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New state law targets seven Hillsborough schools with D’s and F’s

By Marlene Sokol
Parents walk their students home from Mort Elementary, which is two points shy of a C grade for 2016-17. Now the state wants the North Tampa school to make a contingency plan in case it fails to get a C for this school year. Six other HIllsborough County schools face the same situation. [Times files]

TAMPA — The state is telling Hillsborough County to have contingency plans ready by Friday for seven struggling schools in case they don’t receive C grades or better at the end of the year.

The directive affects D-rated Foster, Mort, Oak Park and Sheehy elementary schools; D-rated Memorial Middle; and Potter and Booker T. Washington elementary schools, which are both rated F.

Districts have four options for such schools, assuming they do not improve to a C.

The first, shutting them down, is not on the table. "We’re not closing any schools, so you can put that in bright lights," superintendent Jeff Eakins said Wednesday.

Nor is the second option, turning the schools over to private charter operators.

That leaves two more — entering a partnership with an outside consultant who would help run the school, or creating a district-run charter school.

Under that fourth scenario, the school would have a governing board, as privately run charter schools do. The district would manage the school. But union contracts would not apply, giving the district greater latitude in deciding who would work there.

Eakins and his chief of schools, Harrison Peters, said they are optimistic that all seven schools will earn at least a C. Four of the D schools were within two points of a C when the last year’s grades came out.

"Nothing has changed about our expectations, but there has to be a back-up plan," Peters said.

School leaders, so far, seem to understand, he said. "They’re not interested in being a charter school and they’re not interested in being closed, but they get it."

The call for contingency plans stems from the sweeping education law that the Legislature approved in the last session with the passage of House Bill 7069.

The bill seeks to end the cycle of schools that under-perform year after year. It has met with strong opposition from teachers’ unions, and is the subject of lawsuits against the state by more than a dozen districts, including Pinellas.

The Hillsborough County School Board is not suing, largely out of concerns about legal bills.

The law makes money available for out-of-state charter operators to come into communities and as alternatives for failing schools.

The state also is offering grants that districts can use to help their struggling schools. Hillsborough applied for those grants on behalf of three schools, but so far has not been awarded any.

Leaders of the teachers’ union reacted warily to the state directive this week when it was discussed at a bargaining session. They fear the district will order teachers into schools where they do not wish to work.

Peters, however, pointed out that the district has worked hard in recent years to avoid having clusters of weak teachers at low-performing schools, a problem the state law seeks to resolve.

"We’re going to put our very best in front of our most needy students," he said.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol