Schools opening to volunteer chaplains and ‘patriotic’ groups, state’s top administrators, and more

Two more bills signed: Volunteer chaplains could have access to public and charter schools to counsel willing students under a bill signed into law Thursday by Gov. Ron DeSantis. “There are some students (who) need some soul prep,” he said. Chaplains from all faiths are welcome in schools that choose to participate, he said, but he drew the line at an offer to include representatives from the Satanic Temple. “That is not a religion,” DeSantis said. “We’re not playing those games in Florida.” The law is expected to be challenged in court. The second bill the governor signed will allow “patriotic” groups to speak with students and distribute information during school hours. Those groups are Big Brothers-Big Sisters, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, Boys & Girls Clubs, Civil Air Patrol, Future Farmers of America, Little League Baseball, the Marine Corps League and the Naval Sea Cadet Corps. News Service of Florida. USA Today Florida Network. Orlando Sentinel. Florida Phoenix. Florida Politics. Associated Press. WKMG. WPTV. WTVJ. Pensacola News Journal.

Around the state: School leaders in Duval and Putnam counties are named the state’s principal and assistant principal of the year, dozens of Broward schools are on the list of ones that could be closed, merged or repurposed, and a Fort Lauderdale official is suggesting that some of those closed schools could become city cemeteries, Hillsborough will close five more schools at the end of this school year, Volusia school employees will pay 5.9 percent more in health insurance rates in the next school year, and Florida’s Board of Governors is offering tickets for a $500 bookstore raffle as a way to increase students’ participation in the state’s “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” survey on college campuses. Here are details about those stories and others from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Broward: School officials have identified dozens of schools and other district buildings that could be closed, merged or repurposed as part of the proposed resizing of the school district to cut expenses. There are about 50,000 empty classroom seats and dozens of schools that are underenrolled.”There’s going to be some tough conversations with those zones that do have schools that may have to face some closures,” said newly appointed Superintendent Howard Hepburn. WTVJ. The school district has schools it can’t fill and is considering closing, and the city of Fort Lauderdale is running out of cemetery space. City commissioner Mike Watson suggested Thursday that the district’s problem could become a city solution. He identified eight schools with enough property to accommodate a cemetery. Miami Herald.

Hillsborough: Five more underenrolled schools are closing after this school year. District officials said the decisions are based on “shifting demographics,” certain neighborhoods having fewer families with school-aged children, and more students leaving traditional public schools for private and charter schools. Fifty-eight schools are now at least one-third empty, and 11 are half-empty. Kimbell and Cleveland elementary schools and Adams, McLane and Monroe middle schools will be shuttered, joining Just Elementary, which was closed after the 2022-2023 school year. Tampa Bay Times.

Orange: A lack of “adequate” security at 2022 Jones High School football game was responsible for the shooting death of a 19-year-old, his family contends in a lawsuit filed against the school board. Gamaine Brown was killed and two others injured in the shooting after the game ended. The lawsuit said just two police officers were present. WKMG.

Palm Beach: A school bus driver and aide have been suspended for throwing a water bottle at a car and yelling obscenities at its driver whom they believed cut off the bus in traffic in February 2023. School board members approved Superintendent Michael Burke’s recommendation to suspend driver Nina Ratliff and bus attendant Bria Glover for five days without pay, starting May 9. Palm Beach Post.

Duval, Putnam: Michael George of Atlantic Coast High School in Jacksonville has been chosen as te state’s principal of the year, the Florida Department of Education announced Thursday. Also honored was John Michael Chaires of Palatka Junior/Senior High School in Putnam County as assistant principal of the year. WJAX. Palatka Daily News. Florida Department of Education. School board members will begin vetting the 20 candidates for the school superintendent’s job at their April 23 meeting. Semifinalists will be chosen and will then have to submit answers to questions. Here are the 20 candidates and their application letters. WJXT.

Polk: A 67-year-old driver who struck a 6-year-old student getting off a school bus Wednesday afternoon has been charged with driving under the influence. Deputies said Robert Reedy was trying to pass the bus and a car when he hit the student, who was treated and released at a hospital. Lakeland Ledger.

Pinellas: A van that was scheduled to deliver food to 11 after-school programs in Pinellas County was destroyed by a fire in Hillsborough County on Thursday. The driver of the van from J.W. Foods said he noticed an electrical smell while he was loading food from Let’s Cook Shared Kitchen. No one was injured, but the van was declared a total loss. Tampa Bay Times.

Brevard: Rates of disciplinary action in the school district fell between the second and third quarter of the school year, but are still up significantly from the 2022-2023 year, according to school reports. There were 72,399 discipline referrals through the first three quarters of this school year, compared to the 61,017 referrals in the same period last year. Referrals were given to 18,447 students, up from 15,529 students the year before. Board member Matt Susin said the numbers show the district is finally addressing discipline issues. Florida Today.

Volusia: School employees will pay 5.9 percent higher health insurance rates during the next school year, starting Oct. 1. The district’s eight-member insurance committee had narrowed the options to the 5.9 percent increase and higher deductibles or an 8.1 percent increase and lower deductibles. Daytona Beach News-Journal. A $4.7 million purchase of property in DeLand was approved this week by the school board and is expected to become the future home of Enterprise Elementary School. The school board decided last fall to replace Enterprise, which was built in the 1970s and has uneven sidewalks, drainage issues, insufficient stormwater structure and other structural issues, according to an architectural report. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

Alachua: A longtime Gainesville teacher, Gloria Jean Merriex, is the subject of a new documentary, Class of Her Own, by Boaz Dvir, that details her extraordinary creativity and dedication in helping elevate an under-resourced elementary school in a high poverty community from an F grade from the state to an A in a single year. Forbes.

Bay: District teacher Chad Everette Wallis has been arrested and charged with possession, promotion, and presentation of obscene material depicting child sexual conduct. WJHG.

Colleges and universities: The Florida Board of Governors is offering tickets for a $500 bookstore raffle as a way to increase students’ participation in the state’s “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” survey. The colleges’ nonprofit foundations are using donor money to fund the giveaway. Fresh Take Florida.

Around the nation: Books bans are on the increase in the United States, according to the nonprofit free speech advocate group Pen America. Schools removed or restricted 4,349 books or other materials in the first half of the current school, compared to 1,841 in the last half of the 2022-2023 school year. K-12 Dive. The U.S. Department of Education released its finalized Title IX rule today. It provides safeguards for transgender students by adding gender identity to discrimination protections and mandates how schools must respond to sexual misconduct complaints. K-12 Dive.

Opinions on schools: It is our moral duty to educate students about the history of communism, just as we educate them about the Holocaust and the hideous evil of Nazi Germany, the history of Japanese internment camps in the U.S. during World War II, the history of African Americans, including slavery, abolition, racism, segregation, and more. Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr., Miami Herald. Leon schools spending $100,000 to try and address what is a multi-million-dollar problem that affects us all doesn’t seem like such a bad investment of time and resources. Gary Yordan, Tallahassee Democrat.

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BY NextSteps staff