The School Board of Alachua County (SBAC) voted to approve a tentative millage rate and budget of $604 million for 2023-24 in a public hearing on Tuesday but plans to meet again to clarify the budget’s priorities and integrity. This meeting will take place sometime before the budget is scheduled for final approval on Sept. 11, a timeline that must be met for state approval.
Chair Tina Certain said the board did not have enough information to vote on the budget in a July 25 meeting when approving the tentative budget’s advertisement, and she reiterated her concerns on Tuesday.
“I just don’t know if this budget, even though it’s more than what we had in the previous year, is addressing our priorities,” Certain said. “Are we funding our priorities? Is this truly a balanced budget?”
Certain said by approving the tentative budget of $604,204,987, the board was committing to have a follow-up meeting. She said the district still does not have an outline of strategic priorities, and though Chief of Finance Keith Birkett said the district is ending the 2022-23 school year in a better position than past years, Certain’s concerns remained.
New administrative positions are beginning this year, and Certain said revenue falls as enrollment does. She named concerns about SI school funding and increased salaries and benefits, all under-addressed in the tentative budget.
If the board approves an inaccurate or incomplete final budget and sends it to the Florida Department of Education, that is grounds for removal of board members for negligence, in accordance with state law.
Board member Sarah Rockwell said she trusted Certain’s experience as an accountant, but her main concern was over the lack of public transparency in the budget.
“This is your money, this is all of our money, this is the money from the citizens of Alachua County primarily,” Rockwell said. “We are stewards of that money, but you should still be able to see where it’s going, and you should have time to peruse that before we have a public hearing about it.”
There was no public input at the public hearing for the tentative budget, which Rockwell blamed on a lack of information provided ahead of time.
In contrast, many community members attended to provide input at the regular board meeting which immediately followed the public hearing. These Alachua County citizens came to protest new state education laws which will come into effect this school year.
Most of the community members came to speak about HB 1557, the “Parental Rights in Education” law, popularly labeled “don't say gay” by its critics. The law, which limits classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through grade 3, took effect in 2022 but was expanded this year to cover all grades.
The law became of particular concern to these community members after administrative instruction went out on Monday that many community members said was misleading to teachers. Citizens who spoke on Tuesday said administrative direction provoked fear of retaliation for LGBT educators who talked with students about their personal lives, or any educator who talked with an LGBT student about the student’s personal life.
The state law only prohibits classroom instruction on the topic, but community members said the district was leading teachers to believe they could get in trouble for using a student’s preferred pronouns or letting the student use their preferred bathroom.
Parents told the school board their children need continued affirmation, teachers said they felt unnecessary fear pressed upon them, and social workers asked for a more lenient application of a broad state law that they don’t want to prevent them from discussing students’ lives with the students. Many cited statistics of low mental health and high suicide rates in LGBT children.
“I’m shocked at what a narrow approach our school district is taking on current state laws...why is our district choosing to lead with fear instead of love?” Laura Maxwell, an LGBT community member, teacher and parent of two Alachua County students, asked the board.
The school district currently provides teachers guidance on gender and sexuality through a procedural document which must be updated every time state statute changes. Rockwell said if the administration did not move quickly on updating the document, she would bring the subject before the board to become policy.
Other community members came to protest the new Florida education standard which, among other changes to instruction about African American History, requires teachers to teach that African American slaves learned beneficial skills from their enslavement and events such as the Rosewood massacre involved violence on both sides.
“This is such an insult I can only compare it to if I went to a Confederate cemetery and defecated on all the graves,” community member Kali Blount told the school board. He said children will not only miss out on important history, but will internalize negative lessons by learning these topics.