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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Charter school management company Newpoint Education Partners, related companies plead not guilty

Newpoint Education Partners logo

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Newpoint Education Partners logo

Newpoint Education Partners, a charter school management company that was indicted along with three related companies earlier this month, has pleaded not guilty to charges of grand theft, money laundering and aggravated white collar crime.

Attorneys appeared on the company's behalf in Escambia County court on Thursday, said state prosecutor Russell Edgar, and submitted written pleas. It is unclear whether the attorneys represented just Newpoint or the other related companies as well, which are Epiphany Management Group, Red Ignition and School Warehouse. He said the case has since been taken off of the docket, and prosecutors are still working on a witness list and responding to the attorneys' request for discovery.

A grand jury charged the companies with laundering money and fraudulently billing schools for supplies, equipment and services with federal start-up grant funds for charter schools. Times investigation found that similar activity has occurred in Pinellas County, where Newpoint managed five charter schools. …

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Florida education news: Crowding, vouchers, retention and more

CROWDING: Thousands of Florida students could pour into crowded public schools if the courts eventually find tax credit scholarships unconstitutional.

SUPERINTENDENTS: Four of five Hernando School Board members give superintendent Lori Romano a solid evaluation.

TOP STUDENTS: Proflies of "Great Grads" from Plant High, Jesuit High and Newsome High.

NEVER TOO LATE: An Opa-Locka woman completes her high school diploma decades after starting, WSVN reports.

HEALTHY SCHOOLS: The Manatee school district considers opening a walk-in health clinic for employees, the Bradenton Herald reports.

THIRD-GRADE RETENTION: The Manatee school district stands by its position that portfolios may be used only for students who have taken and done poorly on tests, despite actions by other districts, the Bradenton Herald reports.

ON POLITICS: Miami-Dade School Board member Raquel Regalado resigns her seat in advance of her expected run for county mayor, the Miami Herald reports.

MOVING ON: The Ocala Star-Banner continues its chronicle of children in the class of 2020 as they prepare to enter high school. …

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ICYMI: Florida education news, week of May 23, 2016

It's been another busy week in Florida education news. A circuit judge ruled that Florida's education funding model was indeed adequate. Parents in some counties started fighting their districts over third-grade retention decisions. A Pasco school banned a popular young adult novel. State leaders focused on further reducing costs for Florida's university students. And that's just the start. Check out the highlights below, and visit the Gradebook daily for the latest.

Pasco superintendent will not ban challenged novel in all schools, Jeffrey S. Solochek
"A review committee's proposal to remove Stephen Chbosky's novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower from Pasco Middle School will stand, but only for that school, district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe told the Gradebook."
COLUMN: Banning a book is the real obscenity in this case, John Romano …

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Phil Jones steps down as Hillsborough Education Foundation chief

Phil Jones is retiring as president of the Hillsborough Education Foundation


Phil Jones is retiring as president of the Hillsborough Education Foundation

Barnie Philip “Phil” Jones, who led the Hillsborough Education Foundation for three years after a successful career in retail coffee, has retired, the organization announced Friday.

A search committee will seek a new president while senior marketing director Virginia McGrath serves as interim president. 

Jones founded Barnie's Coffee & Tea Shop Inc. in 1980 and later sold it to the Sara Lee company.

He was hired in 2012 at the education foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports the work of the Hillsborough County School District. As president, he is credited for expanding the organization's college scholarship programs and Teaching Tools, a "store" that provides free classroom supplies for teachers in low-income schools. 

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Florida education rules permit portfolios for promotion to fourth grade

Much is being made these days of some Florida school districts that are refusing to promote third graders without a state reading test score -- even if the children are achieving above grade level in class.

Parents argue the test score isn't needed, suggesting that only students with demonstrated reading deficiencies should be subject to the requirements. District officials recite state law to counter the claim, saying the testing rules on social promotion apply equally to all students.

Regardless of that disagreement, nowhere in the state law does it say that a child with a poor score, or no score, must take an alternate test to the Florida Standard Assessment before seeking a portfolio option. In fact, the law offers a portfolio as an equal good cause exemption to an alternate assessment:

3. Students who demonstrate an acceptable level of performance on an alternative standardized reading or English Language Arts assessment approved by the State Board of Education.
4. A student who demonstrates through a student portfolio that he or she is performing at least at Level 2 on the statewide, standardized English Language Arts assessment.

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Florida education news: Turnaround students, geography, home schooling and more

COMEBACK KIDS: Pasco County students find success after overcoming the struggles of family loss, drug use, homelessness and more.

NEXT GENERATION: Pasco's River Ridge High School launches a teaching academy for students interested in the profession.

TOP STUDENTS: Meet Pinellas County's public school valedictorians and salutatorians. • A Williams Middle Magnet School sixth grader wins the national geography bee.

HOME SCHOOLING: The country's largest home-schooling convention will come to Florida, WFTV reports.

THIRD GRADE RETENTION: A Seminole mom says she wants to sue the school district for retaining her third grader who opted out of state testing, WESH reports. More from WKMG, WTSP, Herald-Tribune.

CHARTER SCHOOLS: Duval district officials have no plans to close down charter schools run by the indicted Newpoint Education Partners, the Florida Times-Union reports.

GENDER ISSUES: Gov. Rick Scott gets pressure to join a multi-state lawsuit challenging the Obama administration's position on transgender students and school restrooms, the Palm Beach Post reports.

BAD ACTS: A Highlands teacher is arrested on charges of sexual misconduct with a student, Highlands Today reports. …

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Florida third graders without reading test scores have few options for promotion, state says

Parents in several Florida counties are getting angry as they receive word that their children face another year of third grade, despite their classroom performance.

It's all because the children opted out of the Florida Standards Assessments, and don't want to take a different exam to prove they deserve to move on -- regardless of what state statute requires.

Parents from Manatee and Seminole counties told stories of their high achieving children being told they needed to take an alternate test or provide a portfolio proving their reading mastery to avoid retention. They contend they're being threatened, and suggest their children's report cards, progress reports and other materials should suffice.

That's what is happening in some other districts, they say.

But unlike a year ago, when districts had more flexibility to make promotion decisions because the state had not issued FSA scores, the options are more limited this spring. Department of Education officials told district leaders during a Wednesday conference call that the law is clear: Testing is required, and a score of Level 1 means retention unless a student gains a good cause promotion. It reads, in relevant part: …

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Pasco teacher's discrimination case appears headed to court

A Pasco County teacher is suing the school district in federal court over accusations that she was demoted for wanting to become a mother.

Buffey Simon Leonard first made these allegations in 2012, as she was removed from her assistant principal post at Hudson Middle School. She said her then-principal and assistant superintendent, both of whom no longer hold those posts, took her out of the administration after she asked questions about how her schedule might work if she were to become a parent.

Simon Leonard later was removed from the district's administrative pool, and not accepted when she reapplied.

She filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which did not find in her favor. She next turned to federal court to seek relief.

District officials have attempted to settle this case, discussing it in executive session to review details as recently as March. But Dennis Alfonso, the School Board's attorney, said the sides could not reach agreement.

Lawyers have been taking depositions this week leading up to the anticipated trial. Read the complaint for more details. …

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Florida education news: Vouchers, third-grade retention, maternity leave and more

VOUCHERS: A state audit finds problems in the way student eligibility is determined for Florida personal learning scholarships.

TESTING: Manatee third graders who refuse state testing won't be promoted to fourth grade, the Bradenton Herald reports.

GRADUATION RATES: Orange County leaders cheer the district's rising graduation rate at traditional high schools, a number that differs from state reports, the Orlando Sentinel reports.

VIOLENCE: A student is hospitalized after a stabbing inside a Palm Beach high school restroom, WPEC reports.

CIVIL RIGHTS: The Palm Beach school district faces a federal complaint over accusations it demoted an assistant principal for taking maternity leave, the Palm Beach Post reports. • The arrest of a Brevard School Board candidate for his outburst at a board meeting raises free speech debate, Florida Today reports.

GENDER ISSUES: Lake and Sumter schools will not change their procedures or rules relating to transgender students and bathrooms, the Daily Commercial reports. Florida does not join 11 states challenging the Obama administration's latest directive on the issue, the Orlando Sentinel reports. More from Politico Florida. …

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Union endorses three in Hillsborough School Board races

Alan Clendenin, vice chairman of the Florida Democratic Committee, is running for the Hillsborough County School Board in countywide District 7.

Alan Clendenin, vice chairman of the Florida Democratic Committee, is running for the Hillsborough County School Board in countywide District 7.

The Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association is backing an incumbent, a political leader and a retired administrator in this year's Hillsborough County School Board races.

The union, representing nearly 20,000 district employees including teachers, teaching assistants and school counselors, is endorsing Cindy Stuart, who is running for re-election in north Hillsborough's District 3.

In District 1, which covers west Hillsborough and Town 'N Country, the union is backing Bill Person, a retired administrator who hopes to unseat incumbent Susan Valdes.

In the at-large District 7 race, Alan Clendenin has the union's nod. Clendenin, a former air traffic controller, is a leader in the state Democratic party.

In Central Tampa's District 5, where incumbent Doretha Edgecomb has chosen not to compete, there is no endorsement yet. "We are going to hold additional meetings to get to know District 5 candidates better," said Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, the union's executive director. …

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FEA has no plan to abandon challenge of tax credit scholarships, union president says

A circuit judge's ruling against claims that Florida failed to provide a uniform and high quality public school education had Senate president Andy Gardiner celebrating the affirmation of lawmakers' role, and more.

In a prepared statement, Gardiner proclaimed that the judgment supported "the constitutionality of school choice options that allow tens of thousands of low-income children to attend private schools and provide parents of children with unique abilities the option to choose the educational format best suited to their child's needs."

He added that the judge "specifically rejected claims made by the Plaintiffs by stating that the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship does not divert funds or have any detrimental impact on public schools."

In his own words, the judge wrote:

"The Court has already held that Plaintiffs lack standing to challenge the FTC Program, and the Court further concludes that the weight of the evidence does not support their speculative allegations that the FTC Program diverts state funding or has any material, detrimental effect on Florida's system of public schools. …

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State Sen. Jeff Brandes vows to advocate for endangered Pinellas charter schools

The board overseeing Windsor Preparatory, East Windsor and Newpoint Pinellas Academy, three charter schools that could face termination by the Pinellas County School Board if they don't fix their problems within 90 days, had a special visitor at their Tuesday night meeting.

Florida Senator Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) told parents he would fight to keep the two St. Petersburg schools and one Clearwater middle school open.

"I know you guys have been through quite a lot the last few months. That's probably an understatement," he told parents. "I know you have vision, and I know I'm here tonight to tell you I'm going to be your champion."

Later, Brandes told the Times that he wants to understand the situation between the schools and the district. He invited the schools' board to his Pinellas office and has begun conversations with the district's lawyer and lobbyist.

"Let's do a post-mortem here of what's occurred," he said.

Brandes said he wasn't sure the schools needed him before, like when their now-indicted management company, Newpoint Education Partners, went "AWOL" in March -- although he was in the legislative session in Tallahassee at that time. …

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Pasco superintendent will not ban challenged novel in all schools

A review committee's proposal to remove Stephen Chbosky's novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower from Pasco Middle School will stand, but only for that school, district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe told the Gradebook.

"Their recommendation said remove it from all schools," Cobbe said Wednesday. Superintendent Kurt Browning's "recommendation is to be to remove it from Pasco Middle School. The other schools can keep it."

Four high schools that have the 1999 title took it out of circulation pending the outcome of a challenge at Pasco Middle. Some parents there complained about the book's graphic sexual content, after a long-term substitute teacher assigned it to a seventh-grade advanced language arts class.

Principal Jeff Wolff said no one at the school had read the book before purchasing it, or before assigning it. He agreed with the committee that the book had no place in his school.

Shauna Hutsell, who filed the formal complaint, said she was happy with the committee's decision. But she added that she might appeal to the district if the book remains on school shelves, saying "no other kids should be getting this book." …

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Two Pasco elementary schools swap principals; new leader named to middle school

Pasco County's Connerton and Wesley Chapel elementary schools will trade principals in June, if the School Board approves.

Aimee Mielke, who has led Connerton since 2013, will switch places with John Abernathy, who has run Wesley Chapel since 2007.

Mielke sent a note to her staff on Tuesday with the subject line "I Love You All!" to briefly explain that she sought something new.

"I am excited for this change and believe it will provide a great new start for me, which is what I hoped for," she wrote. "Thank you for three amazing years!"

District spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said that Abernathy also looked for a new challenge after leading his school for nearly a decade.

Paul R. Smith Middle School in Holiday also will get a new principal in June. Joel DiVincent, a supervisor in the district professional development office, will take over the spot. He replaces Susan Seibert, who is leaving the post for personal reasons.

DiVincent has worked for the district since 1996. He was an assistant principal at Chasco Middle School before moving to the district office.

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Florida education news: Sex ed, school funding, Pledge of Allegiance and more

SEX EDUCATION: The Hillsborough school district will survey students about sexual behavior as teen pregnancy rates rise.

CAMPAIGN TRAIL: Incumbent Pinellas School Board member Janet Clark won't seek reelection. * A Brevard School Board candidate is physically removed from a board meeting, Florida Today reports.

AT THE FOUNDATION: Jeb Bush returns to his Florida-based education foundation.

FUNDING: A circuit court judge rules that Florida schools are adequately funded, the AP reports. The plaintiffs will appeal, the Orlando Sentinel reports.

STUDENT DISCIPLINE: Seven students are taken into custody for disorderly conduct after hundreds become unruly at a Broward high school, WSVN reports.

PATRIOTISM: A new Florida law focusing on reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in schools has school leaders talking about student rights, the Orlando Sentinel reports.

MAN ON FIRE: A report details what went wrong when a fire-breather set himself on fire at a Palm Beach school pep rally, WPEC reports.

LABOR NEWS: The Volusia School Board changes employee health insurance benefits, angering teachers union leaders, the Daytona Beach News-Journal reports. …

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