The State Board of Education had its first and only meeting before the Legislative session begins in March and the board members indicated that they hope lawmakers revisit some of the most heated issues in education.
School safety was constantly mentioned as a top priority for this year, by all members but especially by Andrew Pollack, the father of Meadow Pollack who was killed in last year’s shooting in Parkland. Wednesday marked Pollack’s first meeting as a member of the state board since he was appointed by former Gov. Rick Scott as one of Scott’s final actions.
Since the shooting, Pollack has risen to prominence in his calls for greater accountability in Broward County, and he made clear that his tenure as a board member would have the same theme.
“A lot of these districts have bureaucrats and they don’t know what the word ‘urgency’ means," he said, before suggesting there should be strong penalties for schools that don’t comply with last year’s school safety law. “There’s no accountability for not putting our kids' safety first.”
Board member Michael Olenick said the Legislature should consider increasing funding for both armed school security and for increased mental health programs in schools. Both those elements were crucial pieces of last year’s SB 7026, the monumental law that was passed following the Parkland shooting which requires all public schools to have armed protection, either through law enforcement officers or trained school staff.
“We all have the same goal but it’s individual ways we achieve that goal that has to be looked at,” he said, adding that districts should be allowed greater “flexibility” with how they use the guardian program to arm school staff.
Olenick also said the Legislature must address Florida’s growing teacher shortage, as well as consider adjustments to requirements for school building construction, which he said are antiquated and make erecting new buildings too expensive.
Richard Corcoran, who attended the meeting in Pensacola for the first time as Commissioner of Education, said he’s certain that Gov. Ron DeSantis is also going to advocate for those same ideas.
“Whether its increasing mental health funding, finding a way to improve upon teacher recruitment and retention, school security and ways to work with the districts in creating easier pathways and on school construction ... they’re front and center on his agenda,” he said. “We’re going to move forward on all four of those in a very dramatic way.”
There was much anticipation in the education world surrounding Corcoran’s first meeting, as many looked to see whether his reputation as an aggressive House Speaker and political arm-wrestler would follow him into his new position. But he did not speak at great length at any point during the meeting, other than to follow agenda items where he made a presentation to the board on failing schools seeking approval for a second year of district-managed turnaround. During that portion, he successfully recommended that two schools to be denied, including North Side Elementary School in Broward County, which had slipped from a D to an F in its first year of its turnaround program.
“Obviously we’re dealing with people who even with the (state turnaround) criteria, can’t figure it out," he quipped.
He also hearkened back to a major piece of legislation that he championed last year: the Hope Scholarships, which are offered to students who said they’ve been bullied so they can attend another public or private school. During the meeting, Step Up for Students Chief Financial Officer Joe Pfountz said that only 60 students have so far been approved for that scholarship, citing a lack of public awareness and troubles getting correct documentation about the reported bullying incidents.
Corcoran assured the board that there are changes in the works, and said that the remaining funds collected for that scholarship could be directed to students on the waiting list for other scholarships administered through Step Up. He said the bullying scholarships are anticipated to generate $46 million, which it won’t “come close” to spending. The money is raised by Floridians checking a box when they buy a car to redirect $105 of their state sales tax to Step Up for Students for this program.
“Every program, when it comes online, there’s always a slow ramp-up," Corcoran said. “It’s a laborious application process that needs to be fixed. I think the Legislature is going to go in and tweak the application process to streamline it.”