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Hundreds gather into the wee hours at a contentious Hernando County School Board meeting

 Large group of people gathered outside in a formed line standing in front of a school building.
Meghan Bowman
WUSF Public Media
Hundreds of people line up outside Hernando High School's Performing Arts Center to speak at Tuesday's school board meeting. The meeting lasted into the early hours of Wednesday morning.

Removing a book from school libraries, classroom indoctrination, and the future of its superintendent were the main points of contention in a Hernando County School Board meeting Tuesday night that lasted over eight hours.

The Hernando County School Board held a marathon meeting — starting Tuesday evening and stretching into Wednesday morning — amid controversy that’s been plaguing the district.

The board expected a larger than normal crowd after a school board member reported a teacher to the state for showing a fifth-grade class a Disney movie with a gay character.

As a result, they opted to move the meeting to Hernando High School.

More than 600 community members, students, and teachers filled the campus theatre after passing through increased security.

A failed motion to cut the length of public comments from three minutes to 1½ minutes per person resulted in a meeting lasting over eight hours.

People passing through security
Meghan Bowman
WUSF Public Media
More than 600 community members, students, and teachers filled the campus theatre after passing through increased security.

Before the second public comment period, the board voted unanimously to remove the book “The Sun and Her Flowers” by Rupi Kaur from school libraries.

Vice chair Susan Duval said the content of the poetry in the book is "appropriate, objective, and could have value" — but that's not what drew the complaints.

"Please keep in mind, it's not about the content. It was only about the images (in the book)," Duval added. "The content the (reviewing) committee felt was appropriate."

Board member Shannon Rodriguez, who's currently under fire for her role in the Disney movie dispute, said it's the parent's choice for what children get to see.

"It shouldn't be content, and it shouldn't be material that is not age-appropriate," Rodriguez said. "We're not going to stop until all these books are removed and our schools are safe for our children to go to the libraries again."

Board member: Teachers 'repackaging' critical race theory

During discussion of agenda items, Rodriguez, who was backed by the conservative group Moms for Liberty during last year's election, said it's the "adults propagating the racism." She also accused teachers of "repackaging (Critical Race Theory)" and "just renaming it."

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

Earlier this month, the board made national headlines when Rodriguez reported a fifth grade teacher, Jenna Barbee, to the Florida Department of Education for showing the Disney movie “Strange World” to her class.

The animated movie, which focuses on a family of explorers and their relationship to the environment, also contains a character who has a crush on another boy.

'The system is broken'

Barbee was one of the more than 120 people who spoke during the second, lengthy public comment. She read a poem she wrote based on another animated movie, "The Lorax."

"Right now as a collective, I will tell you we are failing, the system is broken, the Earth is wailing. Let the students read and learn, let the teachers teach. Everyone deserves to be represented, and that's what we need to preach," Barbee said.

Man at left, woman next to him, sitting at a table during the meeting
Meghan Bowman
WUSF Public Media
Hernando County School Board members Mark Johnson, left, and Shannon Rodriguez listen during the meeting.

"We are the destruction when we can be the light. So be kind to each other, be powerful in this life. Power does not come from what you own, but the energy inside you, the power of love alone."

A week before showing "Strange World," Barbee had turned in her intent not to return next school year, according to a TikTok video the teacher released.

She said her resignation had no part in showing the film, and the movie's environmental message directly related to what the students were learning in the classroom.

Rodriguez found out about the showing because her daughter was in Barbee's class.

The school district earlier said that parents had signed permission slips allowing their children to see PG-rated movies like "Strange World" in class, but found Barbee had failed to get administrative approval on all movies like she was supposed to.

While a state Department of Education investigation into the matter has apparently been closed, the findings were not disclosed at Tuesday's meeting.

Petition calls for board member's resignation

A petition on Change.org called "Remove Shannon Rodriguez: Hernando County School Board Member" has garnered almost 27,000 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon.

 Blonde woman smiling into the camera
Meghan Bowman
WUSF Public Media
Board member Shannon Rodriguez, who's currently under fire for her role in the Disney movie dispute, said it's the parent's choice for what children get to see.

A counter-petition was made in response called "SAVE parental rights and PROTECT children's welfare" to keep Rodriguez in her position. As of Wednesday afternoon, it has over 260 signatures.

Chairperson Gus Guadagnino attempted to run a tight ship during public comment, and ejected some people for breaking decorum by cheering too loudly or speaking at inappropriate times.

While speakers were not supposed to directly address board members, many singled out Superintendent John Stratton, Rodriguez, or fellow board member Mark Johnson by name.

Community member Susan Campanero said she had nothing against the LGBTQ+ community, but that those conversations should be happening at home, not at school.

"How you parent is your business. You want to treat, you want to teach them about transgender, that's fine, they can learn at home," Campanero said. "If you want these books that they're complaining about getting taken out of the schools, buy them yourself on Amazon, but leave my children to learn how they need to learn."

Another community member, Robert Riordan, said Hernando schools should be teaching religion and made a comment that caused many in the audience to loudly object.

“I've been sitting here tonight, and I'm appalled by how many gay people are here. This is not what happened when I went to school,” Riordan said.

Educators leaving the district

A teacher from the district, Lisa Masserio, spoke about the exodus of co-workers, referring to the 49 "instructional separations" listed on the agenda.

"Sadly, this agenda also has 33 resignations educators leaving our district, possibly leaving teaching entirely after what they've experienced this year," Masserio said. "The number of resignations has doubled from this time a year ago."

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

A crowd in an auditorium
Meghan Bowman
WUSF Public Media
Hundreds gathered at Hernando High School's Performing Arts Center to speak at Tuesday's school board meeting. The meeting lasted into the early hours of Wednesday morning.

Many speakers stood in support of Stratton, with a number wearing bright green shirts reading "#Stratton Stays. "

After the public comments ended around 1 a.m., it was the board members' turn to speak again. Johnson and Rodriguez called for a vote of "no confidence" against Stratton. A similar motion had been tabled at a meeting earlier this month.

A petition created by Moms For Liberty calling for Stratton to resign has almost 1,800 signatures, and three area Republican lawmakers entered the discussion Tuesday echoing concerns found in that petition.

Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, Rep. Jeff Holcomb, and Rep. John Temple released a joint statement demanding Stratton step down.

“We can no longer sit back and allow the Hernando County school system to make national news for its poor decisions, lack of transparency and accountability, and its contempt for parental rights," the statement said. "It is clear to us that change is needed, and it is needed now."

After another contentious discussion by the board, they voted 3 to 2 against the vote of “no confidence” against Stratton, with Guadagnino being joined by Duval and Linda Prescott — the three longest serving members of the board. Rodriguez and Johnson were in the minority.

Accusations and acrimony continued between board members and Stratton after the vote as they issued their final comments. After Guadagnino called for an end to the meeting at about 2:30 a.m., Rodriguez could be heard still voicing her concerns as the audio feed was cut off to the livestream.

Nothing about my life has been typical. Before I fell in love with radio journalism, I enjoyed a long career in the arts in musical theatre.
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