New state education office boosts conservative school board members in Florida, emails show

Orlando Sentinel | By Leslie Postal | July 27, 2023

A new office in the Florida Department of Education aims to “facilitate partnerships with district leaders,” but the director’s first months of work show interest in meeting mostly with conservative school board members, records show, including Moms for Liberty members and those endorsed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“We would be happy to meet with the Conservative Coalition of School Board Members as a group to explore ways that our efforts may align,” wrote Terry Stoops, the new director, to a Volusia County School Board member on April 23. “If you hold regular meetings and would like us to participate, please let me know.”

In another email, he shared his views of the previous night’s Orange County School Board meeting with Alicia Farrant, a Moms for Liberty member elected to the board in November.

“I watched some of the very misguided public comment at last night’s school board meeting. I just wanted to pass along a note to thank you for serving on the board and standing up for families,” Stoops wrote her on May 10.

“Thank you so much! I’m proud to represent our community and be a voice for many who feel voiceless,” responded Farrant, who has pushed for the school district to remove library books she finds offensive.

Stoops is the director of the education department’s new Office of Academically Successful and Resilient Districts, a job he started in April, according to his LinkedIn page. Stoops spent nearly two decades in North Carolina mostly working for the conservative John Locke Foundation, with a focus on education policy.

The Florida education department’s press office did not respond to emails asking questions about the new office and Stoops’ salary. He is not listed in the state payroll database on the governor’s office website.

In North Carolina, Stoops drafted what would become a framework for a North Carolina “parents’ bill of rights,” legislation that like Florida’s was criticized as anti-LGBTQ, and pushed for more school choice options, such as charter schools and school vouchers.

His first months on the job in Florida showed meetings with board members and advocacy groups aligned to DeSantis, according to emails and his calendar obtained by the Florida Freedom to Read Project and shared with the Orlando Sentinel.

The new office shouldn’t be working only with those with certain political views, said Stephana Ferrell, an Orange County mother and one of the project’s founders.

“This department seems formed for the sole purpose of ensuring the DeSantis agenda is worked into policy,” Ferrell said. “It is using tax payer funds in a very deliberate, political way.”

In Orange, for example, Stoops reached out to Farrant but none of the other seven board members, Ferrell said. The same was true in Volusia, she said, where two conservative members got emails but the other three did not.

Stoops’ calendar for April and May also shows meetings with school board members in Manatee and Putnam counties who were endorsed by the governor, and with the leaders of the Florida Citizens Alliance, a group that has been railing against school textbooks, claiming they wrongly taught evolution, “revisionist U.S. history” and “political and religious indoctrination.” They also show attendance at a Moms for Liberty meeting in Leon County and at a leadership training institute in Sarasota hosted by a Moms for Liberty founder.

Moms for Liberty, started in 2021 by a trio of Florida mothers, initially fought against mask mandates during the pandemic. But it is now a national movement that tackles conservative education issues, such as critical race theory and the appropriateness of school library books.

In an April email to Farrant, Stoops mentioned meeting her at the Sarasota gathering and asked to set up a 30-minute video call. “As I mentioned, my office is focused on assisting school board members and those who interact with them,” he wrote. “Do you have time in the next few weeks to chat with me about the ways that we can serve you and your constituents?”

In emails to Jessie Thompson, a Volusia County School Board member, he offered not only to meet with the conservative school board group but to introduce her to the head of a like-minded group in Virginia.

In May, he sent emails to Thompson and the leader of the School Board Member Alliance Virginia. “I hope your collaboration inspires others to create alternatives to establishment organizations that exist for their own sake. Of course, if I can be of service to you, please let me know!” he wrote.

Before coming to Florida, Stoops served six months at the North Carolina Department of Education, his LinkedIn page says. That appointment, the North Carolina Democratic Party said last year, “should be cause for concern for anyone who cares about the future of North Carolina’s public schools.”

The Freedom to Read project was formed to combat book bans and censorship efforts in public schools. Ferrell said the group learned of Stoops’ office after obtaining a batch of emails from Hernando County in an effort to learn more about the controversy involving the showing of the Disney movie “Strange World” in a fifth-grade class last spring.

Ferrell thinks her comments at the Orange school board’s May 9 may be among those Stoops called “misguided.” She spoke about Orange County Public Schools’ policy for library materials.

Stoops’ office has not contacted her group.

“He didn’t reach out to the people who made the “misguided” comments,” Ferrell said. “There’s a direct line of communication for some — but not for all.”

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