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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

National Hindu leader speaks on Marion School Board race

With days to go before the vote, Marion County's School Board chairman has apologized to his election opponent and ordered the removal of a "Hindu Jane" website that challenged her trustworthiness and questioned her religion.

The Ocala Star-Banner reports that board chairman Bobby James accepted full responsibility for the site, which he did not create, and said he was sorry if it offended anyone.

That it certainly did.

Rajan Zed, president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, took time during comments in Nevada to criticize the unnecessary dragging of religion into the election. According to a report posted on Oye Times and other web sites, "Distinguished Hindu statesman Rajan Zed, in a statement in Nevada today, stressed that religion was something very personal and should not be an issue in a school board election and should not affect how a board member determined the policies of the school system." …

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United School Employees of Pasco fires back over superintendent's email to staff

Pasco school superintendent Kurt Browning's Thursday evening email to all staff didn't impress United School Employees of Pasco leaders one bit. They saw it as little more than district spin on ongoing contract negotiations, which find the two sides far apart on several issues.

"He's trying to force us into agreeing with what they've got out there," USEP president Kenny Blankenship said, noting how unusual it is for a superintendent to reach out to employees to tout the district's contract offer. "The biggest problem I have is, he's not telling the whole story."

Aiming to turn the tide in the other direction, the USEP sent out an early Friday morning missive urging members, "Don't fall for the superintendent's trick on Halloween." It reads:

Last night the Superintendent came trick-or-treating at your door in the form of an email.

At first it seems like you're offered a treat, but really what you're left with is a trick. Like a child who has done something wrong and runs to be the first to tell his side, the Superintendent did something similar last night when issuing a premature statement about bargaining with USEP. …

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Florida education news: First day of school, crowding, security and more

START DATES: Pasco district officials call for a change to Florida's school start date law after it interferes with the district's 2015-16 calendar plans.

CROWDING: Pasco Wiregrass Ranch High leaders press forward with plans to move the school to 10-period days.

BE PREPARED: The Hillsborough school district should have more leaders from diverse backgrounds ready to step forward when current top officials retire, the Times editorializes.

SCHOOL SECURITY: The Manatee school district ends its contract with a security firm that put armed guards in every elementary school, the Bradenton Herald reports.

TESTING: Broward superintendent Robert Runcie announces plans to refocus academic efforts away from an over-reliance on testing, the Miami Herald reports. More from the Sun-Sentinel, State Impact Florida 

COLLEGE READINESS: Some Lee district officials say their students' declining SAT scores reflect a larger pool of test takers, the Fort Myers News-Press reports.

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Pasco district offers 3 percent raises, sends message to explain to employees

Pasco County teacher contract negotiations continued Thursday evening, with the back and forth over raises still a hot topic. The United School Employees of Pasco opened the conversation a few weeks back asking for 5 percent, and the district initially countered at 1.5 percent.

On Thursday, the district offered 3 percent, with the provision that its local early retirement benefit — not to be confused with the state DROP program — be ended for new participants. The USEP has yet to respond, but it has not sounded positive about killing the retirement plan to this point.

After the end of bargaining, superintendent Kurt Browning sent a letter to all district employees, offering his perspective on how talks have gone and explaining the district's financial package. The union generally issues its updates to members the day after negotiations. …

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Satanic Temple submits materials for Orange County students

It almost seemed a stunt when the Satanic Temple announced its plans in September to distribute materials to Orange County public school students.

The group made its play shortly after an atheist organization won permission to hand out pamphlets, and appeared to just be making a point: What's good for one is good for all.

But the temple is following through, with a coloring book and fact sheets. The Orlando Sentinel reports:

"The coloring book features cartoon children performing Satanic rituals and drawing pentragrams in school, along with a word search for words like 'acceptance' and 'friends'and a maze to reach the Necronmicon, a fabled occult spellbook. The children in the book wear Satanic symbols on their shirts and spread anti-bullying and religious tolerance messages. A coloring page features a girl reading in a study filled with Satanic art, books and symbols. A connect-the-dots sheet creates a pentagram.

"District counsel Woody Rodriguez said legal staff would review the materials, as it did for a previous atheist group that distributed some materials to Orange students. There is no set timeline for a decision." …

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Pasco schools plan for split first semester, call for change to Florida law

Pasco County school leaders don't like the idea of continuing the first semester of classes after winter vacation. They much prefer giving semester exams, closing down for two weeks and then returning to a fresh start.

That's not possible for the 2015-16 academic year, though. State law forbids it.

Back in 2006, lawmakers mandated that school districts not start school any earlier than two weeks before Labor Day. With Labor Day falling on Sept. 7 in 2015, that means classes can't begin until the last week of August. To meet the minimum number of hours required for a semester, Pasco has scheduled its first semester to end two weeks into 2016. (See the proposed calendar here.)

Officials aren't happy about it. And they're asking lawmakers to consider tweaking the law, so it isn't tied specifically to Labor Day. Their suggestion: Say schools can't start earlier than the third week of August.

Some in the local delegation are supportive. "I am not opposed to giving school boards latitude to do something like that," said Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby.

Read the full story here.

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Palm Beach schools reduce local testing

While Florida school districts urge state leaders to curtail high-stakes testing, several of them also are taking steps locally to ease the load. The Palm Beach district is the latest.

In a memo to staff and board members, Palm Beach superintendent Wayne Gent on Wednesday announced he would suspend 11 winter diagnostic tests and all remaining middle school nine-week exams, while offering teachers flexibility on the use of local performance assessments. He wrote:

Due to the increased demands required for schools and teachers to implement the new Florida Standards and concerns to protect instructional time, a review of the FY15 assessment schedule for the purpose of providing additional time for teaching and learning was conducted.  District staff and elementary, middle and high school principals provided input.

The following recommendations will be implemented, which will reduce the number of assessments, increase instructional time, and allow the District to meet all state and federal requirements. …

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Florida education news: Hunger, contracts, campaigns and more

HUNGRY STUDENTS: Pasco schools create food pantries to help students make it through the weekends.

CONTRACTS: The Miami-Dade school district explores whether minority- and woman-owned businesses get their fair share of contracts from the system, the Miami Herald reports.

CAMPAIGNS: Palm Beach police investigate a Brevard School Board candidate's complaint about campaign signs, Florida Today reports. • A Marion School Board candidate attacks his opponent with reference to religion, which prompts a round of criticism, the Ocala Star-Banner reports.

TOP MARKS: The Volusia School Board gives long-time superintendent Margaret Smith another strong evaluation, the Daytona Beach News-Journal reports.

LOOKING AHEAD: A Flagler elementary school launches a new STEM lab to help children prepare for jobs of the future, the Daytona Beach News-Journal reports.

TESTING: The Palm Beach district eliminates about a dozen local tests, the Palm Beach Post reports. • Broward superintendent Robert Runcie plans to speak out against the state's testing system, the Sun-Sentinel reports. …

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Elia is up for national award

Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia is a finalist in the Women in School Leadership award, the American Association of School Administrators announced this week. The award recognizes active, front-line female administrators who are making a difference in the lives of public school students. Also in the running in Elia's category is  Karen Cheser, deputy superintendent, chief academic officer, Boone County Schools, Florence, Ky. The winner will be announced in February.

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Florida PTA seeks more insights on Scott, Crist education positions

Both Rick Scott and Charlie Crist have made education a key issue in their campaigns for Florida governor. Amid all the accusations and counterclaims, the Florida PTA sought information that went unanswered in recent televised debates.

It put out its questions, and the candidates' answers, online today. Here's a sample.

Other than funding, what is your top priority issue(s) regarding early childhood development and K-12 education?  

Governor Scott - In addition to continuing to fight for historic funding levels for school readiness, public schools, state colleges and state universities Governor Scott will pursue additional strategies to increase the quality of our early childhood development programs.  Access for early child development programs, which is in large part tied to funding will also be a priority. …

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AFT heads to Broward County to tackle testing issues

Less than a week before Election Day, the American Federation of Teachers heads to Broward County on Thursday to enter Florida's growing anti-testing debate -- and to try to plaster it to Republican Gov. Rick Scott.

AFT president Randi Weingarten plans an early morning event in Fort Lauderdale, alongside Broward Teachers Union presidnet Sharon Glickman and Broward superintendent Robert Runcie, to talk about the importance of "teaching and learning, not testing and punishing." In a new ad, available on YouTube, the union makes clear its view that Scott bears responsibility for the testing regime that so many school districts and parent groups have decried, Polk being the latest.

"Where does all this testing come from?" the announcer asks, as the frame fills with Scott's image. "A wave of new tests was mandated by the first bill Rick Scott signed as governor."

Scott has called upon education commissioner Pam Stewart to conduct a "thorough investigation of all standardized tests." To date, Stewart has not released any infomation about that review. Some lawmakers have suggested they might file bills aiming to reduce student testing, a process some districts have already begun locally.  

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Florida gets high marks in ALEC education report co-written by Bush adviser

Critics of Florida's education accountability and reform model long have decried the state's adherence to policies promoted by ALEC, a conservative group that has supported such things as tying teacher pay to student test results.

They might not be surprised to see ALEC's latest Report Card on Education, which rates Florida second among all states for its education policies and tenth for education performance.

ALEC takes into consideration six primary areas in its rankings: state academic standards, charter school laws, home school regulations, private school choice programs, overall teacher quality and policies, and digital learning opportunities. And it gives Florida high marks for its NAEP results, McKay scholarship program and improved charter school laws, among other things. It particularly likes Florida's school grading program, since adopted by so many other states. …

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Florida education news: Testing, equal rights, paddling and more

REHIRED: The Hillsborough School Board rehires a retired assistant superintendent as a private contractor, raising questions about the administration's employment practices.

TESTING: Alachua parents and teachers rally against Florida's standardized testing system, the Gainesville Sun reports.

EQUAL RIGHTS: A Brevard teacher asks his School Board to recognize his same-sex marriage and allow his spouse to share his benefits, Florida Today reports.

CHURCH AND STATE: A Collier high school chorus has its fall concert abruptly canceled amid complaints it was to be held in a church, the Naples Daily News reports.

SPECIAL EDUCATION: Polk students with disabilities learn they must pursue a standard high school diploma regardless of their future plans, the Ledger reports.

STUDENT DISCIPLINE: The Bay School Board removes corporal punishment from its discipline policy, the Panama City News Herald reports.

LABOR NEWS: Monroe contract negotiations near agreement without much of the discord that marred last year's sessions, the Keynoter reports.

RECOGNIZING ACADEMICS: An Orange high school rewards students with top marks in the same way it acknowledges its top athletes, the Orlando Sentinel reports. …

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Hillsborough board is meeting

It's a lively meeting of the Hillsborough County School Board. We are livetweeting.

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New principal named at McDonald Elementary

Jessica Hessler is the new principal of McDonald Elementary School

Hillsborough County School District

Jessica Hessler is the new principal of McDonald Elementary School

Jessica Hessler is the new principal of McDonald Elementary School. She last worked as assistant principal of Mango Elementary. The Hillsborough County School Board approved her appointment at its meeting Tuesday.

Hessler, 35, joined the district in 2002 as a teacher at Pizzo Elementary. 

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