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HomeBusiness & CommunityMay 30th school board meeting draws record turnout, heated exchanges

May 30th school board meeting draws record turnout, heated exchanges

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Despite the overflow crowds and angry outbursts during the marathon eight-and-one-half-hour Hernando County School Board meeting on May 30th, the board did manage to accomplish some regular business.

Driving the emotionally charged crowd was the district’s handling of recent high-profile incidents involving a transgender teacher making threats, a fifth-grade teacher showing an unauthorized Disney film with gay overtures to students, and a call by a school board member for a vote of “no-confidence” in Superintendent John Stratton. The incidents involving the teachers spurred the local teachers’ union to complain of a hostile work environment, which they said was driven by the actions of one school board member.

Addressing an audience that was a mixture of teachers, students, former students, and political activists with various agendas, Chairman Gus Guadagnino began the meeting by warning the boisterous audience that the meeting was not a show and he would not tolerate grandstanding. Guadagnino noted that additional security, including law enforcement, was on hand. He then warned the crowd against disrupting the meeting by shouting, noisemakers, profanity, name-calling, clapping, repeated outbursts, or standing and blocking the view of others would be removed.

Consent Agenda
The consent agenda portion of the meeting allows board members to vote to give blanket approval on multiple items of business, such as expenditures, or to pull certain items for further discussion and a separate vote. During the consent agenda portion of the meeting, board member Susan Duval requested one item to be pulled for discussion, and board member Mark Johnson requested two items be pulled. Board member Shannon Rodriguez requested ten items to be pulled for discussion. Even such routine business as the Consent Agenda wasn’t safe from contentious discussion, and audience outbursts.

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Travel to 2023 National Teachers Conference approved 3-2
Shannon Rodriguez also pulled this item, which involves the travel of five teachers to the Virtual Enterprises International (VEI) 2023 National Teachers Conference in Brooklyn, New York. Rodriguez stated, “This is a virtual enterprises international company…and I guess it comes down to once again…..We do not want to have equity and inclusion in our schools…”

The website for Virtual Enterprises International (VEI) states, “The National Teachers Conference is an annual event for educators involved in the VE program, providing a platform for networking, sharing best practices, and learning new strategies for engaging students in business education. Attendees participate in training workshops, panel discussions, interactive sessions, demonstrations, and have opportunities to engage with industry professionals and experts in the field. The conference aims to enhance the VE program in classrooms by providing new resources, tools, and insights for educators to prepare their students.”

Rodriguez continued, “We want to keep our schools traditional, the way they were. We don’t want any of the woke or the indoctrination. It’s the adults propagating the racism; it’s not the kids doing this. It’s teaching racism. They’re repackaging CRT (Critical Race Theory), and they are just renaming it. So, if you want your kid to have certain beliefs, send them to that type of school. But at a public school that is supported by the taxpayers, that should be teaching education, not indoctrination. So, I’ll never agree with these types of programs. I’m not going there, and it’s not something I think our kids will ever benefit from. And like I said, I was elected to support our kids and make sure our kids get a good education and not an education with any of the indoctrination.”

The trip was approved on a 3-2 vote, with Rodriguez and Johnson voting “No.”

Contract to mentor new teachers approved
Agenda Item 31 was to approve an agreement with the company New Teacher Center and authorize the issuance of a purchase order for $43,000.00. The item was pulled by Rodriguez. Rodriguez said she has researched the involved company. Rodriguez cited employee complaints, turnover, company leadership, and a toxic environment at the company. The district uses the company to provide mentoring and training to mentors for the district’s first-year teachers. The company is contracted with the Florida Department of Education to provide these services. Rodriguez pointed out that the company’s mission statement frequently refers to equity and mentions “teachers maintaining confidentiality with students” and creating a “student-teacher trust that is unshakeable.” Rodriguez said she could not believe the district is doing business with the company, as they are “indoctrinating new teachers with all these woke ideologies.” Rodriguez’s remarks drew a round of laughter from the audience.

Rodriguez said, “Once again, I’m not going to approve any woke agenda. I’m not doing it. Rodriguez said, ”This is what we’re trying to keep out of our schools. This is what we don’t want. We want wholesome, traditional education. We want English, Math, Science, and History. This isn’t to make anyone upset. Everyone has the right to opinions.” Her latter remarks drew a round of applause from Rodriguez’s supporters in the audience. Rodriguez encouraged the audience to read up on the company and said, “You’ll see, it has all the woke indoctrination.” This remark drew a loud round of laughter and jeers mixed with some applause. Chairman Gus Guadagnino sternly told the audience, “All right, that’s enough! I can empty out the whole audience.” Approval passed on a vote of 3-2, with Rodriguez and Johnson voting in opposition.

“The Sun and Her Flowers” removed from circulation in all Hernando County public schools
Susan Duval pulled the agenda item for removing the book, “The Sun and Her Flowers” by Rupi Kaur, from circulation in all the district schools. Duval pointed out that a committee had reviewed the book in accordance with the district’s policy.

Reading from the committee’s report, Duval said, “The content of the poetry is appropriate, objective, and could have value. However, due to a few images not being age-appropriate, the book should be removed from the library. “Duval concluded, stating, “I want you to know the reason behind this.”

Board member Mark Johnson said he did not think the content was appropriate and felt it violated “the intent of the change in the law.”
Rodriguez remarked, “These books are in the schools. So many people have said they aren’t there, but this is proof they are there.“ Rodriguez said that it is the parent’s job and the parent’s choice to determine what their child gets to see. Rodriguez said, “We are not going to stop until all these books are removed, and our schools are safe for our children to go to the library again.” Rodriguez said the law now allows “direct action against school districts should the district not remove these books in a timely manner.”

She then asked Superintendent John Stratton if the district had followed up on a list of books she requested be reviewed. Stratton told Rodriguez they had, and the results had been returned to her. Rodriguez said, “Maybe it got lost in the thousands and thousands of e-mails.” Stratton assured Rodriguez he would send it again. Stratton said, “The process is working as the law intended. We follow the law. That’s why we have policies and procedures in place, and that’s what they are for.” The recommendation to remove the book passed by a vote of 5-0.

Director of Safe Schools now reports to Superintendent
Agenda Item 22 involved the approval of job descriptions for Business Services. Board member Rodriguez asked Superintendent Stratton to explain the change involving the Director of Safe Schools. Stratton explained the position would now report directly to the Superintendent versus previously reporting to an Assistant Superintendent. Stratton said the change was made because that is how most counties do it. He said the position previously reported to an Assistant because that was the Assistant’s area of strength. Stratton added now that the Assistant had left, he elected to make the reporting change. Rodriguez also questioned a position called “Threat Management Coordinator.” Stratton said the title was a designation, not necessarily a stand-alone position, and that it was required by law. Stratton said he also wants to add an Assistant Director of Safe Schools, stating it was truly a 24/7 job. Stratton said an assistant was needed because it was “unreasonable to think that one person could do the job 24/7.”

The changes were passed 4-1, with Rodriguez voting “No.”

Exceptional Student Education classroom conditions discussed during item to approve ESE job description updates
Shannon Rodriguez pulled this item approving job description updates for the Exceptional Student Education (ESE) Department. ESE students are more commonly known as “special needs” students. Rodriguez asked about funding for ESE and said she toured some of the ESE rooms after being called by a parent. Rodriguez said she was upset with what she saw and wanted to find out if funding for the program was adequate and being properly spent. Rodriguez questioned Superintendent Stratton as to whether he had toured any of the classes. Stratton responded that he had toured many of them and wanted to make sure any classrooms that needed to be fixed were. He asked Rodriguez to let him know the specifics of which classrooms she was referring to.

In what appeared to be a “gotcha” moment, Chairman Gus Guadagnino turned to Rodriguez and said, “I’ve got to know something. If you knew about this, why didn’t you bring it to the Superintendent’s attention?“ The question caused the audience to erupt in cheers and applause, despite Guadagnino’s earlier cautions about meeting decorum prohibiting applause and cheering.

Rodriguez said she had talked to the principals, who told her there wasn’t money for it and that “upper management knows all about it.” Stratton told Rodriguez he would still expect her to communicate that with him, to which Rodriguez replied, “I would expect you, Mr. Stratton, to know the conditions of the ESE rooms and wouldn’t expect that you wouldn’t know that.” The remark drew another outburst from the audience in a round of mixed applause and jeers.

Board member Linda Prescott diplomatically agreed that the rooms needed to be made better and that she, too, had talked to the principal. She explained she had learned that the rooms were not like traditional classrooms in that students tended to throw things, tear things off the walls, write on the walls, etc. Prescott said she also had been thinking about improving the rooms by doing things like bolting down the furniture and using paint on the walls that would allow kids to write on the walls and still be cleaned easily. She said, “ I agree the rooms can sometimes be depressing when you go in them, but they are set up for the safety of the kids and the safety of the teacher.” Without a word of discussion of the actual agenda item, or job description updates, the item passed on a vote of 5-0.

HCSD to provide bus service to disadvantaged PHSC students during the summer
Agenda Item 24 was to approve a contract to provide school buses and bus operators to provide services to transportation disadvantaged persons as defined in Fl. Statute 1006.261. The contract is between the Board of Trustees of Pasco-Hernando State College and the Hernando County School Board. The item was pulled for discussion by Rodriguez. Rodriguez asked for more information and was told the contract pertains to the use of district buses to transport disadvantaged students to various events for Pasco-Hernando State College. The contract does not affect normal student transportation because the program’s buses are in use only during the summer. The board voted to approve 5-0.

Replacing the HVAC at Central High School
Agenda Item 28 was to approve an amendment to an existing agreement with the AD Morgan Corporation for construction to replace the HVAC at Central High School. The cost of the project is $6,747,625.77. Rodriguez pulled the item for discussion. Rodriguez asked for more information on the project. A spokesman for the district said the project was being paid for out of the half-cent sales tax. A.D. Morgan is the project management company. The units being replaced are from the 1990s with a 20-30 year life span. Without discussing the actual amendment, the item passed 5-0.

NJROTC Cadet Field Trip approved 5-0
Shannon Rodriguez pulled this item for discussion, which involved a field trip for NJROTC cadets. Following a brief discussion in which Rodriguez complimented Lt. Commander Christian Cruz for his work in the NJROTC program at Central High School, the board voted 5-0 to approve the trip.

I-Ready curriculum and testing materials approved
Agenda Item 40 proved a bit more contentious. Pulled for discussion by board member Mark Johnson, the item was a request for $959,150.64 to purchase curriculum and testing materials from Curriculum Associates. Referencing the curriculum package known as “I-Ready,” Johnson said he was not a fan of I-Ready. Johnson said that the company has the testing materials, grades them, and evaluates them, returning only results to the teachers without any insight into the specific issues students need help with. Johnson said he felt that the package’s almost one-million-dollar cost could be better spent on hiring more personnel, letting district teachers “Do what they do best, and that’s work with their students.” Johnson went on to say that his daughter, who teaches in Maryland, told him I-Ready diagnostics come back consistently at 20 percent below the level she evaluates her students to be performing at. He suggested that Curriculum Associates may do that to sell more products because they have another package for failing students. A district staff member told Johnson that they looked at I-Ready’s testing results and found that they strongly correlate to the state assessment of student performance.

Johnson went on to say he was opposed to I-ready, and when they could show the questions a student gets wrong on a given assessment or how they got them right, he could possibly change his mind. Johnson added, “From what I know and how they operate, and the fact that they are based out of Massachusetts…and that’s a very liberal state, that’s a very woke state, I can’t go along with them.” The remark drew a loud outburst of laughter and some shouts from the audience. The staff member answering Johnson’s questions said they had received a certification from the Curriculum Associates’ Chief legal officer that the content complies with all Florida laws and regulations. Addressing Johnson’s concerns about teachers being unable to see the student responses to specific questions, board member Susan Duval pointed out that teachers could not see specific questions on standardized tests such as the SAT, the ACT, or state assessments. Duval, an experienced classroom teacher, said, “Through I-Ready, teachers could still see what kids are doing at any given moment and what course corrections might be needed to help those kids.” Board member Rodriguez said the most a teacher will ever see with I-Ready is that a student got questions in a category wrong and that the feedback was “far too broad to be actionable.” The purchase was approved on a vote of 3-2, with Johnson and Rodriguez voting against it.

New Bell Times for DS Parrott Middle School
Agenda Item 23 is related to the approval of new bell times for DS Parrott Middle School 23-24 School Year. The item was pulled for discussion by board member Mark Johnson. The changes were recommended to better accommodate student transportation needs amid a shortage of bus drivers. The current proposal would affect only some routes. Johnson questioned the need to make the change now for Parrot Middle School versus a more significant overhaul of all routes. The change would delay Parrott’s start time for ten minutes. Johnson said he disagreed with changing the time for only one school. The district’s transportation manager explained that all of the new busses ordered have not yet come in, and there is still a driver shortage. He said that because of these factors, a wholesale change is not feasible right now. After significant discussion of the issue as it relates to other schools in the district, the motion to approve passed 3-2, with Johnson and Rodriguez voting “No.”

Multi-touch classroom display panels approved
Agenda Item 35 was to approve the purchase of multi-touch panels for $915,850.00. Multi-touch panels are large freestanding electronic panels that can display classroom lesson material in a multimedia format. The material can be navigated by a teacher with a touch or swipe of the panel and is in everyday use today in instructional settings. The item was pulled for discussion by Rodriguez. Rodriguez began by asking a district staff member to explain the request. The board learned that the requested panels would be purchased from a grant the district had received that was very narrow in the types of items the grant money could be used for. The staff felt that the panels would be the most beneficial instructional tool that could be purchased with the grant money. According to the staff spokesman, the vendor selected by the staff won a bid process with not only the best pricing but by donating 50 free panels to the district. The purchase was approved by a vote of 5-0.

End of Consent Agenda

Over 100 speakers during citizens’ comments
Following the action on the Consent Agenda, the board heard from over one hundred audience members who had requested to speak. Each speaker was allotted three minutes, resulting in a marathon meeting that did not end until 2:30 AM. Speakers were primarily teachers and students, wearing bright T-Shirts that said “Stratton Stays” on the front. A large contingent of former students also addressed the board.

While some spoke of supporting Superintendent John Stratton amid calls for his resignation, many spoke in support of LGBTQ+ students, against perceived persecution of teachers, and against recent actions by board member Shannon Rodriguez. Those actions included efforts by Rodriguez to remove books from the library and LGBTQ+ symbology from the classrooms. Some students addressing the board were as young as 5th graders, raising questions about how or why they were motivated to be involved at a board meeting. All of the students interviewed said they attended the meeting of their own desire, not because of any organized effort. Most of them were sporting the same “Stratton Stays” T-Shirt and seemed to have their talking points in lockstep with the teachers’ union. While some teachers and students respectfully stated their views, others viciously attacked board member Shannon Rodriguez, demanding she paid attention to them while they spoke.

A contingent of about thirty parents from the parental rights group Moms for Liberty also attended, wearing blue “Moms for Liberty” T-Shirts. Many of them spoke in support of board member Shannon Rodriguez for her efforts to combat indoctrination, the woke agenda, and the denial of parents’ rights by some in the district. Several other parents and community members not affiliated with Moms for Liberty also turned out to speak in support of Rodriguez.

Former teacher Jenna Barbee addressed the board. Dressed from head to toe in orange as the character “The Lorax” from a Dr. Suess children’s book, Barbee read an excerpt from the book she had modified to address her viewpoint of recent incidents within the school system.

Barbee is most widely known as the Hernando County teacher who was placed under investigation recently for showing an unapproved Disney film, “Strange World,” to some of her students. In the movie, one of the central characters professes romantic feelings toward another character of the same sex. Barbee submitted her intent to resign from the district just before showing the film, leading some to question her motives. Barbee said, “The politics and the fear of not being able to be who you are” drove her to resign. She had been teaching for less than one year.
Perhaps most concerning to local parents was a statement made a few weeks ago by Barbee to CNN. In that statement, Barbee said, “Parents’ rights are gone when children are in public school.” Through her public statements, Barbee has since become recognized nationally as a proponent of gay representation in the classroom.

During board responses, Rodriguez commented, “This is over the very future of parenting. It is over the fundamental question of if each parent is ultimately the final decision maker for their family of what is right or appropriate for their child.”

“All I’ve heard in here all night is shame on me for not wanting my 10-year-old to see a movie and how ludicrous that was of me and my husband.”
Rodriguez also stated that she has not been going into classrooms searching for unapproved items all year long, as many speakers had alluded to.
“Since November to date, I’ve not walked in one of my schools, not one in my district, and looked in a teacher’s room and checked on any of their items… I went into a library once, and I went in when I got the flag call to check to see if a flag was there.”

“It would be different if I were walking in these classrooms from November to now. And I had a clipboard, and I was going in all the schools at my district. And I was checking all the teachers’ rooms, and I was making waves, and I was calling DOE, and I was reporting teachers. I reported one teacher, and there’s a million reasons why. There’s a huge story to that, but of course, it’s not something you believe because it’s coming from me, and I’m not here to convince you.”

“I give the principals the respect, the honor, and unless it’s something that comes my way… over and over… then I go and check on it… But up until two weeks ago, I have not been in any of the schools checking on one classroom.”

Former teacher Jenna Barbee, dressed as “The Lorax,” addresses the board. Barbee resigned from the district after only one year of teaching.
Students and former students line up to address the board, many expressing support for LGBTQ+ issues.

Board denies “No Confidence” vote
Agenda Item 35 was to approve the purchase of multi-touch panels for $915,850.00. Multi-touch panels are large freestanding electronic panels that can display classroom lesson material in a multimedia format. The material can be navigated by a teacher with a touch or swipe of the panel and is in everyday use today in instructional settings. The item was pulled for discussion by Rodriguez. Rodriguez began by asking a district staff member to explain the request. The board learned that the requested panels would be purchased from a grant the district had received that was very narrow in the types of items the grant money could be used for. The staff felt that the panels would be the most beneficial instructional tool that could be purchased with the grant money. According to the staff spokesman, the vendor selected by the staff won a bid process with not only the best pricing but by donating 50 free panels to the district. The purchase was approved by a vote of 5-0.

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