By LISA MACNEIL
Masks, Social issues drew passionate discussion at the Interlocal Governmental Meeting on April 6, 2021. Primarily a School Board meeting, the annual meeting is attended by the Hernando Board of County Commissioners (BOCC), the Brooksville City Council, and the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO). Education leaders from SunTech and state agencies were also present.
For approximately 3 hours, the members of the convening boards discussed a range of items, some presented here.
Buildings and Sidewalks and School Zones
Public Works Director and County Engineer Scott Herring kicked off the original agenda with a presentation on sidewalks and school zones. County-wide, sidewalks are currently constructed using a Local Agency Program (LAP), which is funded through the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) funding, and the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) is responsible for the oversight of the funded projects on behalf of the FHWA. Herring reported that more than 32 miles of sidewalks have been installed through this funding method.
Since 2010, LAP funding has covered $11 million toward sidewalks, and the county has contributed $1.3 million in additional funding.
To date, 23 sidewalk installations have been completed in Spring Hill and 4 in Brooksville. Seven projects are currently pending: six in Spring Hill and one in Brooksville.
Regarding school zones, Herring reported that these are state-regulated by Florida Administrative Code Chapter 15 of the FDOT Speed Zone Manual. New regulations instituted in 2017 and 2018 mandated changes to signage and speed limits by 2023 and roadway markings are to be updated with the next resurfacing. Flashing beacons are to be installed at all school zones, to update standard signage bearing times when school zone speed zones are in effect.
In response to a question of school zone enforcement, Sheriff Al Nienhuis added that his agency is “constantly educating” the public about motorists’ speed in school zones through public service announcements, social media platforms, and on the roadside when a driver is found to violate the law.
Jim Lipsey, Manager of Planning, Construction, and Design for the school district presented proposed school master plans that will expand student stations as well as driveway capacities to allow for more vehicles in student pickup areas.
Brooksville Elementary currently has room for 733 student stations and a 66 car capacity student pickup zone. A proposed plan will allow for 1,085 student stations, and 158 cars able to queue. The estimated cost for this expansion is $5.1 million.
JD Floyd’s current queue allows for 32 vehicles. Its Master Plan will increase that to 133. Student expansion would increase by 352, for an overall 1048. The price tag for this expansion comes to $6.2 million.
Other schools planned expansions are as follows:
Spring Hill Elementary: 588 existing student stations increased to 1028. 26 car spots increased to 180. Estimated cost: $6.5 million.
Westside Elementary: Currently at 590 student stations and room for 32 cars will increase to 942 student stations and room for 223 cars. Estimated cost: $10 million. The extra cost for this school is attributed to the cost of overhauling an older facility.
“While we believe all of these concepts are viable, the challenge is how to fund each of these projects soon,” Lipsey said. Funding for capital projects for public schools is restricted by law.
Lipsey reported that space needs are emergent, as at least one elementary school is currently at capacity.
Sophia Watson and Beth Lastra, leaders of the career and technical education programs, presented an overview on the county’s economic development concerning unemployment rates, available jobs, and how the school system is preparing students for careers not requiring a college degree.
Hernando County currently has a 4.9% unemployment rate. Although the rate is on the decline according to the Florida Scorecard (thefloridascorecard.org), a resource that provides data for the entire state and individual counties.
Attendees were provided packets that included information on industry certification courses available to students which can be obtained before graduation from high school, such as welding, nursing assisting, and EKG administration.
Future programs offered could include crime scene investigation, firefighting, hospitality and tourism, and pharmacy assisting.
Budgets, Impact fees, and the 1/2 cent sales tax
Director of Facilities and Construction Brian Ragan provided an update on the district’s usage of the 1/2 cent sales tax, which funds various capital projects and improvements. By law, the tax cannot be used for regular operations. Hernando County collects an estimated $11 million annually from this tax.
The referendum instituting the 1/2 sales tax was on the ballot in 2015. At that time, the district included a listing of 181 projects estimated to cost over $87 million. Upon its passage, the Citizen’s Accountability Committee was formed to oversee the usage of the tax funds.
The county currently has 536 buildings on 32 sites that require regular maintenance and have various repair projects underway.
Of the 181 projects listed in 2015, 133 have been completed. Additional projects that have emerged and were unplanned have also been completed using the funds. Major projects include HVAC replacements at Hernando High, West Hernando Middle, JD Floyd and Pinegrove, and roof replacement at Fox Chapel Middle.
Currently, the HVAC system is underway at Suncoast Elementary. Hernando High and Springstead are having work completed on their theatres to address safety concerns with lighting.
Future projects include installing covered walkways to portables, repair or replacement of chemistry lab equipment, replacing irrigation systems and fire alarms. Roofs at newer schools are approaching the end of life expectancy.
School Board member Jimmy Lodato, who was involved in getting the 1/2 cent tax on the 2015 referendum expressed his gratitude and pride in everyone involved.
Joyce McIntyre, Director of Finance & Purchasing, and Kendra Sittig, Budget Director presented spending updates in the district, specifying where the district can spend and where they are restricted.
The general fund is the operating budget for the district and is funded through state and federal reimbursements and property taxes.
Curriculum standards, bias in the classroom, social issues, and mask mandates
Gina Michalicka, Assistant Superintendent of Teaching & Learning updated the agencies on the curriculum currently being taught in the district. Both Michalicka and Superintendent John Stratton emphasized that each public school district’s curriculum is driven by the state, and must be approved at that level.
Florida statute 1006.283 mandates that the district is required to certify that all instructional materials for core courses align with state standards and that the “materials are reviewed, selected and adopted by the school board.”
New materials are adopted during adoption cycles, where a list of approved materials is constructed by the state, after which the school board and staff review, evaluate, and recommend the materials to be used from the state-adopted list. Several committees from all grade levels are involved in the process.
Educational standards are set by the Department of Education (DOE). Teachers are required to follow standards for the course that they are teaching. New standards for English and Math are expected in the 2021 school year. A new statewide assessment will be implemented in the 2022-23 school year.
Michalicka reported that she and her staff conduct formal walkthroughs of classrooms to ensure that best practices and standards are being followed. Students are assessed each year to show mastery of the standards, most familiarly in the form of standardized testing. Additionally, policies are in place to address any issues that arise involving standards and practices.
Specific subject standards and other information are available at cpalms.org.
At the end of Michalicka’s presentation, the county commissioners present spoke of educational concerns that have been brought to their attention by parents of Hernando County students.
Commissioner Beth Narverud (former school board member) asked if members of the public would be able to join the review and adoption process of new materials, to which Michalicka replied she believes the current policy is to allow for parental involvement during the selection process, but the answer was not immediately available at this meeting.
Commissioner John Allocco said his feedback from the community has been concerns about the “flexibility that’s associated with the standards.” Allocco gave an example of “Anti-American history– American History where we look at things that were negatives in our history like slavery or women’s suffrage, yet they fail to actually discuss the fact that actually is our American heritage that allowed those things to be corrected because they weren’t consistent with our constitutional standards.”
“The concern that we’re seeing from the community is that if the standards don’t actually demonstrate an anti-American sentiment, why is it coming across in the classroom that way for so many students?”
Allocco also expressed concern about social issues causing greater division, rather than promoting inclusivity, “especially for those who have traditional beliefs or faith-based beliefs.”
Michalicka responded that professional standards are set for the teaching of social issues as well, and if those standards are not being met, the district conducts investigations to correct the issue, and determine if any disciplinary action is warranted, or if the results of an investigation should be reported to the state.
Commissioner Jeff Holcomb added his concerns about teacher bias with respect to current events. In addition to parental involvement in the choice of classroom materials, Holcomb stated that parents should be involved when controversial items in the news become part of classroom discussion.
To Allocco and Holcomb, Stratton stated that he has received no communication regarding biases in the classroom. “I am not hearing what you’re hearing. What you’re describing is a systemic problem in Hernando County schools that I don’t think exists.” He went on to say that the district employs over 3,000 people, and mistakes are inevitable but will be addressed as soon as they arise.
Currently, the most prevalent social issue directly impacting Hernando County students is the mask mandate put in place by the school board. Several parents appear before the board at each meeting citing various reasons why the mandate should be lifted. At this meeting, two parents spoke during the citizens’ comments segment asking the school board to remove the mask mandate. Last week Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran sent a letter to school districts with mandatory face mask policies calling for them to revise their policies for the 2021-2022 school year. The letter asks those school districts to revise their policies to make wearing face masks voluntary.