As Florida navigates new book law, Sarasota declines dictionary donations

Sarasota County Declining Book Donations – Image Shows Library Books in Bookshelves – Courtesy: Shutterstock – Image by Maxx-Studio

A school district located in southwestern Florida has hit headlines for declining a donation of dictionaries because of a freeze on new books in its classrooms and libraries.

That freeze is temporarily in place while officials deal with a new state law that gives parents larger control over the selection of instructional and reading materials in schools.

HB 1467 took effect at the beginning of July, several months after it was approved by Florida lawmakers. Among other things, it revises selection requirements for school reading materials and places term limits on its school board members. Republican Governor Ron DeSantis has characterized it as a major part of his effort to “fight indoctrination” throughout the school system, while Democratic critics refer to it as censorship and unconstitutional. 

The changing guidance is posing a major challenge for school districts, many of which have already started the new school year and are trying to figure out compliance and new best practices.

That’s the case in Sarasota, where the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reports that thousands of dictionaries are sitting collecting dust after district officials declined a Venice Rotary Club’s donation.

Member Gar Reese told the publication that the club has donated over 4,000 dictionaries to Sarasota elementary schools for over 15 consecutive years in partnership with a nonprofit called the Dictionary Project. This was the first time they were ever declined.

Reese said when the new law went into effect, the club’s president checked with several school principals to confirm there would not be any issue with the donations–and was then referred to the district, which said they would have to wait until January.

That is at least in part because regardless of whether it is donated or purchased, it must be chosen by a certified education media specialist, and the district does not currently have any working in its schools.

The district’s media specialist job description has already been approved by the school board, according to Kelsey Whealy, a media relations specialist for Sarasota County Schools, who informed NPR via email that the temporary hiring freeze will extend at least until January 2023.

The Florida Department of Education and the district’s curriculum team will provide updated guidance on how to interpret the law, she added, adding that the district is “hopeful” that there will be enough time to hire the new media specialists, review the current materials, and receive those updates.

Meanwhile, Reese told the publication that if the district does not accept the club’s dictionaries, it may reach out to private schools or hold off on donations entirely for this school year.

While the currently stalled dictionary donation may have thrown the district into the national spotlight, it is just one of the issues posed by the new law.

Whealy reported that district officials had given the go-ahead for book fairs, Scholastic Book Orders, and read-alouds to go this autumn as planned, subject to a few restrictions.

Teachers have been instructed to share with administrators and parents the books they want to read aloud to younger pupils. Parents must review Scholastic orders in advance and students must bring them home.

The district’s goal is to provide maximum support to teachers while following the new law’s guidelines, she explained.

“Once we receive guidance from our legal team and receive direction from the FDOE, we will reach out to our education & community partners with updates,” Whealy said. “We value their support and don’t wish to jeopardize the wonderful relationships we have in place.”

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