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HomeBusiness & CommunityNews release paves the way for contentious school board meeting

News release paves the way for contentious school board meeting

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On May 30th, hours before the start of a highly contentious Hernando County School Board meeting, the three state elected officials directly representing Hernando County publicly called for the resignation of Hernando County Schools Superintendent John Stratton.

In a paid press release, State Senator Blaise Ingoglia (R-Spring Hill), State Representative Jeff Holcomb (R-Spring Hill), and State Representative John Temple (R-Wildwood) called for Stratton’s resignation, stating, “It is clear to us that Superintendent Stratton has lost the confidence of parents, grandparents, and our community. We can no longer sit back and allow the Hernando County school system to make national news for its poor decisions, lack of transparency and accountability, and its contempt for parental rights. Whether it is pornographic material in our schools, not notifying parents when their children may have been around an alleged pedophile, or allowing a teacher back in the classroom after threatening to kill students, it is clear to us that change is needed, and it is needed now.”

The issues referenced in the statement include a long-running debate alleging pornographic content of books available to students through Hernando County school libraries, a 2021 incident in which an elementary school employee was arrested on several counts of sexual battery of a victim under 12 years old, and the most recent incident in March 2023 when a transgender teacher at Fox Chapel Middle School made statements many regarded as a threat to shoot students. In each of those incidents, there have been accusations by parents against the district and school board members claiming a cover-up.

The Hernando County School District has found itself at the center of national and even international controversy in recent months. The March incident at Fox Chapel Middle School, which began as an allegation that the district failed to notify parents of threats toward students made by a transgender teacher, has metastasized into a broad spectrum of political issues and accusations.

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Hot on the heels of the Fox Chapel incident, a 5th-grade teacher found herself under local and state investigation after the teacher showed an unauthorized Disney film to her students. The film, Strange World, featured a central character who discusses his romantic inclination toward another character of the same sex. The investigations were initiated following a complaint by school board member Shannon Rodriguez, whose 10-year-old daughter was in the teacher’s class.

The district recently closed that investigation, finding that the teacher violated policy by not getting administrative approval before showing the movie. That same teacher, Jenna Barbee, created a TikTok video that went viral and attracted the attention of national and international media. During an interview on CNN, Barbee fanned the flames of concerns voiced by parents, stating, “Parents’ rights are gone when children are in public school.”

Recent school board meetings have turned into “open-mic night” during the public comments portion of the meetings, as parents, teachers, unions, LGBTQ+ activists, and political action committee representatives have lined up to address the board and seemingly anyone else that may be listening. Many speakers have used the opportunity to directly attack board members, which is supposed to be against the rules of order. Still, that rule has seen little to no enforcement. Some of the attacks against board member Shannon Rodriguez (most notably for her complaint against Barbee) saw Rodriguez respond at length at the end of the meeting.

During the last school board meeting on May 9th, the board sat briefly in stunned silence, appearing unsure of how to handle a motion by board member Mark Johnson, calling for a “vote of no confidence” in Superintendent John Stratton, citing his inability to manage the recent controversies. Johnson’s motion was never voted on but instead overridden by a second motion by board member Linda Prescott. Prescott’s motion received a 3-2 vote to table the discussion.

With that motion looming, 590 people filled the Hernando High School auditorium to capacity for the May 30th meeting, leaving over 500 more outside. Many of the attendees were teachers and students wearing T-shirts, some yellow and some green, emblazoned with “Stratton Stays.” The auditorium sounded more like a pep rally than a school board meeting when Stratton entered, with much of the audience rising to their feet and cheering. The last board member to enter was Shannon Rodriguez. Her entry was met with a combination of applause from supporters and jeers from most of the teachers and students present.

In what turned out to be a marathon session, the board dispensed with its regular business in the first 90 minutes of the meeting. As the public comments portion of the meeting approached, it was learned that over one hundred people had requested to address the board. Each speaker is normally allotted three minutes. Given the size of the crowd, board member Mark Johnson made a motion to reduce the time for each speaker to 1 ½ minutes. His motion was quickly voted down, with board members Susan Duval and Linda Prescott endorsing a full three minutes for each speaker. The board members approved a full three minutes for every speaker.

One after another, teachers, students, and former district students addressed the board voicing support for Stratton and viciously attacking board member Shannon Rodriguez. More than one mocked Rodriguez for her previous statements that God had put her on the board, questioning her “brand of Christianity.” One 15-year-old student described Rodriguez as having “disgusting ideologies” and called on her to resign. Other students who spoke against Rodriguez were as young as 10. The teachers and students blasted Rodriguez relentlessly, saying she had created a climate of fear among teachers and LGBTQ students by her actions in the incident involving Jenna Barbee as well as her recent campaign to remove LGBTQ flags and other symbols from classrooms. The group of teachers and students also blasted Rodriguez for her recent campaign to remove books from the library that she and some parents felt were inappropriate. Students characterized the move as an attempt to “remove LGBTQ representation” from the schools. Several of the teachers and students that spoke against Rodriguez’s actions said they were members of the LGBTQ community and felt they were being targeted.

Still, other teachers commended the students who had come to the meeting for their bravery and willingness to support gay and transgender students.
Lisa Masserio, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association (Teachers’ Union), said Rodriguez’s actions had created a climate that made all things political and that teacher morale and retention had suffered. She called on the board to “push back on the extremist ideology of small groups.”

Others speaking against Rodriguez were not from Hernando County, such as one speaker who represented a progressive organization known as “Defense of Democracy Tampa Bay.” One speaker told the audience how to create a recall petition. Others reminded Rodriguez that she was elected with 21,000 votes, but they already had 23,000 signatures for her removal on a Change.org petition.

Not everyone who spoke was against Rodriguez, as some parents spoke in support of her actions, as well as a sizable group from the parental rights organization Moms For Liberty. One parent who addressed the board thanked Rodriguez for her efforts and told the board his kids would not be Hernando County students next year.

A local youth minister told the board, “We are dealing with a conflict of what is good and what is evil. Without an agreed-upon standard to define good and evil, we cannot progress.” He pointed out that the standard traditionally used is the Bible. As the last of the speakers finally came to a close at around 1:06 AM, the board moved on to the issue of the no-confidence vote that had been tabled at the previous meeting.

Rodriguez reminded the board of several recent high-profile incidents in the district. She said, “We have two percent that does not want to follow the rules. A school board member should not have to be the one to enforce the rules.” Speaking of Stratton’s recent application for a job in Brevard County, Rodriguez said, “You are here by default; you didn’t get the Brevard job. You don’t want to be here.”

Board member Susan Duval said she was “unequivocally” supporting Stratton. She said, “You won’t find a better superintendent…. you have had a picture painted for you that is not truthful. The district is a mess, and it’s not because of Stratton.” Board member Linda Prescott said the community supports Stratton, pointing out that he was enthusiastically applauded at five different high schools recently. She said grades and academic achievement have risen every year under Stratton. Board chairman Gus Guadagnino said he has no problems with Stratton’s performance. After some back-and-forth discussion, the motion was voted down 3-2, with Rodriguez and Johnson voting in favor.

In a round of “final comments,” Stratton told the board, “We have bigger problems; that’s why we are here in chaos. He said the chaos started when Rodriguez began bypassing him on several issues. Pointing to the Fox Chapel incident, Stratton said Rodriguez did not really get interested until she found out the teacher involved was transgender.

Rodriguez responded that Stratton had only sent a two-line text to the board members about Fox Chapel, and she heard nothing else for eleven days.
Board members continued to trade jabs and blame for several more minutes until the meeting was finally called at 2:34 AM, over eight and one-half hours after it began. Board Chairman Gus Guadagnino lamented that he had hoped by moving the meeting to a larger venue and giving everyone a chance to talk, that some problems could be worked out, but he felt that wasn’t the case.

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