March 07, 2018

Teaching high schoolers to balance a checkbook likely won't be a graduation requirement, despite bill's advancement toward passage

Sen. Dorothy Hukill presents her bill Nov. 8, 2017, to set a financial literacy high school graduation requirement. [The Florida Channel]

Despite several years of trying from the bill's sponsors, a financial literacy course likely won't be a graduation requirement for high school students in Florida next school year.

The Florida House advanced a bill on Tuesday to require schools to offer students a "financial literacy" course, but does not require students to take the elective. The House also added on a few other issues to the bill, including that schools provide computer science classes.

For Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, making this course a graduation requirement has been a passion project for the past five years. She said she was unsatisfied with the House's changes.

"It has nothing to do with my financial literacy bill," she said.

A financial literacy course would include teaching high schoolers how to balance a checkbook, manage debt, pay taxes and apply for loans.

Hukill's bill passed three Senate committees unanimously. At one point, this graduation requirement was also part of the Legislature's massive education package, HB 7055, but it was removed in a last-minute, sweeping amendment in the Senate.

Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, R-Fort Myers, who has also worked on this issue for several years, said it was changed to be an optional class so it could get enough support in the House.

"There were some concerns that we would be putting a mandate on school systems," she said. "The only way it was able to get the traction necessary to get to the floor was for it to become a permissive course."

The bill still needs to formally pass the House and will then go back to the Senate so it can approve the changes. There, it could be amended but it is unlikely because there are only a few days left in session and that would elongate its progress.

Hukill said she hopes for better luck next session.

"It's a disappointment," she said. "But I'm a patient woman at this point."

March 06, 2018

After dramatic rejection of New York job, Carvalho gets the royal treatment in Miami



At his first major public appearance since turning down a job as head of New York City schools, Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho got the royal treatment — literally.

“So Alberto, Mister Superintendent, Your Highness,” joked moderator Steve Clemons, Washington Editor at Large for The Atlantic. “I know the top three or four reasons why I would choose Miami over New York, but what were yours?”

Clemons’ reference to last week’s dramatic school board meeting in which children and adults begged Carvalho not to leave Miami-Dade was met with laughter from the audience at the Miami-Dade County Auditorium. But it also elicited a new explanation from the superintendent, and one that was decidedly less kingly than the reasons he gave for his decision last week.

“I am a true believer that if you want me to land the championship ring, if you want to win the Super Bowl, but I have a field that I’m not going to be able to necessarily pick my quarterback … that the plays will be called, co-consulted, then that may be a deal breaker for me,” Carvalho said.

The superintendent also repeated his earlier explanations that he was dedicated to Miami-Dade and that he had been moved by the response from local teachers, parents and students to his appointment as New York City schools chancellor. The football metaphor, however, appears to confirm a Politico report that Mayor Bill de Blasio wasn’t going to let Carvalho pick his own chief of staff or human resources director and that retiring Chancellor Carmen Fariña would have had a continuing influence on the school district. Read more here.

March 02, 2018

Florida Senate advances massive education bill with last-minute changes

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa SCOTT KEELER | Times

The Florida Senate advanced HB 7055 on Friday, but it wasn't the same education package that had passed through a committee earlier in the week.

A major amendment filed the evening before it went to the floor for a vote was the result of negotiations with House members, said sponsor Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples. Those negotiations were not public.

Among the new changes, the amendment:

  • Added a new sales tax funding source for the Gardiner Scholarship, a voucher for disabled students to attend private schools
  • Removed proposed accountability measures to prevent unethical profits from charter school construction
  • Removed a pitch to make a financial literacy course a high school graduation requirement
  • Increased the amount of money a person can donate to the new Hope Scholarship vouchers for bullied students, from $20 to $105, matching the House's version.

Passidomo spoke at length about how the Senate had resisted the attempts of the House to fast-track the bill by attaching it to the budget, and said the Senate had chosen the transparent path.

"Everything in this bill everyone has had on opportunity to look at," she said. "Our president wanted to make sure that the bill went through Senate committees to allow time for review, edits, testimony and discussion about issues important to all of us."

The bill now allows tenants of commercial property to direct the sales tax of their rent away from the state's general fund and into the account for the Gardiner Scholarship, up to $57.5 million. The Gardiner Scholarship is a publicly funded voucher for students with mental or physical disabilities to be able to attend private schools.

Democrats unsuccessfully tried to remove a highly controversial piece of HB 7055 which requires teachers' unions to have 50 percent of all people eligible to be in the union be dues-paying members. It does not apply to unions of other professions. Teachers' unions are a core constituency for the Democratic Party.

Teachers' unions have decried the rule as union-busting and unfair, especially in the wake of the Parkland shooting during which three teachers were killed protecting students.

Then in a dramatically tense moment on the floor, Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, stood defiant of his party as he proposed an amendment to relax the threshold to 40 percent, calling the 50 percent margin "mean-spirited" and "punitive." Twice the Senate President, Joe Negron, R-Stuart, asked him to finish speaking on his amendment but Lee continued anyway.

"I know how easy it is to come up here and go along and get along," he said. "I also didn't come to Tallahassee to be told what to do. ... There isn't a budget amendment or a bill I care about more than doing the right thing."

That amendment failed in a 19-19 tie, with three Republicans — Sen. Dana Young of Tampa, Sen. Rene Garcia of Hialeah and Sen. Greg Steube of Sarasota — voting with Lee and the Democrats.

HB 7055 still needs to be formally passed by the Senate, which it is expected to do in the coming days. The bill will then go back to the House for final approval before it is sent to the governor.

At the same time the Senate spent hours in debate on this bill, the House moved forward HB 1, a separate bill with the same bullying voucher program in 7055. Several pieces of the package bill have been similarly peeled off in the House, an indication that it could be prepping for the measures to still go into effect in case HB 7055 doesn't pass into law.

The House also advanced a major tax package on Friday that included a sales tax funding source up to $154 million for multiple types of school vouchers.

February 27, 2018

Broward teacher on new union requirements: "My friends just got slaughtered for saving kids' lives"

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School sign, wrapped in crime scene tape, reads "#MSDSTRONG" on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018, in Parkland, Fla. A mass shooting that killed 17 people took place at the school last week. ALESSANDRA DA PRA | Times


A proposal to require teachers' unions to have at least 50 percent of all eligible union members pay dues or risk being decertified has seen plenty of twists and turns in the Florida Legislature this session. But it took on new meaning after the Parkland shooting, during which three teachers were killed protecting their students.

On Tuesday, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to add this union rule to the Legislature's comprehensive education package, House Bill 7055.

"My friends just got slaughtered for saving kids' lives," said Anna Fusco, president of the Broward Teachers Union, after the vote. "And then they want to sit up there and act like it's not ... about busting our union."

The union rule was voted out of the bill in its previous committee stop in the Senate, while Parkland students were visiting the Legislature less than a week after the shooting. Sen. Perry Thurston, Jr., D-Lauderhill, gave an emotional speech about the teachers who had "jumped in front of the gunman," and he forced committee members to voice their votes individually.

But after Tuesday's vote it is back in the bill, which is likely headed for the Senate floor within days. It has already passed the House.

The Senate committee vote was primarily along party lines, with one Republican, Sen. Anitere Flores from Miami, voting with the Democrats against the education package.  She said her opposition was because of the union portion.

Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said this bill ensures unions are represented only by people that the majority of the group agrees with. It requires that teachers' unions have at least 50 percent of all eligible union members pay dues or they must appeal to keep their certification.

"It's about legitimacy," he said.

Supporters of Americans for Prosperity, the conservative advocacy group funded by the Koch brothers network, also motioned their support. The group has sent out mailers praising HB 7055 and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, by name.

Although the bill only applies to teachers' unions, bargaining units for crane workers and other trades came to the meeting to oppose it.

Fusco said her union is well above the required threshold. But it's about principle.

"People can't afford it and they still reap the benefits," she said of non-dues-paying teachers. She added that the members of the Florida Legislature aren't required to get 50 percent of all eligible voters to choose them — just 50 percent of everyone who votes.

"They want to put us at a higher level than when they get voted in. It's disheartening."

February 26, 2018

After Parkland, Florida looks to mental health programs and campus officers as fixes. But it's underfunded both.

PARKLAND, FL - FEBRUARY 25: People visit Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 25, 2018 in Parkland, Florida. Today, students and parents were allowed on campus for the first time since the shooting that killed 17 people on February 14. Police arrested 19-year-old former student Nikolas Cruz for the 17 murders. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Just two days after the Parkland massacre, a couple of high school girls were injured by a drive-by shooting outside Middleton High School in Tampa.

Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, visited the school shortly after to see what he could do. He said he was shocked to learn the school's 1,600 students had only one psychologist, who only worked three days a week.

“It’s virtually nonexistent what school districts are doing to help the mental health of our students,” Rouson said.

Middleton's situation is not uncommon in Florida, where school mental health programs have been chronically underfunded and short-staffed for decades. Yet Florida's leaders are pointing to this same cash-starved system as a way to treat more students who could pose possible threats.

To make good on that, they'll have to make up for lost ground.

Read more here


February 14, 2018

Under Florida House proposal, going to the store could mean funding school vouchers

Gabriella Angotti-Jones | Times

Most people don't consider walking into a corner store and buying a gallon of milk to be a controversial action. But under a new proposal in the Florida House, part of that sales tax could pay for school vouchers that have been a flash point between lawmakers and activists.

The proposal, only a small piece of a larger tax package passed through the Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday, would open up sales tax revenue to finance two of the state's major voucher programs that allow low-income students and those with disabilities to attend private schools on the state's dime.

If it succeeds, this would be a big first for a specific education program to draw money from consumer-directed sales tax — which has previously been off-limits for earmarks. The sales tax is largely directed to the state's general fund, which pays for everything from roads to public schools. the sales tax is the state's largest funding source. It produced $24.6 billion in 2016.

"These are mostly poor minority students who are struggling academically and ... they're looking for a lifeboat for a better education," said Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, the chair of Ways and Means.  "There is a demand that far exceeds what the SFOs (scholarship-funding organizations) have been able to access."

He added that he didn't think using sales tax for school vouchers would open the floodgates for different causes.

"Are people going to come out of the woodwork? They'll have to make their case," Renner said. "This is a compelling case to help those that have educational needs."

Currently, the state has a few programs allow businesses to get tax credits on their sales tax for creating jobs or contributing to the state's agricultural sector. However, this would be the first time businesses could essentially earmark their sales tax for a specific purpose rather than going to the state's general bank account.

The House's proposal would allow businesses to opt-in to this program and cap scholarship funding at $154 million, allowing the wait-lists of the existing Gardiner and Florida Tax Credit Scholarships to substantially shrink. Those dollars would go straight to the organizations administering the scholarships, rather than to state's general revenue.

Democrats condemned the measure as a "giveaway" and a way for the state to inch its way into taking away a piece of the state's most important funding source from traditional public schools.

Rep. Joseph Abruzzo of Boynton Beach, the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, asked repeatedly to have this piece separated from the rest of the tax package, which both parties had cooperated to draft. Those amendments failed.

"The truth of the matter is ... this is not just for the poorest of the poorest of the poor anymore," he said. "It started out just a corporate tax scholarship, we're moving into fees and now in this bill we have gone into the unbelievable realm of sales tax. That is just wrong."

Even Rep. Margaret Good — who was elected just Tuesday night to represent Sarasota in a victory for Democrats in a typical Republican stronghold — spoke at a press conference opposing this bill shortly before she was sworn in.

"Over the last five months I have knocked on a lot of doors and talked to a lot of voters in Sarasota who are really concerned about our public education system," she said.

Funding for school vouchers has exploded in the years since they were created. The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program began as a $50 million project in 2001, and will give out close to $700 million in the 2017-2018 school year, according to the Department of Education.

February 07, 2018

Florida House and Senate posture for conflict over omnibus education bill

SCOTT KEELER | TIMES State Senator Rob Bradley

It’s still early in the session, but the Florida House and Senate already inched closer to conflict as both chambers drew a line in the sand on the process surrounding a mega-bill that would fundamentally alter many aspects of Florida’s education.

House Bill 7055, at nearly 200-pages, wraps together several bills and skates across a myriad of issues from scholarships to bullying to testing to school governance to teachers’ unions. It also, in a single line, makes the state’s per-student funding of public schools, or $21.1 billion, “contingent upon PCS for HB 7055 or similar legislation becoming law.”

Until now, Senate Republicans had remained mute in response to the shouts from Democrats that the bill’s massive volume precludes transparency and even that the budget tie-in could be unconstitutional. But on Wednesday, the Republican chair of the committee that controls the purse strings in the Senate said the House’s gamesmanship was not right — a sign of the fight to come, and the political posturing of both chambers ahead of the budget negotiating process.

“When you do it that way you don’t send it through the normal process of the committees and have the debate, the testimony you receive that you do in the committee process,” said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island. “You lose the ability to amend because it’s an up or down vote on what is in front of the Senator.”

Bradley then said he is a “school choice guy” who generally supports the policy in the bill, but objects to the House’s hardball with the budget.

“You’ve made the stakes (about) are we going to get to go home on time and have a budget completed, rather than if this is a good idea or not for the people of the state of Florida?” he said.

Rep. Manny Diaz, Jr., R-Hialeah, has said the pieces of HB 7055 have been heard separately in committees and that the budget measure was appropriate because portions of the bill would significantly change the formula for the way per-student funding is calculated, meaning the two are inextricably linked.

“This is something that will go into conference negotiations so that’s something that can be talked about,” he said in response to Bradley’s comments. “I think it’s early to be having those conversations.”

After the chambers pass their budgets and related education measures, the two chambers will “conference” to negotiate the differences. The House will vote on its budget Thursday. In less surprising news from the long House floor session, the Democrats were bulldozed over in their policy objections to HB 7055, for which they had proposed more than 30 amendments.

Each was painstakingly debated and voted down, including one by Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, that would have removed the budget tie-in which he called a “dangerous precedent.”

Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, the ranking Democratic member on the House Education Committee who usually is amicable to working with Republicans, said it would be better if the Legislature went back to the drawing board.

“I’ve never said this in my six years in office: I hope the whole thing blows up,” he said. “Pass the budget now, let it fail and then come back here and do it the right way.”

Battle royale: Florida House gears up for what could be its biggest debate of the session

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A screen capture from a negative ad ran by the statewide teachers' association opposing HB 7055 | YouTube

It's a debate worth about $26.9 billion, and involves the most fundamental, nagging question surrounding Florida's education system: What does Florida owe its students in public education?

And it begins today — at least this year's rendition.

The Florida House's omnibus education bill, HB 7055, is slated to be heard on the floor Wednesday afternoon — an event that promises to be one of the biggest debates of the 2018 session. The nearly 200-page bill incorporates everything from the creation of a new scholarship for students who struggle in reading to slapping potentially life-threatening requirements on teachers' unions.

It also includes a top priority for Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, in its voucher for students that are bullied which would allow them to attend another public or private school.

The bill is so much of a priority that, in an unprecedented move, House leadership tied the per-student funding language for all public schools, meaning that $21.1 billion of public school funding is "contingent upon PCS for HB 7055 or similar legislation becoming law," according to the budget.

Democrats may not have the votes in the 76-40 sea of red that is the Florida House of Representatives, but they have vowed to trade every bargaining chip, deploy every amendment and fight as hard as they can to stop or alter the bill and what they said is a legally-questionable budgetary tactic.

As of Tuesday evening, 37 amendments were filed for HB 7055. The House must debate and vote on every single one.

"It's not in my system to file 18 amendments. I’m the type to say, 'Let's work together and figure this out,'" said Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, the ranking Democratic member on the House Education Committee. "But I cannot sit back and watch our public education system blow up at the hands of ... outside interests that want to continue to fill their pockets up."

He then added: "And if I don’t see a dime in the budget or get another bill heard because of this, I’m OK ."

Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, said he expects a debate but that it would be "surprising" if it does not pass out of the House.

Wednesday marks the beginning of debate for the budget and its amendments but HB 7055 will officially be voted upon Thursday.

"We'll present the budget, we'll present the bill, I'm sure they'll have an opportunity to present their debates and they will be voted on accordingly," he said. "We're in no rush. We'll take as long as it takes."

Trujillo is the chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee and has accepted President Donald Trump's nomination to be a U.S. Ambassador to the OAS, meaning that once the U.S. Senate confirms his appointment, he'll move to Washington. He had originally said that the passage of 7055 was not tied to the per-student funding for statewide public schools, also known as FEFP. But after a reporter sent him the budgetary language, he confirmed that he had been mistaken.

"The assumption is correct," Trujillo said. "Obviously it's not our intention to defund the FEFP and it's something that if the bill is not reported favorably we will obviously amend to fix it."

Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, said even if it passes this way, having this hardball approach does not bode well for the House and Senate to be able to negotiate effectively when both chambers must reconcile the differences between their passed budgets.

He has filed an amendment to strike that language from the budget to separate 7055 from the FEFP.

"It's unlikely we’re going to leave here without funding public education," Richardson said. "It's a budget blowup possibility then we’re back in special session. It sets up a situation for a blowup before we’ve even started."

February 06, 2018

Campus free speech bill passes Senate Education. But does it expand students’ rights?

Free speech
OCTAVIO JONES | Times Julie Solace, 23, of Tampa marches along with other student activists in the SlutWalk event at the University of South Florida's Martin Luther King Plaza in Tampa, Florida on Monday, October 30, 2017.

Tuesday was Florida State University Day at the Capitol, and shortly before the Seminole marching band began blaring their triumphant "War Chant" outside, the Senate Education committee was locked in heated debate over free speech on university campuses.

The committee eventually passed SB 1234, sponsored by Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, along party lines. It has one more committee in the Senate before it will hit the floor and its House version is on a similar track.

The bill has essentially two halves: one piece would expressly put schools on the hook for lawsuits, fines and attorneys fees if they violate certain free speech rules, including if protests are found to "materially disrupt" previously scheduled events.

"I don't like that. I have talked to some members of the legislature about that. I think it's going a little bit too far," said FSU President John Thrasher, a former Speaker of the Florida House, who was at the Capitol. "I don't think we need that and I think they're going to work on it."

Democratic lawmakers, including Sen. Perry Thurston, Jr., of Lauderhill voiced concern during committee that this bill could take away the power of universities to have control over the events that take place on their campuses, and could discourage counter-protests like those that were staged at the University of Florida when white supremacist Richard Spencer spoke last fall. Thurston proposed several amendments, one of which would have ensured the right to peacefully counter-protest, that did not pass.

"It's always prefaced on the fact they cannot disrupt or disturb, it just reserves the right to protest," he said. "At the time of the Richard Spencer … there were protests of that event as well. So the faculty has the ability to allow people to disagree to actually express that they're disagreeing with the presenter."

He later called the bill "unnecessary."

A representative of the American Civil Liberties Union spoke against this portion of the bill, saying it would give universities financial incentives to chill student speech. However, it supported the other half of SB 1234: which would require public universities and colleges to dissolve designated "free speech zones," or areas they have set aside for student protests.

"This is to address a flourishing limitation of free speech, particularly across the country, many of our universities are restricting free speech to 'free speech zones,'" he said. "And there's something very antithetical to a free speech environment and saying you can have free speech but only in this little square."

A few Florida universities, such as the University of Central Florida and Florida State University, guide students to open areas well-suited for protests, but those institutions have emphasized that these zones are not restrictive.

Others, like the University of West Florida, for example, do have dedicated zones, where all non-scheduled gatherings must be held.

January 31, 2018

Teachers' unions say House Republican bill puts them at risk

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The teachers' union in Miami-Dade is one that has said the bill could cause them to become decertified. WALTER MICHOT |The Miami Herald

TALLAHASSEE — It’s only a few lines tucked inside a 200-page bill in the Florida House. But teachers’ unions across the state are raising alarms, saying the proposed rule could expose public school teachers to major pay cuts and job losses.

The rule requires teachers’ unions — and only teachers’ unions — to maintain 50 percent membership among the total number of teachers eligible to be part of their groups or risk getting decertified.

Representatives with the United Teachers of Dade, the largest local teachers’ union in Florida, said its membership is currently just below 50 percent and would be hurt by the new rule if it led to the decertification of the union.

“Thirty thousand employees would lose planning time, there would be no limit on meetings they’d have to attend, no duty-free lunch, they can stay long hours after school and be fired at any moment,” said Karla Hernandez Mats, the president of that union. She added that if this bill passes, “many teachers should be prepared to have no job next year.”

The language for the 50 percent rule appeared in a different bill, HB 25, which passed the House floor but had no companion in the Senate, rendering its chances for success fairly slim. The original bill would have applied to all unions except for police and fire.

But the teacher’s unions threshold was added this week to HB 7055, the House’s major omnibus education bill that addresses numerous issues, from computerized testing to school governance to funding vouchers for bullied students — a major priority for House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

That means a measure that endangers teachers’ unions is now tied to a bill rapidly advancing through House committees despite loud protests from Democrats.

“Since when have we come to a place where you don’t want individuals to represent themselves?” said Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee. “What we can’t do is silence the mouths of people.”

Earlier this week, Jones vowed to negotiate with Rep. Michael Bileca, R-Miami, the education committee chair, to take the language on teachers’ unions out of HB 7055. However, when the bill was passed along party lines through House Appropriations on Wednesday, the union portion remained.

Bileca said the bill isn’t targeting teachers, but can only include teachers’ unions because it’s an education bill and thus can only deal with education issues.

The 50 percent threshold is intended to preserve the rights of the majority, Bileca said.

“A minority leadership ... is not a voice for the majority,” he said.

He emphasized that because the ideas included in HB 7055 have been “thoroughly vetted” by going through separate committees before they were combined, they were fair game to be packaged together.

This union measure puts yet another strain on the distrustful relationship between public schools and the Legislature, which has spent much of its energy pushing through bills promoting school choice. Last session, a similar mega-bill, HB 7069, was passed late during session. It has since been challenged in court by some school districts.

In other states, hits to teachers’ unions have had big consequences. In 2011, Wisconsin voted to restrict the bargaining power of teachers’ unions and required an annual vote for them to remain certified. That school year, about 11 percent of teachers there left the profession, according to an analysis by the left-leaning Center for American Progress Action Fund.

“They don’t even try to hide it. They just want to eliminate the teachers’ union,” said Mike Gandolfo, president of the Pinellas County Teachers Association.

The privatization of schools is the ultimate goal, said Gandolfo, which would be made easier if the teachers’ unions are eliminated because “no else is standing in their way.”

Pinellas County’s union, as well as the one in Pasco, hovers close to the 50 percent membership cutoff, Gandolfo said. In the summers, older teachers retire and new teachers attend orientation, a transition period when membership dips.

“I assume they’re going to choose the most nefarious time,” Gandolfo added.

Rep. Manny Diaz, Jr., R-Hialeah, chair of the House PreK-12 Appropriations Committee, said districts will benefit from the new rules.

“Every school district that we talk to, every superintendent they always say they want more flexibility,” he said. “This provides more flexibility and it’s really a choice for the membership I don’t see how this doesn’t benefit in any way any side other than the districts themselves.”

He dismissed allegations from several union leaders that he would personally gain from a weakened public teachers’ unions. He is the Chief Operating Officer for Doral College, which is affiliated with prominent charter company Academica.

While the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association has said its membership is “well over” the 50 percent margin, its executive director Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins still had misgivings about the rule.

“The teacher’s union has been very vocal in some of the horrific things they have done to public education in the last several years,” she said. “I think this is clearly retribution for vocally opposing the selling off of public schools.”

Tampa Bay Times staff writer Jeffrey Solocheck contributed to this report.


Contact Emily L. Mahoney at Follow @mahoneysthename.