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A Florida district declines dictionary donations as it navigates a new book law

Florida's Sarasota County School District is not purchasing or accepting donations of new books until at least January as it hires new staff and awaits new guidance to best comply with a statewide education law.
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Florida's Sarasota County School District is not purchasing or accepting donations of new books until at least January as it hires new staff and awaits new guidance to best comply with a statewide education law.

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

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

HB 1467 took effect at the start of July, several months after it was approved by state lawmakers. Among other provisions, it revises selection requirements for school reading materials and places term limits on school board members. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has characterized it as part of his effort to fight "indoctrination" in schools, while Democratic critics decry it as censorship and unconstitutional.

The changing guidance is posing a logistical challenge for school districts, many of which have already begun the new school year and are scrambling to sort out compliance and new best practices.

That's been the case in Sarasota, where the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reports that hundreds of dictionaries are gathering dust after district officials declined a Venice Rotary Club's donation.

The club has donated more than 4,000 dictionaries to Sarasota elementary schools for nearly 15 consecutive years in partnership with a nonprofit called the Dictionary Project, member Gar Reese told the newspaper. This was the first year that they were declined.

Reese said when the new law took effect, the club's president checked with school principals to make sure there wouldn't be any issue with the donations — and was referred to the district, which said it would have to wait until January.

That's at least in part because the law requires all reading material in schools — regardless of whether it is purchased or donated — to be "selected" by a certified education media specialist, and the district doesn't currently have any working in its schools.

Kelsey Whealy, a media relations specialist for Sarasota County Schools, told NPR over email that the school board has already approved the district media specialist job description, though said the temporary freeze will last until at least January 2023.

She said the district is "hopeful" that allow for enough time to hire the new media specialists, review existing items and receive updated guidance from the Florida Department of Education and the district's curriculum team about how to interpret the legislation.

Meanwhile, Reese told the newspaper that if the district doesn't accept the club's dictionaries, it may approach private schools or else hold off on donations this year entirely.

While the stalled dictionary donation may have catapulted the district into the national spotlight, it's just one of the complications posed by the new law.

Whealy shared guidance from district officials that book fairs, Scholastic Book Orders and read-alouds can continue this fall as scheduled, with some caveats.

Scholastic orders must be reviewed by parents in advance and taken home by students, for example, and teachers have been told to communicate with administrators and parents about which books they intend to read out loud to younger students.

The district is aiming to provide maximum support to teachers while complying with the new law, 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."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: August 21, 2022 at 10:00 PM MDT
A previous version of this story mispelled Whealy's last name and misstated her title.
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.