the center of a bribery charges against a former city commissioner. A deal to build a new school with greater capacity on the land, along with affordable housing for teachers, was scrapped in 2022 when the city gave the deal to David and Leila Centner, a wealthy Miami couple who operate the Centner Academy and plan to develop Biscayne Park into an indoor youth sports complex for their school. After state prosecutors charged commissioner Alex Díaz de la Portilla with bribery, the city’s decision on the deal with the Centners was delayed until today. Miami Herald. A student at Miami Carol City Senior High School in Miami Gardens was arrested Wednesday and accused of having a knife on campus. Police were tipped by another student that the student had at least one knife, and they found several weapons in the girl’s purse. WTVJ. WPLG. WSVN. WFOR.

Palm Beach: An English teacher at the South Tech Academy charter school in Boynton Beach was arrested this week and accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a 16-year-old student. Deputies said Damian Conti, 25, faces charges of unlawful sexual activity involving certain minors and committing an offense against students by an authority figure. School officials said he has been fired. Palm Beach Post. WPTV. WPEC.

Duval: A former district high school teacher who won a $300,000 settlement from the school board for retaliation and violating her free speech rights is trying to get back in a Florida classroom. Amy Donofrio was teaching at Lee High School (now Riverside High) in 2021 when she placed a Black Lives Matter flag in her classroom. District officials removed it, calling it a breach of policy, and Donofrio was not rehired. She filed a suit and settled with the district for $300,000. WJXT.

Polk: A private school teacher and soccer coach at Star Athletes Academy in Lakeland was arrested this week and accused of having a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old student. Deputies said Richard Alcalde, 26, is charged with sexual battery by a custodian, sexual offense on a student by an authority figure and unlawful use of a two-way communication device. School officials said he has been fired. Lakeland Ledger. WKMG. WOFL. WFLA. WTVT.

Lee: Demonstrators for and against a flag hanging in a Riverdale High School classroom protested and counter-protested at this week’s school board meeting. Members of the county Republican party mobilized the protest against a “Hate Has No Home Here” flag that is covered in hearts that contain hearts that contain the American flag, a peace symbol, the words Black Lives Matter and the LGBTQ+ and transgender flags. They contend it violates state law by promoting “woke” indoctrination. Board members listened to an hour of public comments but took no action against the flag. But board members are considering policy revisions on political activities and personal items in classroom, and a vote is expected Feb. 21. Fort Myers News-Press.

Pasco: Jessica Wright, a Florida Virtual School instructor and former Pasco school district teacher, has announced that she will challenge incumbent school board member Alison Crumbley for the District 4 seat. Wright joins firefighter Shawn Hayston in the race to unseat Crumbley, who has been on the board since 2014. Tampa Bay Times.

Brevard: Two Palm Coast schools are closed today because of a power outage. Late Wednesday, the district notified parents whose children attend Southwest Middle School and John F. Turner Elementary School of the change in the schedule. “Crews will work as quickly as possible to make repairs, but the work will not be completed before the start of the school day,” the district said in its announcement on Facebook. Florida Today. WOFL. WKMG.

Manatee: Construction begins this month on the $68 million North County Middle School in Parrish. It’s expected to be completed by the fall of 2025 and accommodate up to 1,268 students. Bradenton Herald. County commissioners are expected to vote next week whether to install speed cameras in school zones. Drivers caught on video going more than 10 miles per hour over the speed limit will receive $100 tickets through the mail. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Sarasota: Embattled school board member Bridget Ziegler insisted this week that she will not resign over the uproar caused by the recent disclosure that she and her husband had a sexual relationship with another woman. She also said, “For many reasons … I will never address (issues about her personal life) in these chambers because they have absolutely nothing to do with my role as a board member.” Sarasota Herald-Tribune. WTVT.

Marion: Wyomina Park Elementary School in Ocala is one of the schools selected by the state to test a year-round school program. Students would still attend 180 days of schools, as they do now, but the 12 weeks off would be spread throughout the academic year, instead of having an extended vacation during the summer. A public hearing is scheduled tonight at the school to discuss the details. Ocala Star-Banner. WKMG.

Alachua: The school district’s book review policy has been revised. Challenges will now go to principals, who will forward them to a district-level library advisory council for a review and a recommendation. If the council votes to remove a book, the issue goes directly to the school board for a hearing and a decision. If the council votes to retain a book, the issue goes to a hearing officer. Main Street Daily News.

Bay: District officials have announced that Everitt Middle School in Springfield, severely damaged by Hurricane Michael in 2018 and left vacant since then, will be demolished in the next three months. The decision was made after the district was unable to get FEMA funding to rebuilt the school. “FEMA has a rule that if a building structure is damaged over 50 percent, then that triggers a replacement. We’ve gone back and forth with FEMA several times … and it’s currently under 50 percent in their view,” said district director of facilities Lee Walters. Everitt students have been attending classes at Rutherford High. WMBB.

Charlotte: An 11-year-old student at Murdock Middle School in Port Charlotte was arrested Wednesday and accused of bringing of knife to school and threatening to kill a classmate for flirting with her boyfriend. A school resource found the knife and a threatening note after being tipped by another student. WINK. WFTX. WBBH.

Colleges and universities: University of Central Florida junior Jack Sweeney shrugged off threats from singer Taylor Swift’s lawyers and said he will continue tracking Swift’s private flights and posting the information on social media. He contends there is a public interest, and that the information is gathered from publicly available sources. Orlando Sentinel. WKMG. Indian River State College is receiving a $4 million workforce grant from the state, and officials say they will use it to create a new center for ballistics and emerging technology. WPTV.

Around the nation: Just 20 percent of the nation’s 8th-graders have an option of taking algebra, according to a survey conducted last spring by the RAND Corp. In Florida, the figure is 18 percent, and more than 80 percent of the state’s principals said the class is restricted. Studies show that 8th-graders who take algebra can more easily reach calculus by 12th grade, which can prepare them for harder courses in college and a pathway to STEM careers. Chalkbeat.

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BY NextSteps staff

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