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HomeAt Home & BeyondHernando County School Board tackles business

Hernando County School Board tackles business

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At their June 27th meeting, the Hernando County School Board appeared to finally be on the road to recovery from the turmoil of the last several months. The meeting saw the board members tackle a rather lengthy agenda in a business-like manner with little partisan infighting that has scarred previous meetings. Though the tone of the discussion went a bit downhill during the public remarks portion, board members seemed to rebound, at least to some degree, with a unified call for civility and a return to business during board members’ remarks. At least some issues remain, though, as board member Mark Johnson once again cited Superintendent John Stratton for lack of leadership. Johnson had previously led the charge for a no-confidence vote in Stratton, which failed 3-2.

During the three-hour meeting, the board began by recognizing seventeen graduates of the 2023 Citizen’s Academy sponsored by the district. The academy consisted of five sessions on topics of high community interest, as well as giving participants a chance to “peek behind the curtain” and see how the District operates daily. Each graduate is now a member of the District’s Key Communicator Network, allowing them to become what Superintendent John Stratton termed “ambassadors of the school system.” The academy is an annual event sponsored by the district.

Public Hearings
As the board turned to other agenda items, a public hearing was held to approve several documents that will be used to guide the district’s operations for the upcoming year. Items approved on a 5-0 vote were the Wilton Simpson Technical College Handbook, the Student Code of Conduct, the Instructional Personnel Evaluation Manual, and the Staff Handbook. No citizens chose to speak on any of the items approved. Regarding the Student Code of Conduct, board member Mark Johnson pointed out that the new code requires that any student removed from the classroom for fighting could not be returned to the classroom until a conference with the student’s parents took place.

Citizen Comments on Agenda Items
During the Citizen’s Comments on Agenda Items portion of the meeting, Pastor Jack Martin addressed the board on Consent Agenda item 23-1502 regarding the library book Marvin Redpost: Is He a Girl? The title recently came under scrutiny following a challenge that the book was grade-level inappropriate and should be removed. Following the challenge, a review committee comprised of district personnel, a community partner, a parent, and a grandparent recommended to the board that the book be retained. Superintendent John Stratton agreed with the Committee and recommended to the board that the book be retained, but some board members questioned the decision. Pastor Martin asked the board to reconsider and remove the book from the library. Mary Mazzuco also addressed the board regarding the book, saying she believed the book violates state law. Mazzuco noted that, in her view, the book suggested to children that they reevaluate their sexual identity.

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Consent Agenda
When the Board reached the Consent Agenda, board members Mark Johnson and Shannon Rodriguez requested that sixteen of the thirty-three items on the agenda be pulled for discussion. Board member Susan Duval added one item to the list. The remaining items were passed without discussion. Items identified for further discussion included:

Item 23-1502: Approve the Superintendent’s recommendation to keep the book “Marvin Redpost: Is He a Girl?” written by Louis Sachar in circulation for all purposes and be made available to students in Hernando County Schools.
Board members Mark Johnson and Shannon Rodriguez said they disagreed with the recommendation and pulled the item to have an independent vote on the matter. Without further discussion, the measure failed 3-2, with board chairman Gus Guadagnino siding with Johnson and Rodriguez.

Item 23-1519: Approving the Deletion of Missing Property from Inventory Records
This item was approved after board member Shannon Rodriquez sought an explanation of the missing property. After it was explained that the district was trying to clear older lost or otherwise missing assets from inventory, which dated back to the 1990s, the item passed on a 5-0 vote.

Job Descriptions
There were eight new job descriptions listed to be approved on the agenda. Of the eight, the job descriptions for Academic Services and Planner were approved as consent items. Two of the positions of Teacher on Special Assignment for Recruitment and Retention and Coordinator of Retention were approved following a brief discussion. The remaining four items pertaining to job descriptions were tabled pending further research or changes discussed by the board in an earlier workshop meeting.

Item 23-1475: Approve renewing Bid No. 22-961-06, State of Florida Legislative Lobby Services, to Shawn Foster, LLC (Sunrise Consulting Group) for Lobbying Services and authorize the purchase of services for an annual amount of $54,000.00. Shannon Rodriguez pulled this item, asking that the public be informed about the reasons for lobbying the district would be paying for. Superintendent John Stratton explained that the group goes to the legislature to present “asks” decided on by the board each year. He said this group has helped the district secure $9.3 million dollars for the Wilton Simpson Technical Center and other monies used to enhance academic programs over the years. Stratton said the group also lobbies on behalf of the district for acceptable legislative language in bills. Stratton said of Shaun Foster LLC, “They have been an outstanding lobbying company for us.” The board voted 5-0 to approve.

Item 23-1487: Approve renewing the piggyback of Citrus County School Board ITB No. 2019-46, Plumbing Services, awarded to Don’s Plumbing, and authorize the purchase of goods and services for an estimated annual amount of $400,000.00. Board member Shannon Rodriguez questioned why the contract was awarded to a Citrus County Company as opposed to a Hernando County company. An unidentified member of the district staff explained that some deeper piping operations needed to be done and that Don’s plumbing was well qualified to do them. The staffer said a local Hernando company they had talked with was non-responsive. The staffer said that the district was able to save 20 percent by hiring Don’s Plumbing directly, as opposed to hiring plumbers through a general contractor as had been done in the past. The board voted 5-0 to approve.

Item 23-1499: Approve the agreement and authorize the purchase of pre-construction services for the Winding Waters K8 Restroom Project, from Walbridge Aldinger, LLC, for an estimated budget of $525,000.00, which includes the purchase of $5,250.00 in pre-construction services. Board member Susan Duval pulled the item for discussion, stating, “This seems like a rather absurd amount of money for restrooms.” Duval suggested to the board that the district staff considers other options to get the work done less expensively. Board member Gus Guadagnino questioned the reason for the high cost. A staff member told him that they would have to build an entirely new facility to support the number of students in portable buildings, as the existing facilities in the main building did not have the capacity. The board was told there would be adequate capacity once several new classrooms were completed if the portables were removed after that. Expressing concern for the county’s growing student population, Superintendent John Stratton cautioned the board against removing the portable classrooms too soon. After learning that some logistical options could save the District from spending the money right now, the members voted to table this item.

Item 23-1499: Approve the renewal of the Risk Management Program Contract and Instructional Services Program Contract with Putnam County School Board on Behalf of the North East Florida Educational Consortium and Issuance of a PO in the Amount of $ 4,356,988.73 for the Contract and Non-Consortium Member fee. Shannon Rodriguez requested that the expenditure be explained for the benefit of the public. Board members were told that this covers several different types of insurance for the district, including property, worker’s compensation, and liability insurance. The insurance is purchased through a consortium with other school districts. The board voted 5-0 to approve the expenditure.

Item 23-1515: Approve the agreement and authorize the purchase of Virtual Curriculum from Instructure and authorize the issuance of a Purchase Order in the amount of $71,133.75. Shannon Rodriguez requested that this item also be pulled to explain to the public what the money is used for. Hernando E-School Principal Ms. Wiseman stated that the agenda item was a typo and was not for purchasing a virtual curriculum. Instead, the request was to pay for servers that house their curriculum, as well as software that allows parents to log in and see their students’ progress. She said the district has been using Instructure since about 2012. The board voted 5-0 to approve the item.

Item 23-1521: Award RFP #23-205-35 Transportation Management System to Educational Logistics For School Bus Routing And Where’s The Bus For GPS System/Services and Authorize the Spending for an Estimated Cost of $296,942.00 for First Year Implementation and Installation and $128,751.00 for an Annual Recurring Cost. Board member Shannon Rodriguez questioned exactly what this expenditure covers. A district transportation manager said that the spending covers the entire package. The district will implement a pilot program starting in September at no cost. An analysis of the program will be completed in December. After learning the “pilot program” that several board members had thought would be a free trial of the entire package, only covered certain portions, a discussion ensued as to the actual cost of the program. The district transportation manager said he was asking for the money for the package now because, regardless of the outcome of the pilot program, he needed GPS hardware installed in buses by September. He told the board that should the pilot program fail, he would spend only the portion required for GPS hardware, which he would need regardless. The board voted 4-1 to approve the motion, with board member Rodriguez voting “no.”

Item 23-1521: Approve the agreement with BloomBoard, the job description for Associate Teacher Substitute, and the alternative certified teacher support program and expenditures and authorize the purchase of educational services for an estimated annual spending of $225,000.00. After numerous questions by board member Shannon Rodriguez covering virtually all facets of the program, the board approved the expenditure with a unanimous vote.

Action Items
In the only action item on the agenda, the board voted unanimously to approve Mark Johnson and Shannon Rodriguez as Primary and alternate members of the Florida School Board Association.

Addendum Items
In the evening’s final item of regular business, the board considered approval of the Contract between the PACE Center of Girls of Hernando County and the Hernando County School District for services to High-Risk Females in Identified Schools with an estimated annual spending of $198,918. The board passed the item without discussion with a vote of 5-0.

Citizen’s Input
The final hour of the board meeting began with the opportunity for citizens to speak about various matters. Unlike previous marathon sessions, only a handful of citizens addressed the board, the bulk of them still calling out board members for various past statements. There were also a few advocates for the LGBTQ community, chastising the board for not respecting the needs of gay and transgender students, while others spoke, reemphasizing the need to respect parental rights. At least two spoke on district policy-related topics. The Citizen’s input portion was completed in under thirty minutes.

Closing Comments
During Closing Comments, board member Mark Johnson discussed the May 30th School Board Meeting. He noted that many comments made by teachers, retired teachers, and union members blamed the “two new school board members” for the staff turnover in the district. Johnson said parents and others who supported “the two new board members” were excluded from entering the meeting. Addressing the turnover, Johnson read statistics that showed a net loss of 93 teachers in 2020-21, a net loss of 109 teachers in 2021-22, and a net gain of 54 teachers in 2022-23. Johnson said, “We must be offering something that attracts teachers for the first time in the last year; I mean, they’re staying.“ He stated that the number of non-instructional employees in the district also represented a large net gain of 106 in the last year, with losses in the prior two years. Johnson said, “Clearly, a vast majority of the speakers at that May 30th meeting were disseminating misinformation, disinformation, and just reiterating Randy Weingarten’s union rhetoric.” (Weingarten is the president of the American Federation of Teachers.)

Turning to recruiting, Johnson said, “According to senior administration officials, we need a recruiter because we can’t find keep employees.” Johnson rhetorically questioned why the district had not started working with Workforce and the veterans to fill vacancies. He said, “We have members on the board who have not used their influences and contacts to push for candidates to teach. I ask why. To be clear, I am opposed to any new administrative positions and changes that will not bring any more teachers into schools that desperately need them, but take them from classrooms and inflate our administration.” Johnson said funds could be better spent in the technical vocation arena than “the constant shifting of positions and responsibilities.” He questioned whether the positional changes were being sought to increase some people’s salaries beyond the established pay scale. Concluding, he cited these issues as “another example of poor leadership.” Johnson said the board needs a strong leader to address these issues, stress basic academics, and guide the board to harmony. He concluded by saying, “The district now lacks that leader.”
Board member Shannon Rodriguez took the opportunity to address those who have criticized her for not being prepared for meetings with an understanding of issues on the agenda. She said that as board members, they got elected because they said they would look at everything as a whole and would look at where finances were going. Rodriguez said that when she brings employees and vendors forward during board meetings to give explanations of their requests, she does so because she wants the public to understand the details and reasons behind large fiduciary expenditures. Rodriguez said, “When I bring people forward, it’s because if we have questions, the community has those questions.” She said the board can’t approve all of the “as seen on TV ads” every time they come across because they have to be fiscally responsible.

Rodriguez said one of the reasons she questions things as she does is because board members sometimes receive e-mails with information that causes concern. For example, she cited an e-mail from an anonymous district employee, which inferred that an inexperienced and unqualified candidate was being groomed for the open position of HR Coordinator because of who her mother is. The email went on to state that many staff members appreciated Rodriguez’s due diligence and thanked her for questioning and researching the new job descriptions. According to the email, staff members are getting large raises by changing their job descriptions, while others are told there is no money and can’t even get a cost-of-living raise. The email said the board was not being told the truth about the reasons for the “mass exodus” of employees, blaming the turnover on “bad people and negative circumstances” within the ranks of the administration. The email concluded, “The district does not need to be so top-heavy while everyone else suffers.” Rodriguez held up a stack of what she said were other emails to illustrate her point of the need to ask many questions when matters came before the board.

Rodriguez concluded her remarks by generally addressing speakers who have been coming to the podium during the public comments portions of meetings. She said if everyone stopped the climate of anger and talking down, we could get things done. “But the fact is, until we stop coming in here and standing at the podium causing all of this, it’s never going to change. We are putting this back on you. If you want to come up here to this podium and do things to help our district, help our children, help our teachers, I’m all for it. But if you are just coming up here to tell me off, you can tell me off for the next four years, and I’m okay with that. But it is not conducive to a good environment for us to be able to move forward and get anything done….If you want to be a part of this, and if you want to make this community better, then it all needs to stop,” Rodriguez said.

Board member Linda Prescott said, “Regarding taxpayers’ money and budgeting for new, three of us have been on the board for eight years, Mark was on the board with me for two years, and our budget has been the best it has ever been. I believe we have been diligent in looking at expenses, and we have been very careful about how we are spending taxpayers’ money.” Prescott said of new positions sought by the district, “It is very important for the public to understand that we do need these positions and why we need these positions.” Prescott said she agreed with Rodriguez in that the board needed to get along and do what they were elected to do. “Hopefully, we will continue in the right direction,” she said.

Board member Susan Duval said that she, along with many others, has been watching and listening to the comments made by the public and board members over the course of at least the last ten meetings or workshops. Echoing to some degree the comments of other board members, Duval said, “To say what I have observed was chaotic would be an understatement at the very least. The disrespectful environment can not continue. Respectful dialogue should be a prerequisite, and solutions that allow for the academic growth and success of all our students should be our mutual goal.” Duval said that the nature of county politics was a “worrisome situation” and had a negative impact on district operations. Duval went on to say that board members are expected to be non-partisan, representing all students and families. She said no one group should be able to dictate the educational path a district should follow. She said comments by some seem to be following a “political playbook that creates distrust, discord, and attacks on our instructional and administrative staff.” Duval added, “We as a district can meet the challenges before us, but continuing diversions serve no useful purpose.”

Superintendent John Stratton said the district needs to refocus on vacancies and student achievement. Stratton turning to board member Mark Johnson, said, “You talked about vacancies tonight, and I wish that were out of concern or attempt to correct it, but instead, it was used as another attempt to say I’m not a leader.” Stratton said he wanted to go a little further into the vacancy numbers discussed by Johnson, pointing out, “We still have 143 instructional-based openings. I think we have a problem.” Stratton said people were not going to want to come to the district if the board wasn’t getting along. Stratton called for a refocus on priorities, complimenting Shannon Rodriguez on items she pulled for more information during a workshop earlier in the day. Stratton said he wanted the board members to ask questions and be comfortable with making an educated decision on agenda items.

Stratton cautioned Rodriguez against the use of anonymous letters, saying that everyone has a right to face their accuser, and anonymous letters don’t afford that opportunity. He added that by policy, anonymous letters should be forwarded to the superintendent and assured that “if there’s an issue, we’ll check into it.” Stratton said that the district was not going to do anything unethical. Stratton concluded his remarks by reminding the board to focus on the priorities. He said, “Whether or not you want me in this seat, I’ve got to bring us back to our priorities. That’s my job.”
Board Chairman Gus Guadagnino reminded the board to remember the history of the last ten years, coming from having to make budget cuts to now being on solid financial footing. In his remarks, Guadagnino pointed out that the district has seen more growth and a higher volume of students during the ten-year period and, despite those challenges, has successfully implemented new academic opportunities and programs for the students.

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