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Florida education debates rage on as hundreds attend Hernando school board meeting

At the center of the storm was superintendent John Stratton, who survived attempts to remove him.
 
Members of the crowd raise their hands and wave to show support after students make public comments during a contentious Hernando County School Board meeting on Tuesday in Brooksville. The meeting drew hundreds of people, including many from around the state.
Members of the crowd raise their hands and wave to show support after students make public comments during a contentious Hernando County School Board meeting on Tuesday in Brooksville. The meeting drew hundreds of people, including many from around the state. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published May 31, 2023|Updated June 2, 2023

BROOKSVILLE — Hundreds of people filled the Hernando High School auditorium Tuesday night for an eight-hour school board meeting that spilled into Wednesday morning, encapsulating the raging education debates that have become commonplace in Florida.

Political action committees from the right and left urged followers to show up and make their voices heard on an agenda that included book bans, LGBTQ+ student rights and the overall direction of the Hernando school district and its closely divided board. Heeding the call were local teachers, students and residents, as well as visitors and activists from across the state.

The crowd included Pinellas County teacher union officials, Moms for Liberty leaders from Collier County and members of the Proud Boys.

Amelie Howell, a sophomore at Central High, attends a Hernando County School Board meeting on Tuesday.
Amelie Howell, a sophomore at Central High, attends a Hernando County School Board meeting on Tuesday. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

“It feels like a lot of people are speaking for us. Nobody is asking what we want,” said Central High sophomore Amelie Howell, who carried a sign reading “Education is not indoctrination.” She, along with many others, called for greater acceptance and a focus on more important issues facing schools.

Robert Rarden, 63, of Brooksville, said he came to speak against teaching kids about sexual orientation and gender identity. “I was informed a lot of gays and lesbians were told to come,” he said in an interview. “I had to show support for the majority of people.”

Part of the crowd cheered as embattled Superintendent John Stratton emerged for the session. A smaller group applauded and hugged at the arrival of board member Shannon Rodriguez, who recently gained notoriety for reporting a teacher who showed a movie with a gay character to her class.

School board member Shannon Rodriguez, center, gained notoriety for reporting a teacher who showed a movie with a gay character to her class.
School board member Shannon Rodriguez, center, gained notoriety for reporting a teacher who showed a movie with a gay character to her class. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Security was tight, with about a dozen officers in place and audience members screened by a metal detector. Officials had prepared for a large and possibly raucous event — a concern heightened by recent controversies that have drawn national attention. Board chairperson Gus Guadagnino cautioned the crowd to behave.

“While we are here in a theater, this is not a show,” Guadagnino said as the meeting opened, later threatening to throw out anyone who interrupted board discussions.

The warning was ignored when Rodriguez declared she would not approve any “woke agenda.”

“We want our kids to get a wholesome, traditional education,” she said, drawing applause from one corner and shouts demanding a definition of ”woke” from another.

Over the next few hours, more than 100 people spoke to the board, with many expressing dismay at rising divisiveness among people in the district. Sharp comments continued to pour out from both sides, though the crowd mostly transitioned to waving hands to show support rather than shouting.

A majority supported the superintendent, with many wearing green and yellow T-shirts bearing the message “Stratton Stays.” They described him as a dedicated, student-oriented leader, while a smaller group called on the board to remove him.

At 1:15 a.m., after members of the public had finished their comments, the board took its turn. Looming large over the proceedings: a tabled motion from earlier in the month on whether the board had confidence in the superintendent.

Board member Mark Johnson opened by thanking all who remained and said their statements illustrated problems that were detrimental to students, teachers and the district.

“We need a strong leader to address these real and perceived issues,” Johnson said, detailing concerns over incidents such as confusion over classroom displays.

He called for reconsideration of the no confidence motion, as a step toward removing the superintendent.

Rodriguez signaled her support for the motion, citing a litany of complaints against the administration. She accused Stratton of creating strife, repeating that she does not support indoctrination in the schools.

“I do agree that we have had no leadership here,” she said, noting Stratton attempted to leave the district for another job earlier this spring. “I do agree it has been complete chaos.”

Three board members disagreed.

“My support of Mr. Stratton is unequivocal,” board member Susan Duval said, praising Stratton’s leadership. “You, in my opinion, could never find a better superintendent.”

Board member Linda Prescott said the community supports the superintendent and praised the district’s achievements on his watch.

“This is a huge job, and I think he is doing a stellar job,” added Guadagnino, the chairperson.

Stratton thanked the board and members of the public for their support, and defended his actions. He also criticized Rodriguez, saying she had overstepped and acted unprofessionally.

Superintendent John Stratton speaks during a Hernando County School Board meeting on Tuesday.
Superintendent John Stratton speaks during a Hernando County School Board meeting on Tuesday. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

The decision came less than 24 hours after members of Hernando County’s legislative delegation called on Stratton to resign, criticizing him as an ineffective leader who has lost the support of many parents and grandparents. The same delegation, led by state Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, this spring won the Legislature’s approval of a measure requiring Hernando voters to decide whether to return the district to an elected superintendent.

Hernando has operated with board-appointed superintendents since 1992.

The board has been embroiled in increasingly heated politics since the fall election of Johnson and Rodriguez, each of whom campaigned to remove Stratton. Johnson ran largely on his opposition to critical race theory while Rodriguez carried the banner for Moms for Liberty and frequently has called for removal of library books.

The three other board members regularly have sided with Stratton. As board meetings have grown more heated and crowded, petitions have emerged to remove members from each side of the debate.

Ingoglia said the lawmakers had no choice but to get involved.

“Certain school board members and certainly this superintendent are turning a deaf ear to the concerns of parents and grandparents in this community,” he said in an interview before the meeting, which he did not attend.

He sent out text messages through his Empower Parents political action committee, urging concerned residents to show up and voice their concerns over issues such as the teacher who showed fifth graders a movie that included a gay character. That story gained national attention after Rodriguez, an Ingoglia ally, complained to the Florida Department of Education about the teacher, who has resigned.

“The reason why you’re seeing this in Hernando County is because of a clear lack of leadership on behalf of Superintendent John Stratton,” Ingoglia said.

The lawmaker’s dispute with Stratton reaches back to 2020, when he raised concerns about a teacher including lessons about Black Lives Matter in classes. Ingoglia said Stratton approved the lessons and refused to hold the teacher accountable.

Hernando has seen its share of pitched battles over its leadership before. In 2018, for instance, the board dismissed then-Superintendent Lori Romano, accusing her of ineffective leadership.

Voters chose to move to an appointed superintendent in a 1988 election, saying they wanted daily accountability for the district chief executive amid political infighting between the elected superintendent and some board members.

Hernando is not the only Florida school district to face partisan battles over leadership lately.

In recent weeks, the Escambia County School Board abruptly fired its superintendent, and the Flagler County board declined to renew its superintendent’s contract. Since November, boards in Brevard, Broward, Sarasota and Duval counties also have eased out their superintendents as they seek new direction.

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