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HomeBusiness & CommunityAnother school board meeting ends in heated exchange

Another school board meeting ends in heated exchange

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The latest meeting of the Hernando County School Board on February 28th began normally but wound up on a contentious note with a sometimes-testy exchange between some board members.

Members of the Westside Elementary School Safety Patrol kicked off the meeting, leading board members and attendees in the Pledge of Allegiance. As the meeting progressed, the school board issued several proclamations recognizing area businesses and institutions for their role in helping to educate Hernando County students.

Science Teacher Dan Lambert of Nature Coast Technical School was recognized as the HCSD Veteran for February. A retired Navy Master Chief, Lambert has served the district for over twenty years. Lambert said his appointment as a science teacher was “the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.”
The Board issued a proclamation designating March 6-10, 2023, as Newspapers in Education Week. The proclamation recognized two area newspapers, the Hernando Sun and the Tampa Bay Times, for their efforts in providing educational materials, newspapers, and instructional support to students. According to the proclamation, “Newspapers encourage students to become lifelong readers and help them discover the joys of reading.”

A second Proclamation recognized and congratulated Pasco-Hernando State College on its 50th anniversary. The proclamation recognized the college’s role in preparing higher education students for the workforce. As a partner to the HCSD, the College provides scholarships and works with Hernando and Pasco County Schools in providing academic credits to students.

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During the meeting, the board issued approvals on a variety of Consent Agenda topics, which included approving a 15-Year charter renewal for Brooksville Engineering, Science, and Technology (B.E.S.T.) Academy. The B.E.S.T. Academy is a tuition-free Charter School for grades 6, 7, and 8.
Following an opportunity for citizens to address the board on a variety of topics, the board moved to the last and most contentious item on the agenda, the District’s existing agreement with the company Equal Opportunity Schools, also known as EOS.

The EOS agreement, which was executed on July 22nd, 2022, and revised on September 1st, 2022, calls for the district to pay EOS $106,000 in fees plus other expenses, reaching $109,875 for the 2022-2023 school year. The terms of the agreement call for EOS to conduct surveys and gather student data which would potentially help the district identify and encourage certain qualifying students to enroll in Advanced Placement Courses (AP). The language of the agreement states, “We help school leaders identify and enroll historically underrepresented students of color and low-income students who can succeed in Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, or Advanced International Certificate of Education courses (“AP/IB/AICE”) but are not yet enrolled in AP/IB/AICE for systemic reasons related to race or socioeconomics.”

Board member Shannon Rodriguez questioned the spending of $106,000 on the district’s agreement for EOS’s services. Rodriguez stated identifying students with the potential for AP can and should be done by teachers and guidance counselors. Rodriguez said that the teachers of students are more familiar with the child than an out-of-state company and better equipped to identify and encourage a student to seek advanced placement courses. Rodriguez stated she believed that the money paid to EOS could be better spent elsewhere.

Rodriguez said she also took issue with the fact that the wording in the agreement appears to target students of color and low income, pointing out that all children were important, not just those of color or low income. “Color kids, white kids, there’s no difference. Rich kids, poor kids, there’s no difference. It doesn’t change how God wired them inside their brain.”

Rodriguez then appealed for unity and civility, apparently referencing contentious past Board meetings.
Board member Linda Prescott countered, defending the EOS program. Prescott said she felt it opened doors to students of color and low-income students. Prescott said the EOS data shows that the program has been very effective in helping students prepare for AP, and suggested that as a new board member, Rodriguez may want to look at the data and information obtained prior to her term on the board.

Rodriguez responded that for $106,000, she would hope that the data showed success, but this is what teachers and counselors should be doing rather than a data program from an out-of-state company. Rodriguez asked that she not be patronized because she was a new board member. Rodriguez said she had done her research on the issue and disagreed with the need for spending on the EOS contract. Rodriguez also stated the school board needed to reset how they dealt with each other. “Everybody out there knows we have a situation, and we need to fix it.”

Board member Susan Duval then entered the discussion, stating that she disagreed with Rodriguez about EOS. Duval stated that she saw EOS as taking some of the workload off teachers and Guidance Counselors. Duval said that EOS was “not about just kids of color, but about any student in our schools who might be able to make that leap, with help from teachers, to take AP courses and do well.”

Rodriguez pointed out to Duval that the agreement the district signed with EOS states in part, “The mission of EOS is to ensure that students of color and low-income students have equitable access…”

Duval responded, “That’s because they are the ones who got left behind so many years ago and continue…and because we had no way to identify those kids. They deserve a chance too… our poor kids, our kids of color, every single one of our kids deserves an opportunity to do better academically. This (data) allowed us to identify those students who potentially could make that transition to tougher AP courses.” Duval pointed out that the number of kids testing for AP went from 1263 in 2018 to 2151 last year. Duval added that having the data gave the district a foundation to talk to the kids who had not been testing for AP for “whatever reason.” “Putting it back is not going to be the solution…” Duval said.

Rodriguez then said she guaranteed “that we don’t need $106,000 to decipher which kids should be able to go forward.”
Duval stated she understands that Rodriguez is not willing to change her mind. Duval stated to Rodriguez, “I am the exact opposite of you. I will support EOS all the way.” As the members appeared to reach an impasse, Board chairman Gus Guadagnino called for an end to the discussion.

The exchange came on the heels of a contentious February 14th School board meeting in which board members Mark Johnson and Shannon Rodriguez expressed concerns as to how the district staff was vetting “sole source” vendors as well as how the staff was presenting project funding sources to the board in purchase requests. For over forty-five minutes, Johnson and Rodriguez questioned Ms. Jill Renihan, HCSD Director of Safe Schools, regarding two proposals to purchase the Zero-Eyes threat detection system and Armored One ballistic window film. Both were listed as sole source providers. (Sole source vendors are suppliers who offer a product or service that is unique, the equivalent of which can not be obtained elsewhere.

In those cases, Florida law allows government entities to make a purchase directly from a sole source vendor rather than go through a bid process required for non-sole source purchases.) Johnson and Rodriguez cited concerns that the district may not be doing their due diligence in vetting sole source providers, as well as specificity provided to the board as to the source of funding for the purchases.

In a prolonged discussion that seemed almost circular at times, the pair repeatedly expressed their concerns, laying out their expectations for specific information to be contained in future presentations.

Near the end of the discussion, Johnson cited the board’s duty to be “accountable.” The remark drew the ire of board member Susan Duval, who angrily responded, “If you think we’re not accountable all the time, you’ve got another thing coming. We are!” Duval’s response drew applause and cheers from some members of the audience.

School board Chairman Gus Guadagnino appeared to chastise Johnson and Rodriguez, stating, “Board members, you’ve got questions…you’ve got weeks to get them answered before you come here and put people through a wringer like you just did. That is not fair to them. They work hard, they are very dedicated, and they are very honest people. You made them feel like crap.” Rodriguez responded that she put hours and hours into due diligence and told Guadagnino, “Whether you think this is appropriate or it’s not, we all have the ability to see it the way we feel is the best for each of us.
We don’t have to get nasty.” The comment drew a sarcastic response from one audience member. Rodriguez continued, striking a conciliatory tone stating, “Each of us has an opinion. Each of us should be respectful. I respect your opinion, so you should have to respect mine.”

Despite the heated debate, all five members voted to approve the purchases from Zero Eyes and Armored One. During the Citizen Comment portion of the meeting, two of the speakers addressed the board, expressing their frustration at the conduct of board members during the meeting.

As the meeting ended, the board members each reflected upon the events of the night and tried to clarify their positions in somewhat softer terms. School Superintendent John Stratton said, “We can not continue to treat the staff the way we have been treating them.” Stratton pointed out that interrogations and continued disrespectful treatment of the staff will “run them out of here.” “It’s coming across as an interrogation,” Stratton said.

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