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Steve’s Marketplace: on Nassau School System

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By Steve Nicklas, 2-19-24

Public schools are designed for students to grow and learn. In Nassau County, school officials are also learning – some hard lessons.

A glaring lesson concerns communicating with the public. School officials must be forthcoming and accountable, but this is not always evident here.

For instance, consider the misleading sales pitch from school officials over a special 1-mill tax. Or the major purchase of a 10-acre parcel that had more questions than a final exam. And now a lawsuit over withholding controversial student materials.

In each of these instances, Superintendent Kathy Burns and school board members receive a failing grade. The public deserves to understand how tax dollars are spent and resources are used.

The lawsuit was filed last week by Nassau County Citizens Defending Freedom, requesting the release of explicit behavioral-health materials. State law requires school districts to abide by such requests.

The materials in question are furnished by a school contractor, Starting Point Behavioral Healthcare. The “Ripple Effects” curriculum is allegedly taught to students with behavioral issues.

These materials are “explicit in nature and unsuitable for children,” according to a press release from the citizen’s group. Sensitive topics such as online porn, masturbation and incest are reportedly covered.

Jack Knocke, the executive director for the local CDF chapter, says the school board has been responsive to past inquiries. “We want to continue working with the board to identify age-inappropriate materials that may be in our children’s schools,” Knocke says. “But we can’t do that without transparency.”

The citizen’s group has been dogmatic in pursuing age-appropriate materials in schools. State lawmakers and Gov. Ron DeSantis have initiated similar efforts in Florida.

“We are trying to access educational records to be sure ‘reading, writing and arithmetic’ are not being secretly changed to ‘roofies, rubbers and role-playing,’” says attorney James Bruner, who is representing the citizen’s group. “The information documented in our pleadings is quite alarming.”

The citizen’s group even provides a tip line to anonymously report freedom-related issues within local municipalities, including the school district. Complaints can be made online at: www.counties.citizensdefendingfreedom.com/fl-nassau/resources/278-2/.

The lawsuit is the latest controversy swirling around the local school district. In fairness to Burns and other officials, the school district has received prestigious honors in recent years. However, they are accountable to the public, through successes and failures.

The special one-mill school tax was approved by a slim majority of voters to provide funding for teachers. Residents receiving their property-tax bills recently got jolted by the combined school assessments. So it is a sensitive subject for many.

In addition, the one-mill tax is generating substantially more revenues than anticipated. So the rate could have been and should have been lowered. Even still, an obstinate school board decided to keep all the revenues, and worse yet, only part of it is for attracting and retaining teachers.

The purchase of the $3.7 million parcel near Yulee Elementary School carried a similar tone. Only school board member Cynthia Grooms questioned the exorbitant price of the property (twice as much as what the previous owner paid for it only months before).

Overall, Burns dislikes anyone questioning her decisions. Burns has reportedly removed popular principals and other supervisors who have not complied with her heavy-handed management style.

In another instance, Burns and her staff have been vague about illegal immigrants enrolled in local schools. When originally asked about it, Burns’ spokesman replied: “We are unaware of any illegal immigrants enrolling in Nassau County schools. And our recent enrollments don’t indicate anything out of the norm.”

Illegal migrants have complicated the public-school paradigm. Difficulties and costs arise from a language barrier as wide as Lake Okeechobee. Here, and elsewhere.

Burns’ administration has provided a standard response to public inquiries: “Regarding our ‘handling of students who are illegal immigrants,’ the U.S. Supreme Court has held that public schools cannot deny access to education based on whether the student is a legal resident of the United States. School districts are prohibited from gathering such information or using it to determine whether a child may enroll in a school.”

County residents have always supported our public school system. A vibrant school system is a bonus for any community. But the costs, the curriculum, the transparency must be monitored.

It’s the best lesson plan for everyone.

Steve Nicklas is the managing partner of Nicklas Wealth Management in Fernandina Beach. He is also an award-winning columnist. His columns regularly appear in weekly newspapers in Northeast Florida and in Southeast Georgia, and on his website at www.SteveNicklasMarketplace.com. He has published a book, “All About Money,” of his favorite columns from the past 20 years. The book is available on Amazon. He has also done financial reports for area radio stations and for National Public Radio in Jacksonville. He can be reached by email at [email protected] or by phone at 904-753-0236.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Citizens Journal Florida.

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