At heated meeting, Lee County School Board votes to 'opt out' of standardized tests

Published Aug. 28, 2014

Lee County Schools made history Wednesday night when they voted to become the first school district in the state to opt out of all statewide, standardized tests.

The motion passed three to two with the support of board members Don Armstrong, Tom Scott and Mary Fischer. The decision was received with overwhelming cheers and applause in the packed auditorium of opt-out supporters who donned red in an act of solidarity.

"Sometimes it takes an act of civil disobedience to move forward," said Armstrong. "We cannot allow the fear to hold us back."

Fischer, who was initially reluctant to support the vote, served as the vote's tie breaker.

"No matter what else is going on, teachers go on and they teach the students," she said. "If this is our window of opportunity, I hope we make the best of it."

While the news was met with jubilation, Superintendent Nancy Graham said she was deeply concerned about the board's decision.

"This will hurt children. There is no way around it," Graham said while the audience booed. "I am gravely concerned about the decision that was made tonight, and I'll try to make sense of this. It's an interesting time to serve as the leader of this district."

The meeting adjourned without discussion regarding what test — if any — will now be used in place of the state tests. The board members did not address if the decision will include charter schools.

Keith Martin, the board's attorney, was not sure that there were any "immediate, clear" consequences to the action. He said it was possible the Governor could remove the school board members from their positions of power.

"Go ahead and remove me from my position," Armstrong said. "I'm a plumber. I deal with worse things every day."

The audience booed the dissenting board members who begged Armstrong, Scott and Fischer to table the decision until concrete plans could be made.

"You do need to have a plan in place," said Jeanne Dozier, who was phoned into the meeting. "Obviously this is an issue that is near and dear to our hearts. But I think the audience would agree a plan is an absolute must."

The audience loudly objected, and one person yelled: "How much money do you make?"

The meeting brought out many notable groups and politicians, including the Florida Citizens' Alliance, the Libertarian Party of Florida and state Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen.

"I came here to listen and learn today primarily," Fitzenhagen told the board. "I'm all about bold, innovative thinking. But at the same time, I don't want us to do something without a plan in place. Testing is high stakes, life is high stakes." The audience booed at her comments.

Throughout the tense three-hour meeting, more than 33 people came forward to share their thoughts on the matter.

Emotions came to a head when mother Lori Jenkins took the stand. She said her son was on leave from school due to a terminal heart condition, yet the district still sent someone to proctor the FCAT exam at his home. The audience gasped with disgust.

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"He's terminal, he's going to die, but he goes to school! He does the stupid remedial classes! That's how I know this is all about money," Jenkins yelled into the microphone before she hit her one-minute time limit and the audio was cut. She continued her speech as the audience called for the board to let her speak. Jenkins received a standing ovation.

That sense of excitement mingled with uncertainly was shared by Richard Beattie, a teacher at Island Coast High School. He teachers remedial courses for students who failed the FCAT. He wonders what purpose his classes will now have.

"Other than the questions of money and legality, what about implementation?" he asked. "Everybody has to take a deep breath. This begs a lot of questions."