Can students ‘opt out’ of pledge?

OKEECHOBEE — The national debate over the Pledge of the Allegiance came to Okeechobee Tuesday.

The state approved a law that allows parents to allow their children to not participate in the Pledge of Allegiance. The board Oct. 11 discussed a proposed policy change on the agenda to follow Florida law.

Board member Joe Arnold said he felt it was disrespectful to not stand during the pledge.

He explained the Florida Legislature made the change in law last session.

“Times are changing and we have to be vigilant to make sure we represent our constituents well,” he said.

Mr. Arnold said even though the board could face legal ramifications, he said they still need to do what is right for the citizens.

“There are a number of veterans over time that have defended the flag of this country. By standing, you at least have respect for the flag. If you don’t do that, you show disrespect. It is unfortunate the times we live in,” he added.

Chairman Malissa Morgan said we live in a culture of disrespect. She said she too did not agree with not standing during the pledge. Attorney Tom Conely said it would be legal to require students to stand at attention.

“If you choose to not follow the law you could be challenged. People don’t realize how little flexibility a school board member has,” he added.

He said individual members made an oath to follow the Constitution of the State of Florida and if they don’t follow the law they could face repercussions.

Under Florida law, a parent has the right to file a written request with the school principal to excuse her child from the pledge. That includes not standing, not speaking, and not placing their hand over their heart. Florida law requires a flag in each classroom. The school board can adopt programs of a patriotic nature to encourage greater respect of the U.S. government, its national anthem and flag.

Mr. Arnold argued that students don’t lose their rights when they come to school.

Mr. Conely said children do not have the same rights as adults.

Mrs. Riedel said she would support further study to see what legal ramifications the board would face if they don’t follow the state law.

The policy change was tabled until Nov. 22 at 6 p.m.

Conely said, as an officer of the court, he must tell the board the law and the risks involved in the court.

Board member Jill Holcomb said she didn’t support the policy change and didn’t feel it would be the right thing to do.

Many veterans in attendance said they did not support the policy change.

In other business, a number of community groups and businesses were honored for support of the new teachers training week in August, which included Oakview Baptist Church, Brennan Eye Care, Delta Kappa Gamma, First United Methodist Church, Mid-Florida Credit Union, Peace Lutheran Church and Seacoast National Bank.

The board honored retiring teacher Debra Lunt of South Elementary School for 20 years of service.

The board also passed resolutions for School Bus Safety Week, Oct. 17-21, and Disability History and Awareness Week. This is held on the first two weeks of October. Okeechobee schools serve over 1,200 students with disabilities.

The board learned the teachers union voted 215-6 and the classified employees voted 151-1 to ratify new contracts with the school system.

Union President Lisa Harwas said each teacher will see a $1,200 raise this year under terms of the new contract.

She said the classified employees received a step plus at least a $0.30 per hour raise. This would result in an annual increase of between 2.8 and 5.7 percent depending on the pay grade and position.

Harwas said she felt both sides are just making more of an effort to try to understand each other’s position on issues and concerns and that has helped negotiations.

Assistant Superintendent Renee Geeting thanked the Okeechobee County Educators Association for their cooperation this year and said the sides reached an agreement in near record time this year.

Patrick Bell of Capitol Solutions, LLC spoke to the board on the effort to replace Okeechobee High School. He said the Department of Education needs to clarify why they did not rank this project last year. He said there are many problems with the school that include violations of the American with Disabilities Act.

Mr. Bell is a legislative and administrative consultant. He said he has had success in Tallahassee when trying to secure funds for new schools.

“I’ve never been turned down, at least we have a foot in the door,” he added.

“I feel we can get you answers from the Florida Department of Education.”
Okeechobee plans to apply for state funding again in 2017.

He said four schools were ranked last year. Most schools are funded over four years. The funding application is due by Feb. 1, 2017.

Lonnie Steiert Coordinator of Grants and Special Programs said 287 Okeechobee students earned certifications in careers and technical education programs last year.

The programs include nursing assistant and certified EKG technician, automotive maintenance and light repair, digital design, building construction technology, animal science and services, and technical ag operations.

Jermaine Moore objected to the loss of his job as a probationary employee at Okeechobee Achievement Academy. He asked the board to reconsider the superintendent’s recommendation. Several people vouched for his character and work ethic. Mr. Conely advised the board to follow the recommendation. The board voted to table this termination until the Nov. 22 meeting when the superintendent of schools could be available to give a full report.

In business actions the board:
• Expelled a freshman student at Okeechobee Achievement Academy for the remainder of the 2016-2017 school year due to threats and intimidation;
• Expelled a sixth grader at OAA for the rest of the school year for possession of an illegal substance on school grounds;
• Expelled a seventh grader at OAA for the rest of the school year for possession of illegal substances on school grounds;
• Honored India Riedel for 20 years of service to the school board; and,
• Rescheduled the January meeting to Jan. 17 at 6 p.m.

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