Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Weatherford: Involve BOG in FAMU-FSU engineering discussions

Budget talks surrounding a Senate proposal to divide the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering should involve the state Board of Governors, House Speaker Will Weatherford said. The House has yet to agree to include money in the final budget for the split, and the decision may ultimately rest with Weatherford himself.

"I would say that both (Florida State University) and (Florida A&M University) have very good points to be made," Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said. "I would also say that the Board of Governors has  a role to play in this conversation. I don’t think the Florida House is in a rush to do anything."

Weatherford's brother played football at FSU and his father-in-law is chairman of the school's Board of Trustees. But the House speaker has not indicated whether he will ultimately side with FSU supporters in granting the request from powerful Sen. John Thrasher to give FSU $13 million to begin establishing its own engineering program separate from FAMU.

Weatherford noted the oversight role of the state Board of Governors and said its wishes should be considered as budget talks continue. …

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Pop-Tart bill wins support in Florida Senate

The 'Pop-Tart' gun bill is headed to the desk of Gov. Rick Scott. 

Florida senators approved the NRA-supported proposal in a 32-6 vote Thursday.

There was virtually no debate, besides Sen. Jack Latvala asking what exactly HB 7029 would do.

The Senate sponsor, Sen. Greg Evers, had a simple reply: It would prevent situations "where you chew a Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun and you are expelled" from school.

The situation actually happened in Maryland. It inspired the bill in Florida.

More broadly, the proposal would prevent schools from disciplining students who play with simulated weapons. It passed in the House by a 98-17 vote last month.

The Senate discussed the proposal some on Wednesday.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, asked how many incidents had been reported in Florida.

Evers said it had happened in his North Florida district within the last three months.

"Two kids were sitting down reading a book and there was a picture of a Wild Wild West show and one person has a gun," he said. "One student tells another student that he's got a cap gun at home that's the same as the one in the picture. The teacher sent him to the principal and he was expelled." …

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A fourth town hall meeting to discuss Hillsborough's school bus system

As the Hillsborough County school district continues to address problems in its transportation department, people with concerns have another opportunity to speak out.

A fourth town hall meeting is scheduled Monday, starting 6 p.m. at the Beulah Baptist Church, 1006 Cypress Street in West Tampa.

The forum is open to employees, parents and anyone else who wishes to discuss the issues with School Board members. Nearly 100 people, mostly bus drivers, have spoken at the first three meetings, and Gradebook posted this account of what they said.

Also, as promised in a previous post, here is the transcribed interview with four trainers in the transportation department who brought their concerns to board member April Griffin earlier this year.

Expect transportation to be a hot topic at Tuesday's 3 p.m. board meeting. Among other things, the district must now replace general manager John Franklin, who resigned this week after seven years on the job.

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Middleton shuttle bus gets steady use

An update to the article we posted yesterday about the Middleton High School shuttle bus: The numbers are in and they show the bus is being used.

Between 13 and 18 students have ridden the shuttle every morning and afternoon since the service started Monday. The Hillsborough County school district is experimenting with the shuttle from the Meridian Pointe apartments across busy Hillsborough Avenue to provide students an alternative to walking - or sometimes dashing - across the six-lane road. An estimated 24 Middleton students live at the complex. Efforts to address commuter safety there have been intense since the death last month of student Norma Velasquez-Cabrera.

Similar shuttles might be rolled out next year in areas that are considered dangerous.


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Performance funding for state universities divides the Legislature

UPDATE: A spokesman for House Speaker Will Weatherford said the House proposal for performance funding found in House Bill 5105 stalled in its final committee stop and is effectively dead. The House will not waive its rules to resurrect the proposal, even though the legislation started out on solid ground as a bill introduced by the Higher Education and Workforce Subcommittee.

Instead, the House inserted language in its version of the budget that is very similar to the Senate proposal and embraces the Board of Governors' performance funding criteria.

As it stands, the main disagreement between the two chambers is how much the lowest-performance schools would lose. The House would only require a 1 percent cut in base formula. The Senate wants a 3.7 percent reduction.

The two chambers agree to put $200 million into performance funding, including $100 million in new funding that would be divided by the top-performing schools. There is also an additional $5 million each for the two pre-eminent institutions: Florida State University and University of Florida. …

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Armwood's bill heads for final vote

Sex offenses at school would get higher penalties under pending legislation by a group of Armwood High School students.

The “Sexual Misconduct with Students by Authority Figures” bill passed the Florida House of Representatives and the Senate Appropriations committee this week. It goes to the Senate next week. Four Armwood students will go to Tallahassee to see the final vote, according to the Hillsborough County school district.

The students drafted the bill under the annual Ought to Be a Law program. If signed into law, it would be the third such law to originate in Hillsborough school.

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Florida teachers union president urges Gov. Scott to lead on testing after statewide problems

Computer problems with this week's FCAT administration have prompted Florida Education Association president Andy Ford to call for a new direction on testing from leadership in Tallahassee.

In a letter to Gov. Rick Scott, House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz, Ford expressed his "growing alarm ... frustration and despair" over the issues that led more than two dozen districts to suspend testing on Tuesday.

"Because of Florida's ill-advised reliance on a high-stakes test, this technology collapse is not simply an unfortunate occurrence of small importance," Ford wrote, noting the impact the tests have on students, parents, teachers and schools. ""Simply extracting fines and assurances from a vendor does not address the real problem -- the underlying policy that permits so much to be riding on the administration of a single test."

He urges the leaders to advocate for a variety of steps to address parent, teacher and student needs. These include creating a full technology approach for schools, requiring that Florida's tests be fully tested, and giving teachers more time to prepare for new tests before tying the results to evaluations.

Read Ford's letter here.

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Another day, another FCAT problem for Pasco schools

Pasco County schools were forced to suspend computerized FCAT testing for three hours Thurday, as schools struggled with spotty internet connectivity.

District officials told principals to delay the testing just after 10 a.m., and even got state permission for students who had seen test content to leave the room without finishing the exam. They alerted schools that the problems had been fixed around 1 p.m., and said students could return to testing if there was enough time.

Most middle and high schools end before 2 p.m.

Pasco also had to stop testing on Tuesday, because of server woes with testing company Pearson Education. The state has authorized Pasco County to extend its testing window because of these problems.

Read more here.

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FSU students, faculty say next president should be an academic

Sen. John Trasher's name may not be mentioned, but he's clearly on the minds of Florida State University stakeholders as the presidential search unfolds.  Several people made comments during Wednesday's search committee meeting that indicated they would not want a politician like Thrasher as the university's next president. However, the firm hired to screen candidates has insisted that a wide net be cast and no potential candidates be discouraged from applying.>

Here is more from the FSView and Florida Flambeau:

Despite strong calls from university faculty, students and administrators to choose an academic as Florida State University’s next president, the search firm tasked with recruiting candidates for the position will not limit the pool of presidential hopefuls to those with backgrounds in higher education, the firm’s president told the university’s Presidential Search Committee Wednesday. …

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Florida education news: Selfies, shuttles, Mountain Dew and more

JUST KEEP WALKING: The University of South Florida warns this year's graduates not to stop for selfies onstage when receiving their diplomas.

'A LOT SAFER': A new shuttle between Meridian Pointe apartments and Middleton High gives students a sense of security.

RESIGNATION: The head of Hillsborough school transportation resigns amid mounting criticism of his department. The department needs a fresh start, the Times editorializes.

EXPLAIN YOURSELF: Pinellas superintendent Mike Grego needed to do a better job communicating changes to special education programs, the Times editorializes.

NO MORE DEW: A Brevard elementary school stops serving students Mountain Dew before FCAT testing after parents complain, Florida Today reports.

'TERRIBLE DIRECTION': The Palm Beach School Board refuses to create a parent dress code, calling it a bad idea, the Sun-Sentinel reports.

ANIMAL FARM: Okaloosa officials try to determine how a high school veterinary tech program wound up having so many animals on campus, the Northwest Florida Daily News reports. …

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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." …

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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." …

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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.

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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.

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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.  …

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