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Hundreds of Floridians attend contentious school board meeting in Hernando County

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The kind of school board meeting we are about to hear could have taken place in any one of many states in recent years. In this case, the meeting was in Florida. A local school board faces pressure from above. Governor Ron DeSantis is working to reshape schools. The school board also faces pressure from outside. An activist group tried to remove the local superintendent. WUSF's Meghan Bowman went to see how it turned out.

MEGHAN BOWMAN, BYLINE: It was a raucous meeting in Hernando County, just north of Tampa.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Please come to order.

BOWMAN: On the one side - members of Moms for Liberty, the conservative group that's pushing book bans across the state. On the other hand, over a hundred people wearing green T-shirts that said #Strattonstays. They showed up to support Superintendent John Stratton.

(BOOING)

BOWMAN: They're booing board member Shannon Rodriguez. She joined the Hernando School Board last year, backed by Moms for Liberty.

SHANNON RODRIGUEZ: We do not want to have equity and inclusion in our schools. We want to keep our schools traditional, the way that they were. We don't want any of the woke or the indoctrination.

BOWMAN: She's under fire for reporting a teacher to the state for showing the Disney movie "Strange World," which has a gay character in it. At this meeting, Rodriguez used Florida's recently passed so-called Stop Woke Act as ammunition to remove Stratton.

RODRIGUEZ: We have the LGBTQ training conference that we sent teachers to and paid for. We have the pornographic books that stayed in the schools forever and ever.

BOWMAN: The new law restricts discussions on gender and sexuality issues in the classroom and how race is taught. Rodriguez had reinforcements in the audience. Monty Floyd is vice chair of the Hernando County chapter of Moms for Liberty.

MONTY FLOYD: The many failures of this district fall solely on the shoulders of Mr. Stratton, the ruling majority on our board and their legion of hard-left agitators.

BOWMAN: But the majority of the 600 or so who showed up wanted Stratton to stay, including a 14-year-old student, Justin Caratollo (ph).

JUSTIN CARATOLLO: Maybe some of you have forgotten the golden rule. Maybe some of you have forgotten that gay people, people of color and people that don't observe Christianity have existed.

BOWMAN: A recent NPR poll shows a majority of respondents said teachers should be trusted to make decisions about what they're teaching. But more Republicans than Democrats believe parents should have that power. The same poll shows book bans are not popular, even with Republicans. The battle over who controls the classrooms in Florida is having an effect on staffing, says Lisa Masserio. She's the president of a local teachers association and told the board the number of resignations of educators has doubled since last year.

LISA MASSERIO: There have been politically motivated attacks from the state level, from certain elements within our community and from local politicians affecting morale and making educators question whether this is the right place for them. Losing dozens of teachers has detrimental effects on our students.

BOWMAN: After hours of public comments, the board decided to keep Stratton in a close 3-to-2 vote. Resistance to the Stop Woke Act in more liberal parts of Florida is nothing new, but Hernando County generally leans more conservative. Superintendent Stratton says he now hopes for a cease-fire in the rhetoric and infighting.

JOHN STRATTON: We want to do our jobs. I'm thankful for everyone out there that summer is coming, so we can reset and get something back on track. 'Cause we're not fighting porn. We're not fighting indoctrination. We're not fighting these things.

BOWMAN: The battle over who will control schools is likely to continue in Florida. In 2024, voters will decide if school board elections will be partisan.

For NPR News, I'm Meghan Bowman in Tampa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Meghan Bowman
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