BROOKSVILLE (Suncoast News) — At recent Hernando County School Board meetings, the agenda was dispensed with at lightning speed.

Then came public comment.

Since the COVID pandemic began, measures to protect schoolchildren have been controversial all over the state and the country. Mask mandates have been spoken of in language previously used to protest seat belt and anti-smoking laws, and School Board members across the country have faced verbal threats and attacks for mandating precautions to try to limit the spread of COVID.

New issues are rising, including Critical Race Theory and alleged child pornography in school libraries. School district leaders have tried to calm the waters and reassure parents that they are following the state-mandated curriculum and using the processes in place to remove objectionable books, but it isn’t satisfying everyone.

Now, candidates are lining up to take on the incumbent School Board members who are up for re-election in 2022.

And it’s clear that if all three incumbents are defeated in August 2022, it will mean a major sea change for the board, which Hernando County commissioners see as bringing it more in line with the will of the voters and parents.

Several people who attended the last School Board meeting of 2021 spoke out against past masking policies and continued to accuse the board’s members of a variety of offenses and crimes.

The board has taken the heat for statements by the National School Boards Association about security at meetings, and was blasted for “wasting money” on having five sheriff’s deputies in the chambers during one meeting.

One speaker said, in effect, don’t even think about opening vaccination clinics in the schools now that the vaccines are approved for schoolchildren.

School Board: Liberal outlier?

To County Commission Chairman Steve Champion, the Hernando County School Board is a political anomaly, a bastion of liberalism in a conservative county.

There are 63,864 registered Republicans in Hernando County, 40,946 registered Democrats and 41,277 listed as “Other,” so it’s clear to him — from his statements from the dais — that Democrats have managed to fool the voters and are enacting an agenda in the schools that local parents and residents are rejecting.

Champion and Commissioner Jeff Holcomb said at the Dec. 14 County Commission meeting that they support the effort to make School Board elections “partisan” so that voters will know what they’re getting when they vote for a board member.

It’s the defiance, he said, that is destroying the board’s credibility. The insistence on mask mandates and other public health measures that he and other members of the County Commission believe is a part of an anti-American agenda that includes Critical Race Theory, equity in education, and mask mandates and vaccines against COVID.

Holcomb regularly speaks out against public health measures like vaccines, saying all you need to do is stay healthy and keep your immune system strong.

Residents such as Diane Liptak say efforts to vaccinate children are little more than “medical experimentation” and, like masks, are ineffective.

She and Wendy Porter, who also has mentioned the “Nuremberg Codes” or “Nuremberg Laws” regarding “medical experimentation” — which are not laws in the U.S. — have blasted the School Board at its meetings for every measure taken against the coronavirus.

Challenges mount

According to the Hernando County Supervisor of Elections website, the following candidates have registered for the Aug. 22 election, with money raised as of last week in parentheses:

District 1’s Kay Hatch ($3,000) is being challenged by Mark C. Johnson ($3,720) and Jennifer Lynn Licata ($10,681). Johnson and his wife, Arlene Glantz, have been speaking out against what they say is the use of Critical Race Theory in training materials for teachers and district staff, which they say is finding its way into lessons. The district has denied multiple times that Critical Race Theory is being used in the county’s school system, but opponents say CRT is being disguised as “equity.”

District 3’s Jimmy Lodato ($1,495) faces opposition from Shannon L. Rodriguez ($20,055). Lodato also is the School Board’s liaison with the County Commission. Likewise, County Commissioner Elizabeth Narverud, a past School Board member, is the commission’s liaison to the School Board, but in the past refused to attend meetings because of the district’s mask mandate on its properties. That has been lifted, but Narverud still isn’t attending School Board meetings.

Nonetheless, at a recent County Commission meeting, she advocated for at least listening to the School Board, but Champion said he just wants every member out of office.

District 5’s Susan B. Duval (no money raised yet) faces challenges from Monty Floyd ($3,480.43), Pamela Sue Everett ($2,475) and Lara R. Dedmon, who has not yet raised any money.

Floyd and his wife, Kara, are prominent opponents of the School Board’s policies on, well, just about everything. Kara Floyd is the head of the local chapter of Moms for Liberty, which says on its private Facebook page that it “is dedicated to the survival of America by unifying, educating and empowering parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government.”

She has called out the board for requiring masks and recently has been talking about alleged child pornography in school library books.

Bad blood, but a call to ‘be nice’

For a time, Lodato bore the brunt of the County Commission’s criticism. At Dec. 14’s County Commission meeting, members spent nearly an hour blasting the School Board, often in response to public comment.

Liptak repeated her litany of complaints about the School Board on Dec. 14, mainly because the next School Board meeting was not until January. Masks, Critical Race Theory, vaccinations, school bus crowding and food service issues are the cudgels she uses to batter the board members to the county commissioners, and several agree.

Lodato hasn’t been seen at a County Commission meeting since he and Champion got into an argument over the School Board’s efforts on public health and Lodato finally said he didn’t have to take Champion’s attacks anymore.

Champion has declared at multiple meetings that he liked and respected Lodato, before tearing into him for the problems the school district is having, declaring that defying Gov. Ron DeSantis on protective masks showed the need to replace the School Board.

Champion said that was why DeSantis snubbed the board and School Superintendent John Stratton at an announcement ceremony for the new Dennis Wilfong Citizen Success Center at the airport. The Wilfong Center has been a pet project of Lodato’s for years, and he has said he sees its educational component as an important part of Hernando County’s future.

That and his support of a half-cent sales tax for education — which Lodato touts because 61% of voters approved it — might make him popular at the school district’s headquarters, but in the county courthouse he now appears to be “persona non grata.”

To Champion, it’s simple: The School Board is disobedient, and he’s vocal about wanting to see a change in 2022.

He and Holcomb have led discussions at the County Commission in which they said they wanted to see the district lose students, and have told county taxpayers that the members of the School Board are the ones making their taxes go up while also blaming the board for failing to hire enough teachers, bus drivers and cafeteria staff.

They and a group of vocal members of the public who attend nearly every meeting of both bodies dismiss declarations from School Board members that the children are their top priority, and some who have taken to electioneering during public comment vow to replace the current members, and would like to see the rest resign.

The bad blood between the bodies has worried businesses considering locating in Hernando County, Lodato has said.

Those regular public commenters seem eager to stoke the fires of discord, though.

At a School Board informal meeting on Dec. 7, Lodato spoke of the need to resolve to “be nice” in the new year.

We need a new attitude, he said. “We have to look at the positive things that we have endured, and the times that were not so positive that we also endured,” he said.

Chairman Gus Guadanigno said he agreed, noting, “There’s not a career that’s so important as educating children.”

He admitted that sometimes he has been a bit abrupt with parents who call to complain, telling them to come to the School Board meeting and speak for three minutes, and said he is going to change that approach to telling them that there is a process to be followed.

“I know that they care and they’re passionate about what they’re doing, but it doesn’t look good on TV or whatever,” he said, and mentioned the reading from a book that he said was “uncalled for.”

“You can get that message to the School Board without putting it out there to children that are in the audience,” he said.