Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Federal court give partial go-ahead to Florida teacher lawsuit over merit pay, evaluations

A federal judge has ruled that parts of a lawsuit challenging Florida's teacher evaluation and pay law (SB 736) may move forward, while dismissing other parts of the challenge to the three-year-old law.

The lawsuit, filed by teachers in Hernando, Alachua and Escambia counties, questions the constitutionality of evaluating teachers using test results of children they did not instruct.

In the ruling, Judge Mark E. Walker said the teachers' challenge of the law would be dismissed, but their challenge of the resulting policies could be heard:

"The Motion to Dismiss consistently defends the Act as having a rational basis— which it does — but does not discuss how or why the policies are rational except in the most general and conclusory terms. ... In fact, the Motion to Dismiss seems to treat the Act and policies as one creature for purposes of the rational basis analysis, ignoring the fact that they are separate legislative actions, and that it is entirely possible that the policies could flunk rational basis review despite the Act passing muster under that standard." …

Full Story

Fired Hillsborough maintenance worker to settle for $5,000

A federal lawsuit that alleged politics got a school maintenance worker fired is all but resolved.

The Hillsborough County School will pay George Olmo $5,000, pending approval by the School Board Tuesday.

Olmo, 56, was fired in 2012 for giving out petitions in the Leto High School cafeteria to place board member Susan Valdes on the ballot for re-election. He sued in 2013.

While Olmo said Valdes was not yet a candidate at the time and he did not know he was breaking a rule, the district said the longtime employee, who was active in the service workers union, should have known. And while Olmo alleged the problem was that Valdes is a critic of Superintendent MaryEllen Elia, the district said it always enforces its policy against engaging in campaign activities at the workplace. What's more, district officials said, employees are reminded of the policy every election season.

Olmo said Wednesday that he is now retired and could no longer afford to pursue the lawsuit. "I just want this thing to get over with so I can move on," he said. "This is like the big fish going after the little fish." …

Full Story

Woman sues Pinellas administrators over bullying

A Pinellas County Schools principal and two high-level administrators are being sued by the guardian of a student over bullying at a bus stop.

Highland Lakes Elementary Principal Tijuana Baker is named along with Bill Lawrence, the district's director of student assignment, and area superintendent Ward Kennedy in the suit filed last week.

Joyce Loveless claims that her son or grandson (it is not clear what the relation is from the suit) was bullied and sexually harassed by fellow students beginning last May. Loveless says she reported the problem to Highland Lakes and the district, but it was never addressed.

Full Story

Closing Pasco charter school calls emergency meeting

The board of directors for Florida Autism Center of Excellence-Pasco has called an emergency meeting for Thursday evening.

The session comes a week after the board voted to shut down the school, which opened in fall 2013, amid concerns over low enrollment and poor finances.

Parents with children in the school have said they want to keep the school open, and have asked for the chance to find resources to keep it running even as the management company pulls out. Some are hopeful that this meeting might bring some good news.

The board agenda has not been released publicly, so it's hard to know what's in store. The meeting is scheduled for 5 p.m. Thursday at 6400 E. Chelsea St. in Tampa, and some parents plan to attend and speak.

Full Story

Florida schools given okay to restart FCAT testing

Server problems that hampered Florida's computerized FCAT testing on Tuesday appear to be resolved, as education commissioner Pam Stewart told superintendents early Wednesday they were cleared to resume the exam.

In a memo sent just after 7 a.m., Stewart announced that overnight fixes had been put in place to avoid another day of slowdowns and delays for students taking their FCAT online. More than two dozen districts had to stop computerized testing on Tuesday because of problems with the servers run by test company Pearson.

"The department has been working with Pearson throughout the night and this morning on the issues that affected online testing in Florida yesterday. Pearson has put into place a mitigation strategy that includes redundancy in access to its production servers," Stewart wrote.  …

Full Story

Florida education news: Charter schools, vouchers, testing and more

IN THE LEGISLATURE: The Florida House passes a measure that would limit school district control over charter schools. • Senators revive a proposal to expand student vouchers, but stall an effort to give illegal immigrants in-state tuition. More on vouchers from Education Week.

TESTING TROUBLES: Statewide glitches with the computerized FCAT revives concerns that schools aren't ready for all-digital assessments. More from the Miami Herald, Sun-Sentinel.

POWER PLAY: Florida lawmakers should stop playing politics with programs at Florida's universities, the Times editorializes.

ARRESTED: A Pasco after-school program administrator is arrested on charges of possessing child pornography.

PADDLING: The Marion School Board bans corporal punishment of students one year after adding it back to the code of conduct, the Ocala Star-Banner reports.

CURRICULUM CHOICES: The Orange school district buys its new Common Core curriculum, while other districts write their own, Education Week reports.

BUDGET CUTS: Brevard leaders reconsider proposed cuts of art, music and media teachers amid parent complaints, Florida Today reports. …

Full Story

Bus employees speak out in Hillsborough

Three town hall meetings have been held so far in Hillsborough County to address transportation issues in the public schools.

School Board member Susan Valdes hosted the first one in Town 'N Country. Guests could talk about transportation or any other issues that concerned them. April Griffin hosted the second one in Valrico, which was focused more specifically on transportation. Griffin and Candy Olson co-moderated the third meeting in Apollo Beach, with Cindy Stuart attending the second and third. A fourth is planned April 28 at the Beulah Baptist Church in West Tampa.

So what’s being said? …

Full Story

Florida education commissioner blasts Pearson, will seek damages

Florida education commissioner Pam Stewart has fired off an angry letter to Pearson head of state services Walter Sherwood over the company's latest problems administering the FCAT exams.

Stewart blamed the company for computer troubles that prompted school districts across the state to suspend testing, and criticized the firm for downplaying the situation as "frustrating" on its online status website.

"This failure is inexcusable," Stewart wrote in a letter to Walter Sherwood, president of Pearson's State Services division. "Florida's students and teachers work too hard on learning to be distracted by these needless and avoidable technological issues. I expect a resolution and an explanation for this immediately. I also intend to pursue all liquidated damages and other remedies that may be available as a result of Pearson's failure to fulfill its duty under the contract with the department."

See Stewart's letter here. Read our developing story for more details.


Pearson issued the following statement about Florida's testing troubles: …

Full Story

Headhunter firm contacts Pasco superintendent again

For the second time in six months, the Iowa-based search firm Ray and Associates has reached out to Pasco schools superintendent Kurt Browning, asking him to consider a superintendency elsewhere.

This time, the group has invited Browning to apply for the top job in the Jefferson County, Colorado, school system, just outside Denver. That district is slightly larger than Pasco, but pays its superintendent about double what Browning earns.

Six months ago, Ray asked Browning to look into the superintendent position for Baltimore, Md., city schools.

Browning has become an outspoken leader among Florida's superintendents, tackling issues such as dual enrollment fees and often advising state lawmakers. He has shown no interest in leaving Pasco County, suggesting instead he's likely to seek reelection to his current post in 2016. He did not know how his name got onto Ray and Associates' headhunter list.

Full Story

Pasco schools suspend FCAT testing amid computer problems

The Pasco County school district has advised its schools to suspend FCAT testing Tuesday morning because of computer issues.

"Kids are having troubles signing in," district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe explained, saying the issue is affecting fifth grade math, and seventh and ninth grade reading.

In a memo to principals, accountability and measurement director Peggy Jones said other districts, including Leon, Seminole and Brevard appeared to be having similar difficulties. "We are not certain if this is Pearson-based (or) the Internet provider. We will continue to work on a resolution and will notify you."

Florida Department of Education spokesman Joe Follick said he did not have any information that the issue was affecting all schools statewide. He said he would investigate and provide more details as they become available.

UPDATE: The FLDOE has confirmed this problem is with testing company Pearson's "hosting providers." Not all districts are affected. This is not the first time that schools have experienced server problems during state testing. In 2011, for instance, schools lost access to Pearson's server during the algebra end-of-course exam. …

Full Story

Florida education news: In-state tuition, VAM scores, dog therapy and more

POLITICAL MANEUVERS: State Sen. Jack Latvala offers amendments to four separate bills in an effort to keep alive the idea of in-state tuition for illegal immigrant residents. • A group of students lobbies Senate president Don Gaetz to let the tuition bill be heard, WFSU reports.

SUING THE BOSS: Hernando principal Tim Urban files suit against superintendent Lori Romano, accusing her of libel and invasion of privacy.

EVALUATIONS: A central Florida teacher calls the state's value-added model "slanderous and humiliating," WKMG 6 reports.

ON THE AIR: Eastern Florida State College launches a new ad campaign to lure students as it debuts several four-year degrees, Florida Today reports.

CHARTER SCHOOLS: House Republicans stave off Democrat efforts to kill a charter school expansion bill, the Palm Beach Post reports. More from the Florida Current.

ADVICE: Miami-Dade superintendent Alberto Carvalho offers education insights to Flagler school leaders, the Palm Coast Observer reports.

DOG THERAPY: Broward College students spend time between exams relaxing with Humane Society dogs that are available for adoption, the Sun-Sentinel reports. …

Full Story

Voucher bill resurfaces

The immigrant tuition bill isn't the only bill that will get a second chance in Tuesday's Senate Appropriations Committee meeting.

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, has filed an amendment to SB 1512 that would put the controversial school voucher proposal back in play. 

Galvano's amendment is not the expansion of the Tax Credit Scholarship program that leaders in the House and Senate once sought. It would not increase the cap on the tax credits available to businesses that fund the scholarships, or create partial scholarships for children from higher-income families. It would, however, open up the program to more foster children, and increase the amount of the scholarship slightly in 2016-17.

The new Galvano language also deals with accountability. One provision seeks to establish a Learning System Institute at Florida State University to conduct annual reports on student performance and year-to-year learning gains.

The amendment does not require scholarship students to take the state exams or something similar, as Senate President Don Gaetz has demanded. Still, Galvano said Gaetz considers the proposed changes "a step in the right direction." …

Full Story

Pasco student musician jams district elevator

The Pasco County school district main office has undergone a face lift in recent weeks, receiving new flooring, lighting and a paint job. New student photos also have gone up, including on the lobby elevator doors.

Mitchell High saxophonist Kyle Schroeder is featured on the door on the left. He found it so cool that he created a little elevator music to celebrate. Check it out below.

Full Story

Pasco eSchool seeks summer enrollments as graduation rules change

Starting with next year's seniors, all Florida high school students will have to complete at least one online course to graduate.

With new state funding rules in place, local school districts don't want to lose those students to Florida Virtual School.

The Pasco County school district aims to meet both pieces of the puzzle, by contacting parents of students who have yet to meet the requirement and letting them know that Pasco eSchool is there for them.

"Completion of a course that is a semester in length will allow your student to meet this requirement," states a letter from principals to families. "Currently, Pasco eSchool offers ... semester courses that could be completed within a two to sixteen week timeframe. These courses are fully accredited, and supported by highly-qualified Pasco County teachers."

Courses recommended for summer include Creative Writing I and II, Reading for College Success, Personal Fitness, Outdoor Education, US Government, Anthropology, Economics and Sociology. With summer school limited, online courses are one of the only ways for students who aren't struggling to earn graduation credits during the long break.

Full Story

FAMU prez Mangum questions feasibility of FSU engineering split

From today's paper, a story about the potential political fallout for Gov. Rick Scott and others if the proposed separation of the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering is approved:

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, has not said whether he will support the split. In the past, he has defended the autonomy of the Board of Governors, which oversees the 12 state universities.

The board was taken by surprise when Sen. John Thrasher's proposal became public April 2.

A group of about 30 FAMU students made the rounds in the Capitol one recent afternoon, stopping to meet with Senate budget chief Joe Negron, Weatherford's chief of staff Kathy Mears and others to voice their opposition.

FAMU president Elmira Mangum believes there is no need for two engineering schools, but if the decision is made, she will seek resources so her university can keep its program strong.

What's needed is to "do the appropriate evaluation and have the appropriate collaborative discussions that would enable the state to make a wise decision," Mangum said. "And I think that wise decision would be that the state cannot afford to have two separate engineering programs."

Read more here.

Full Story