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A potential delay to the Nikolas Cruz trial, an affordable housing crisis and cut bonuses for public schools

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Miami Herald

The jury selection for Nikolas Cruz's sentencing trial remains underway. Plus, an affordable housing crisis was declared in Miami-Dade County and cut bonuses for public schools in Broward may bring legal action.

The first two weeks of trying to pick a jury to decide Nikolas Cruz's fate has not been easy. Cruz is the Marjory Stoneman Douglas School shooter. He pleaded guilty and now a jury will determine if he should be put to death or spend the rest of his life in prison.

Potential jurors have had to leave the courtroom due to the emotional toll of the case.

Others that have said they won’t be able to remain impartial were not dismissed, but they might not make it through the second phase of jury selection.

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Hundreds of people have been eliminated from the jury pool. About 100 jurors were passed through to the second round.

WLRN’s Broward County reporter Gerard Albert III said that Judge Scherer’s focus at the moment isn’t on the jurors' impartiality, but instead on their schedule and any potential scheduling conflicts.

“You have to imagine this is summer, a lot of people have vacations, many people work or are sole practitioners or individual contractors,” Albert said. “ The financial burden of them missing work for 4-6 months is too much for them, so they are let go.”

Those that have conflicts of interests or would be unable to remain impartial during the sentencing trial have been let through to the second round. Albert said Judge Elizabeth Scherer passed a juror through who works for the Broward Sheriff’s Office, whose roommate responded to the shooting in 2018.

The second round is slated to begin in May, but there is a chance it may be pushed back. Judge Scherer had hoped it would start next month, but public defender Melissa McNeill asked for more time. Prosecutors agreed to the delay, but Judge Scherer initially did not.

She eventually agreed to consider delaying the trial until June. If she agrees to the delay, the trial might end in October instead of September.

Affordable housing crisis in Miami-Dade and housing market issues in South Florida

A number of communities across South Florida are taking temporary steps to help renters deal with skyrocketing rents.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava declared a housing affordability crisis one week ago. The first step in this effort is providing $13.4 million in federal funding for Miami-Dade’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program to help tenants struggling to pay rent.

If your landlord increases your rent between 1% to 20%, the county and the ERAP will cover up to 20% of your rent for three months. They will also provide rental assistance for up to 18 months if you meet certain income qualifications.

More information about the program and its eligibility requirements can be found here.

Annie Lord, executive director of Miami Homes For All, said it’s important that the mayor is taking the step to create this plan because of the nearing homelessness crisis.

Even though homelessness has plummeted in Miami-Dade County, Lord says it is still a low-wage economy.

“We’ve got 250,000 households that are earning less than 35,000 a year, and already paying more than they can afford for housing,” she said. “And that’s data from two years ago, so given the skyrocketing rents and home prices, I am sure that number has increased.”

Palm Beach County Mayor Robert Weinroth described his county as a “victim of success.” He said the supply is simply not there for the demand they’re having.”

“People from the Northeast have decided this is the place they want to live,” he said. “They’re moving down here in greater numbers than we’ve seen in a longtime, and we’re just not able to meet the demand with the housing stock we have available right now.”

Weinroth isn’t moving to declare a housing crisis in Palm Beach County, but the county and cities have done what they can to assist renters and households. The county is aiming to provide housing bonds to help make housing more widely available. Lakeworth Beach recently passed an ordinance that says landlords need to give at least a 60-day notice before they increase rents by over 5%.

Lord emphasized that the need for housing is greatest at the lower income level than it is at the median or workforce level, adding that we shouldn't neglect a vast number of residents who potentially are living day-to-day.

The effects of cut bonuses on Broward Public Schools

During the recent state legislature session, lawmakers decided that $200 million dollars would be set aside for a program rewarding schools that received A grades or improved a grade.

This money is called recognition money, which traditionally goes to schools performing well. Some of it goes to the staff as a bonus, while some of it can help fund some of the school’s committees and groups.

However, the dozen school districts that mandated masks for students and staff earlier this school year are ineligible to receive the money. School districts that did not mandate masks last fall will get the share of those districts that required masks.

Three South Florida school districts — Miami-Dade, Broward and West Palm Beach — are in this group of 12 missing out of the state money.

Broward County School Board member Debra Hixon said this sum of money impacts students directly. Since these are bonus funds, there wouldn’t be any other extra funding for these schools and counties.

Based on the criteria, public schools in Broward County that are graded as A or B schools are eligible to receive these funds.

“The criteria doesn’t say if you mandated masks or not. That’s not one of the criteria for the recognition money, so that should not be how it’s distributed,” she said.

This money isn’t given every year, and the pandemic affected it for the past few years, said the Sun Sentinel’s senior education writer Scott Travis.

“Because of the pandemic they suspended the program, so they haven’t funded the program for the last couple of years,” Travis said. “This is the first year in three years they’re funding it and they set the rules for this year … you don’t get it if you imposed a mask mandate.”

Hixon believes this rule negatively impacts students and teachers who did not make the decision to put up mask mandates, saying they shouldn’t be unnecessarily affected by a decision made by school board members.

If legal action were to be considered, she would support it. She said she doesn't think they can go down without a fight.

For now, Broward County will apply for the money. If they are rejected, future steps would be up for discussion.

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Natu Tweh is producer of The Florida Roundup and The South Florida Roundup at WLRN.