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‘Money and freedom’: Palm Beach schools officials pitch lawmakers on their priorities

Michael J. Burke is superintendent School District of Palm Beach County.
Screen shot/ Wilkine Brutus
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Screenshot, School District of Palm Beach County
Michael J. Burke is the superintendent of the School District of Palm Beach County.

Palm Beach County school officials have a lot of priorities heading into next year’s legislative session — school safety, mental health, regulatory relief, expanded voluntary pre-K, and flexibility on disciplining students who carry stun guns to protect themselves on the way to school.

But for Palm Beach schools Superintendent Mike Burke, it all boils down to just two words.

“Just remember: money and freedom,” Burke told the county’s legislative delegation with a laugh. “That's what we'd like to see.”

Burke says the School District of Palm Beach County — the state’s fifth largest — simply needs more funding. When it comes to meeting state requirements on mental health and school safety, officials say they’re spending about three times as much as state lawmakers allocate — leaning on local taxpayers to make up the difference.

“Anxiety and depression is definitely at an all-time high. Similar to the trends that we see nationally, it's playing out here for our students as well,” said Keith Oswald, the district’s Chief of Equity and Wellness.

Among the other priorities is more flexibility in dealing with a trend of students carrying weapons because they don't feel safe getting to and from school.

Regulatory relief

When it comes to the issue of freedom, Burke says new laws and regulations are making it even harder for public schools to compete with private ones.

Florida’s private schools “are not licensed, approved, accredited or regulated by the Department of Education," meaning they’re largely exempt from new testing requirements, restrictions on school library books and the crackdown on teachings about race, identity and history.

READ MORE: Broward public schools ask state lawmakers to help fund a districtwide police force

“I think some of the regulation that we abide by is what makes public schools great. And we say ‘We’re your best choice.’ And part of that's because we have certified teachers. We have principals that have advanced degrees in educational leadership. We have transparency with our curriculum. We're held to the state standards,” Burke said. “So we're not suggesting to throw everything out.”

“It's that balancing act about, well, what do we really kind of hold dear? To say, ‘This is what makes us a great choice’ … versus ‘Where can we just kind of remove some of the administrative bureaucracy that's slowing us down?’”

‘Historically accurate’ state curriculum

In a striking sign of the times, one of the SDPBC’s other priorities is to “[e]stablish a process to ensure all state standards are factual and historically accurate.”

Districts and educators across the state have been under intense pressure from politicians and activists to scrub their libraries and teaching plans of topics that affirm LGBTQ people or delve into some of the country’s darkest chapters.

The story of Anne Frank has come under fire in Florida, as have the works of Nobel Prize-winning author and chronicler of the Black American experience Toni Morrison. So has a film about Ruby Bridges, who at the age of six desegregated an all-white elementary school in New Orleans in 1960.

“We want to make sure our curriculum remains factual and historically accurate,” Burke said. “And also that we continue to have the opportunity to provide students with rigorous coursework and allow our students to take nationally standardized tests, like the SAT and ACT and all that. So that our students, on a national perspective, are competitive when they're applying to out-of-state universities.”

Weapons and flexiblity on student expulsions

Another priority for the school board, specifically school board Chair Frank Barbieri, is getting additional flexibility when it comes to expelling students who violate the state’s zero tolerance policy for weapons on campus.

That’s because some students in South Florida have begun carrying stun guns and mace because they don’t feel safe getting to and from school. When they’re caught, they’re expelled — even if they never use the weapons.

READ MORE: Gun-related proposals filed in the Florida legislature face long odds

For Barbieri, it’s a familiar — and heartbreaking — story.

A student doesn’t feel safe walking to school through a tough neighborhood. So their parents buy them a taser or a stun gun, just in case they need it — not realizing it’s considered a weapon under state law.

“The most difficult action is expelling a student, because we ruin a student's life and we expel them,” Barbieri said. “And when we expel these kids, sometimes the parents cry.”

Barbieri maintains he has no intention of opening the door for students to bring weapons to school. He just wants more flexibility when it comes to disciplining students who carry them for self defense.

“Please take a look at that and see what you can do to fix that problem for us,” Barbieri said. “It should be up to the superintendent to decide on what type of discipline should be handed out to students that do something like that rather than an automatic expulsion where his hands are tied.”

Voluntary preschool

An apparent shared priority between the school district and at least some state lawmakers is the issue of reinvesting in voluntary prekindergarten or VPK. Currently, all four year olds in Florida can qualify for the early learning services free of charge, regardless of family income. But free VPK typically entails just three hours a day — and participation across the state has fallen dramatically in recent years.

“We fully support that we increase the VPK program in Florida from a half day to a full day. And we know that's going to take money,” Burke said. “But we really feel like that's vital if we're going to help get kids reading on grade level by third grade. The earlier we can start and getting them into high quality pre K programs, the better.”

Republican State Sen. Gayle Harrell, who chairs the county’s legislative delegation and sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee on Education, said she’s all ears.

“Whether it is making sure that we have the VPK that is good quality VPK … or even the daycare situation, this is absolutely key. So I look forward to working with you on ideas in that arena,” Harrell said. “The door is always open.”

The next regular legislative session starts January 9, 2024.

Kate Payne is WLRN's Education Reporter. Reach her at kpayne@wlrnnews.org
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