KEYS SCHOOL OFFICIALS SEEK WAYS TO ATTRACT & RETAIN TEACHERS

School board members listen to a presentation on the strategic plan, at the Coral Shores High School library on May 10.

A strategic plan is in the works for the Monroe County School District. Recruiting and retaining a workforce, as well as maintaining a safe environment on school grounds, were among the items discussed during a May 10 school board gathering at Coral Shores High School. 

Elisa Levy, strategic planning consultant, said focus group meetings show many teachers relaying a need to live in the Keys. Financially, that’s becoming a challenge due to a hot housing market and a lack of workforce housing. 

“We understand what the need is here and the gravity of the situation,” Levy said as she unveiled a list of goals and strategies, which included developing workforce housing. “You’re already working on Trumbo, which would be useful probably all the way up to Marathon.”

The school district is seeking to develop its administrative headquarters property on Trumbo Road in Key West. The  5.9-acre property is adjacent to the Lang Milian public housing complex that is also ripe for renewal. Included in one company’s proposal for Trumbo Road are 76 rental apartments, a new two-story, 20,000-square-foot administrative building, and 1.27 acres of green space.

Levy said another notable topic discussed within focus groups was the fact that many new teachers are overwhelmed when it comes to finding a place to live. A housing resource guide  and a point person teachers could call for assistance were among the possible activities the district could do. Later in the meeting, Henry Russell, executive director of personnel and instructional leadership, told school board members that a new employee resource guide is out to assist school employees with housing options. 

State Rep. Jim Mooney presents highlights of the state’s 2022-23 budget. JIM McCARTHY/Keys Weekly

Russell said Axford told him the district needed to come up with a resource tool for new and current employees with information on the local housing market. Russell said the district felt it could create a tool to give employees that could identify and locate potential places to live. 

The guide starts with a welcome message from the superintendent and fun facts about the Keys before going into a list of housing options from the Lower Keys and Upper Keys, as well as Florida City and Homestead, since a number of teachers and employees live on the mainland. Russell said they’ve captured the current housing availability in the Keys. 

“This is a tool that’s being developed, so as we are made aware of more and more opportunities in our communities, we will continue to add and update this document,” he said. Russell added that he sent letters to real estate agents throughout the Keys and local chambers of commerce to let them know they were creating a housing guide. 

In addition, the resource guide includes a variety of child care services from the Lower Keys to Upper Keys, as well as information about hospitals, DMVs, internet services and local utilities. The resource guide is on the district’s website under the employment and human resources tabs. 

Among the other strategies Levy unveiled that the district could employ to attract and retain teachers and staff are expanding an employee recognition program and identifying exit trends beyond income and housing. Increasing staff compensation and financial support, such as free after school care and increased longevity bonuses were also listed as possible things the district could look into. 

As for safety, Levy said the goal is creating and maintaining safe, healthy and inclusive environments that foster students’ mental and physical health. Strategies within a list unveiled by Levy included increasing security in school hallways and bathrooms to prevent vaping and vandalism. 

“Two years ago we weren’t talking about vaping. This year it has exploded according to (school resource officers),” Levy said. 

Preventing bullying on and off campus and ensuring consistent implementation of student attendance were other strategies outlined in Levy’s presentation. 

Monroe County School District Superintendent Theresa Axford speaks.

A workshop with principals on the strategic plan is set for Thursday, May 19 and Tuesday, May 24. Principals will take the plan to teachers by the end of the school year. Levy said a final strategic plan draft will be presented to school board members during a retreat on June 14. The plan could be finalized by August. 

In other news, the school board heard a report on the legislative session in Tallahassee from state Rep. Jim Mooney. A number of K-12 education bills passed through the legislature, including one that requires high school students to take a financial literacy course before graduating. 

“I’ve said this since 1973 when I started teaching: we’re not teaching kids how to balance a checkbook. We teach them a lot of great stuff, but we don’t teach them a lot of stuff that really matters to their lives at the end of the day,” Mooney said. 

He also highlighted House Bill 1421 that improves school safety, security and transparency and refines plans for drills and reuniting families. House Bill 1467 improves the transparency around selecting library materials and establishes 12-year term limits for school boards.

“They tried to get eight (years) passed,” Mooney said. 

He also delved into House Bill 1557, the parental rights bill. He said he voted against the bill after a tremendous amount of soul searching, reading and figuring out why the bill was as “vague as it was written.”

In his statements to the board, Mooney said he takes pride in reading bills from beginning to end multiple times and discussing it with leadership and the bill sponsor. He said the vagueness in the bill “was too much for me.”  

“I looked and thought to myself, we don’t teach sex ed to K-3 anyway in Florda. It’s not in our curriculum, period,” he said. “Terms like inappropriate, those are very vague terms. I can tell you coming out of local government, ordinances I’ve been involved with that were vague ultimately allowed attorneys to feast. 

“Putting the school board and teachers in peril of lawsuits, and they don’t have to be definite, that’s the hard part of understanding why things can go sideways,” he continued. “It takes someone who thinks something is inappropriate. Therefore, the school board becomes the punching bag.”

The next school board meeting is set for Tuesday, June 14 at 5 p.m. at Key West City Hall.

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Jim McCarthy is a northerner who escaped the snow and frigid temperatures for warm living by the water. A former crime & court reporter and city editor for two Western New York newspapers, Jim has been honing his craft since his graduation from St. Bonaventure University in 2014. In his 3 years in the Keys, Jim has enjoyed connecting with the community. “One of my college professors would always preach to be curious,” he said. “Behind every person is a story that’s unique to them, and one worth telling. Behind every community is resiliency and resolve in difficult times. As writers, we are the ones who paint the pictures in the readers minds of the emotions, the struggles and the triumphs.” Jim serves as President of the Key Largo Sunset Rotary Club, which is composed of energetic members who serve the community’s youth and older populations. “It’s a group that lives by the motto ‘Service Above Self,’” he says. “We’ve done service projects at the Tavernier nursing home, sitting down and socializing with residents. “We’ve also supplied cameras to young students exploring the Keys ecosystem.” Jim loves sports, family and time exploring underneath the water depths.