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Leon's LGBTQ guide and state laws on race and history put local school board candidates on the spot

Two women sit at a dark table in front of microphones with a banner that has "WFSU Public Media" displayed behind them.
Suzanne Smith
WFSU Public Media
Candidates on stage are Marianne Arbulu and Alva Swafford Striplin

DeSantis has approved new laws restricting how race and history can be taught, limiting how sexual orientation and gender identity are discussed in public schools, and giving parents greater say when it comes to what their kids may be exposed to in school. Now, local school boards like Leon are grappling with the changes and facing a barrage of angry parents weighing in on the debate. The Leon School Districts' latest LGBTQ guide captures that fight; it advises schools to inform all parents in a class if a child wants to use a facility that doesn’t correspond to their gender at birth. Critics argue that’s discriminatory. During a recent candidate forum for the school board District 1 race, the candidates expressed mixed views.

“It’s extremely invasive," said Anthony DeMarco, of the guide's language around parental notification. "Are we going to ask them [transgender kids] to sit at the back of the bus, next?”

“If the goal is to mainstream [LGBTQ students], I’m not sure it [the guide] accomplishes that, but I am glad the board approved the guide," said Marianne Arbulu, the former superintendent of Jefferson County schools.

The district amended its guide following a federal lawsuit and a parent's complaint that the district had allowed their child to use different pronouns and other gender-affirming ...without their consent. The state's new Parents Bill of Rights law restricting discussions on gender identity and sexual orientation in the classroom was partly a response to that situation.

“It’s very challenging to meet the needs of all the parent groups in our district, and our students, and follow the parent's bill of rights, which we are bound to do by law. We did the best we could.," said incumbent board member Alva Striplin.

Striplin and Arbulu are steeped in the politics of education and during the forum, they chose their words carefully—especially when it came to questions about whether they support the Governor’s education agenda and would accept endorsements from the parent rights group Mom’s for Liberty, which has pushed an anti-LGBTQ agenda. The two say when it comes to DeSantis, they’ll follow the law. When it comes to Moms for Liberty:

“If Moms for Liberty finds my message something they agree with, that’s great. I’m happy to have their endorsement, as I would the League of Women Voters, the Tallahassee Board of Realtors, or any other group who is looking at this race," said Arbulu. When asked whether she agreed with the Mom's message, “If we isolate their message down to parents and the importance of parents in this conversation, I do support that.”

Moms for Liberty has emerged as a powerful force in education politics during the pandemic. They began by first pushing back against local school mask mandates, and have expanded their advocacy into conservative issues—like how race, history and LGBTQ messages are addressed in public schools.

“As long as it's legally allowed, I would accept anyone’s endorsement and I believe all parents within our district have a right to interject their opinion in our meetings," said Striplin. "We want them all to come to the podium of the Leon County School board and for all of them to be heard. No one opinion is more important than any other opinion. I believe they’re all valid.”

Anthony DeMarco, a parent with kids in Leon County schools, has been tracking the rise of Moms for Liberty and said he wouldn't take anything from the group— and doubts they'd make any offers to him.

“I don’t support them, wouldn’t seek their endorsement, wouldn’t want it. And I don’t think they’d want my endorsement, either," he said, calling Moms for Liberty a "hate group" for their promotion of policies he views as anti-LGBTQ.

There's more daylight between the candidates when it comes to how teachers should approach the state's new anti-WOKE law, which bans Critical Race Theory (a social framework taught in colleges that explores how racism influences public policy—it's not taught in K-12 public schools) and states that history lessons and other instruction on race should not be taught in a way that could make students feel guilt or shame regarding their backgrounds.

Striplin says teachers should stick to the book.

“If it's outlined by the Department of Education as part of something a history teacher needs to be teaching or is required to teach, then that teacher is teaching that topic. I would also say we urge our teachers to keep their personal opinions and views out of the classroom," she said.

Yet DeMarco notes the law around race and history is vague, and that already—teachers are raising questions about what is and isn't off limits, while the Department of Education is rolling out lessons some teachers have already complained contain dubious interpretations of historical events.

“That’s what’s problematic about the legislation. We’re not even sure how, legally, to do this," DeMarco said.

“I think we should teach honestly," said Arbulu of her approach to trying to strike a balance. "There’s nothing wrong with sharing your experiences with your students within the confines of appropriateness.” 

The Leon County school system has been a majority-minority district for years and it's becoming increasingly segregated--an issue all three candidates acknowledge is a problem with few solutions. They also say teachers and the staff of people who support them, deserve higher salaries. And they acknowledge the concerns of teachers specifically, who say in today’s educational political climate, they feel scapegoated, are underpaid and are struggling.

The school board candidate forum was hosted by WFSU in partnership with the Tallahassee Democrat and the League of Women Voters.

Follow @HatterLynn

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

Find complete bio, contact info, and more stories here.