William March: Rouson files bill to ban gay discrimination in schools receiving vouchers

The bill’s fate in the Republican-controlled Legislature is at best uncertain.
Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, filed legislation Monday to prohibit discrimination against gay students by private schools receiving public money in the form of tuition vouchers. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, filed legislation Monday to prohibit discrimination against gay students by private schools receiving public money in the form of tuition vouchers. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published June 19

State Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, is filing legislation to prohibit discrimination against gay students by private schools receiving public money in the form of tuition vouchers.

Rouson filed the bill Monday, responding to a June 14 Orlando Sentinel story about millions of state dollars going to religious schools that expel or refuse to admit gay students.

Rouson said he doesn’t know whether there are schools in the Tampa Bay area that do so.

“Florida is a very diverse state that should be very inclusive, particularly this month when Pulse is being remembered and pride is being celebrated,” he said. “We should be tolerant of human beings who have a different sexual orientation.”

The bill’s fate in the Republican-controlled Legislature is at best uncertain.

Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

One Republican who would discuss the issue, Rep. Jamie Grant of Tampa, said he would oppose it based on religious freedom.

“I don’t like discrimination of any kind, but I’ll always defend the First Amendment,” he said. “This is not the state funding a school, this is a family receiving a voucher. Where they choose to use that voucher is a decision for that family.”

He said anti-gay discrimination by religious schools isn’t comparable to racial discrimination because, “In one case you’re talking about somebody’s skin color. In another case you’re talking about behavior that some people consider sinful.”

Hattersley, Learned consider switch

State Rep. Adam Hattersley of Riverview, who’s currently running for re-election, may switch races with fellow Democrat Andrew Learned, who’s running for the U.S. House District 15 seat.

Both confirmed they’re considering it, but said no decision is imminent.

Hattersley acknowledged that whether he decides to take on the Congressional race may hinge on the outcome of an investigation of possible campaign finance irregularities by incumbent U.S. Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover.

“Obviously the race is risky, but the numbers are interesting,” Hattersley said.

“We’re keeping options open and looking for the best way to serve,” said Learned. “We have a lot we need to get done in both Tallahassee and Washington.”

Bryan Farris, a political consultant who works with Hattersley, said the switch would be “a good fit for both candidates,” and expressed confidence that Hattersley could beat Spano, whom he called “ethically compromised” because of the investigation.

But some Democrats aren’t crazy about the idea.

In 2018, Hattersley delighted Dems by capturing the state House seat, held for decades by Republicans including Spano and Ronda Storms. That marked a Democratic beachhead in traditionally conservative East Hillsborough.

They’re concerned they could lose that prize if Hattersley leaves the seat after only one term to challenge an incumbent in the GOP-leaning Congressional District 15, which covers parts of Polk and Lake counties as well as east Hillsborough. Spano, backed heavily by his party leadership, could be tough to beat as a well-funded incumbent.

“I’m discouraging it,” said Ione Townsend, Hillsborough County Democratic Party chairman. “I think Adam has the possibility of a great career in front of him and I just think it’s a timing issue.”

Kristen Carlson, who lost to Spano in 2018, is still interested in the seat, but said she would bow out in favor of another viable Democrat such as Hattersley.

Charges against Valdes dismissed

The state Ethics Commission has found no probable cause in two ethics charges against state Rep. Susan Valdes, D-Tampa, a former Hillsborough County School Board member.

The charges were filed by Bill Person, a retired educator who ran against Valdes for the school board in 2016, and Person’s wife, teacher Laurie Rodriguez.

The Rodriguez complaint alleged that Valdes used her influence as a school board member to get free daycare service for her grandson in a program for district employees at Leto High School in 2015.

Investigators found that Valdes’s son’s family did receive the daycare service without paying $3,885 in fees after Valdes asked Larry Sykes, then district chief of schools, to provide the family with “guidance” in the matter.

No one else received this “preferential treatment,” the investigation report said. “However, there is insufficient evidence to show how respondent used her position to have her family receive the benefit.”

Person’s complaint alleged that in 2016, Valdes violated board procurement policy to steer a $3.5 million-plus purchase of laptop computers to United Data Technologies Inc. and another company whose executives had contributed to her campaign, rather than to a lower bidder.

The investigative report says Valdes did violate district policy in objecting to the agenda item to award the contract to the lower bidder, and doing so prior to the board’s consideration of the item. But it said other district employees took responsibility for making the decision to withdraw the agenda item.

“Some folks abuse the ethics process by filing false claims,” Valdes said. “I’m glad it turned out the way it did because I didn’t do anything wrong, and now I can move on.”

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