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School Board Discusses Upcoming Legislative Platform

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During their September 19th, 2023 workshop, the Hernando County School Board discussed the district’s legislative agenda platform for the upcoming 2024 legislative session.

During their discussion with the HCSD’s Communications Director, Karen Jordan, the board initially examined the items listed under the previous year’s legislative agenda, known as the “Priority Needs” list. Notably, three key items from that session remained unresolved.

The first of the unresolved items was a bill for transportation funding, which died during the previous session. The bill would have provided funding to allow the district to begin transportation services for elementary-aged students who live less than two miles from their school. Jordan told the board that this bill was a “heavy lift” because it would affect every district in the state and require substantial funding. Superintendent John Stratton commented that he did not know how the state would afford it and that passage of the bill would compound the shortage of drivers that the county has now. Board member Mark Johnson suggested a modified proposal to be made to a state-level lobbying group, the Florida School Boards Association, for consideration. In that proposal, Johnson said he would recommend bus service for students who live one and one-half miles or more from the schools. Late in the meeting, the discussion returned to the transportation issue. Jordan pointed out to the board that the upcoming redistricting of the schools may affect the district’s needs and recommended tabling this issue for the upcoming legislative session. Susan Duval pointed out there was also some concern about forthcoming changes in school start times. After further discussion, the board agreed to leave this item out of the new legislative request.

The second priority item that failed in the last legislature was a proposal to reduce teachers’ mandatory 3 percent retirement contribution to reduce the burden on employees. Amid proposals to increase this amount, the state opted to take no action, leaving the retirement contribution at 3 percent.

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Discussing a third item from last year’s legislative proposals, Superintendent John Stratton pointed out that it would be in the district’s interest to allow teachers who retire to take advantage of the DROP program much earlier than the current one-year they must “sit out” after retiring before returning to the district. A DROP program is a system under which an employee who retires can opt to retire and then return to the same district later and teach while still collecting retirement benefits. Under the current system, teachers could return after six months, but their pension would be withheld until they reached the 12th month following retirement.

An item from the last legislation that Jordan said was a “win” was the district’s proposal to change the amount of time a new teacher has to complete teacher certification. The law previously allowed a teacher to teach on a temporary certificate for up to three years. Under HB 1537, the time has now been extended to five years. The change allows new teachers more time to complete academic criteria for full certification, as well as be evaluated for effectiveness in their teaching skills.

Jordan suggested to the Board that they may want to include a new proposal in this year’s agenda to include language that would guarantee funding for the state’s student mental health allocation. The current funding is intended to provide students access to highly qualified mental health professionals. She said that while there has been no official proposal to reduce the funding, there has been some “chatter” generating concerns that the funding may be reduced.

In another suggestion, Jordan recommended that the board consider lobbying for funding a full-time voluntary pre-kindergarten (VPK) program. The state currently funds only a three-hour pre-kindergarten program. Full-time VPK programs now exist in cases where schools are funded under Title 1. Title 1 provides supplementary funding for schools where at least 40 percent of the students enrolled are from low-income families. Board member Mark Johnson suggested rather than advocating for full-time VPK, the board consider approaches that would allow the district to currently allow the district to accommodate all of the students who were currently eligible for VPK. Board member Susan Duval added, “If we had the capability of having VPK in all of our schools, they would all fill up. It has been proven to be most worthwhile.” Duval said the state should recognize the viability of VPK programs and support them. Board chairman Gus Guadagnino said he didn’t feel like the legislature would back the proposal since they seemed to be pushing harder than ever to get students into charter schools and private schools and out of the public education system. Board member Shannon Rodriguez weighed in, stating that in her experience, VPK had been good for her children, and they thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Rodriguez pointed out that the current short class was challenging for mothers who had to get their kids to VPK and pick them up in such a short time span. Rodriguez said she was also in favor of expanding VPK to all schools.

As the meeting concluded, board members agreed on a draft proposal of three priorities for the upcoming legislation session. Those priorities will include continued funding of the mental health allocation, the expansion of the VPK program, and modifications to the DROP program to allow teachers to retire and return to the district after three months. The board is facing a deadline of October 6th for approving a final draft and submitting their proposals to the Florida School Boards Association.

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