BROOKSVILLE — There’s a lot of talk about civility, mutual respect and cooperation for the sake of the children at the Hernando County School Board.

And then there’s reality.

The political divisions that have opened up again spilled out in public as board member Shannon Rodriguez blasted the “patronizing” attitude of member Linda Prescott amid discussion of an informational item at the end of the agenda Feb. 28.

The item was about an updated agreement with Equal Opportunity Schools and involved the expenditure of $106,875 for the school year plus the cost of additional visits for what is termed “Action for Equity” programming: “Access Opportunity, Experience Success, Extend Equity and Sustain Equity.”

Rodriguez initially asked what the item was for, and what Equal Opportunity Schools was doing for the system that “Educlimbers” — another program — was not.

Superintendent John Stratton replied that Educlimbers looks at “analytics, reading scores, math scores, behavioral items, things like that,” he said.

“EOS is specifically for targeting and expanding the number of students that we bring into Advanced Placement or college-level courses,” Stratton said. “So they do surveys, they do things like that with our high school students and with our teachers.”

He said EOS looks for student interests, and has teachers look for students who might be able to do advanced course work, and then approaches students in groups or individually to see if they want to try.

As a result, Stratton said, they have a lot more students doing advanced course work and scores are “maintaining or rising.”

The discussion came as Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida lawmakers have laid plans to block programs on diversity, equity and inclusion and critical race theory in higher education. Last year, DeSantis pushed what he called the Stop WOKE Act restricting certain race-based conversations and analysis in schools and businesses.

“I have a hard time with the equity program,” Rodriguez said. She quoted an EOS mission statement saying the program “is to ensure that students of color and low-income students have equitable access to America’s most academically intense high school programs and succeed at the highest level.”

With member Mark Johnson, a vocal opponent of such equity programs, absent because of a family medical issue, Rodriguez attacked the program from the dais.

The teachers and local staff know their students better than outsiders, Rodriguez said, asking why they need a company from another state to tell them which child can move up to a higher class.

“Teachers know their students better than any company from Washington,” she said. 

The district has the staff and they know the students, but students might not be good for the program and not prepared for it emotionally, she said.

“It’s a lot of money, and I don’t understand the fact that it’s going to take low-income students, or ‘colored’ kids, and pick them and put them in there,” Rodriguez said. “Why are we in any of that? How about kids are all kids, whether they’re rich, whether they’re low, whether they’re middle class, whether they’re black, whether they’re white, whether they’re purple, whether they’re orange? A kid is a kid. What does it matter? Why do we need a program to pull out our ‘colored’ children and pull out our low-income kids and put them into an IB class, a higher-achieving course? I don’t understand that; I guess I never will.” 

She called for going back to the basics and letting the teachers make these decisions.

Prescott asked if Rodriguez had heard the student from Future Business Leaders of America who had addressed the board during public comment about how the EOS program benefited her, and the success story at Weeki Wachee High School.

Lower achievers need the program to open doors for them, Prescott said. She added that Rodriguez should review the meetings at which these programs were introduced so new members of the board would know what was asked when the program was first being presented.

“I have seen the data from EOS. It’s been presented to us,” Prescott said. “I would like you to see how effective it was for these students.” Since the classes offer college credit, they can graduate with some college time in their record.

It might be helpful for Rodriguez, Prescott said.

Firing back

“With all due respect, I don’t want to be patronized,” Rodriguez replied. She referred to the previous meeting regarding the financials, and said “once again” she’s been reminded she’s a new board member.

“I can be a 50-year-old board member, and I’m not changing how I feel,” she said. “I would hope that for $106,000 that we would get something out of it.”

Rodriguez repeated her opposition to the program.

Prescott said she was not patronizing Rodriguez. “I was trying to be helpful to you. And you talk about us being civil and nice. That was not nice.”

“I know,” Rodriguez replied. “Maybe you feel that way, and it was not intended to make you feel that way. But you have to understand that each time I have something that I have to say, it’s going back to ‘You’re a new board member, you don’t understand, you’re a new board member.’”

The strife is not healthy, Rodriguez said, and there are problems that need to be fixed, and if the other members don’t think that’s a problem, that’s a problem.

Member Susan Duval said she disagreed with Rodriguez’s take on EOS because, she said, she lived through it.

“This has helped, and it’s not just about kids of color,” she said. “It’s about any student in our schools who might be able to make that leap, with help from teachers.”

Children of color and poor kids, Duval said, got left behind so many times before, and there was no easy way to identify them. Every student deserves an opportunity to do better, she said, and the program offered a foundation.

Pulling the program “is not going to be the solution,” Duval said.

Again, Rodriguez said, it was about the $106,000.

“I think it’s money well-spent,” Duval said. “These kids are worth every dime that we could put forth to help them become successful,” whether they’re going to college or career education.

In other action

Students from kindergarten to fourth grade in various schools showed off their creative science fair projects before the meeting.

Students from Westside Elementary School led the Pledge of Allegiance, and then introduced themselves.

Dan Lambert, a science teacher at Nature Coast Technical School, was honored as the school district veteran of the month. Lambert spent 24 years in the Navy and has worked in the district for 20 years. Principal Toni-Ann Noyes said Lambert “is just a pillar of the Nature Coast community.” He has shown students how to be good citizens, and he has earned the respect of the students and staff.

Lambert said it seemed like a lifetime ago that he went into the Navy. He got into the field of meteorology and oceanography, and tries to bring it into the classroom. Rule No. 5, he joked, is no swearing; rule No. 6 is “be a shipmate.”

The board recognized Pasco-Hernando State College on its 50th anniversary.