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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Florida education news: Testing opt-out, voucher lawsuit, school prayer and more

TESTING DEBATE: Lee County's vote to opt out of state testing prompts leaders in other districts to consider whether it's a good — or legal — move. • The Palm Beach School Board has opting out on its radar screen, the Sun-Sentinel reports. Gov. Rick Scott warns the move could have serious negative consequences, the AP reports. • More from the Naples Daily News, Fort Myers News-Press. • See also the varied local opinions on the Lee move in the News-Press editorial section.

VOUCHERS: The Florida teachers union, school boards association, PTA and other groups challenge the constitutionality of the state's voucher law.

EXTRA HELP: Pasco high schools create a new program aimed at helping incoming ninth graders who are missing a couple of middle school course requirements.

TAXES: Backers of a proposal to extend Hernando's local sales tax for school capital projects prepare to begin campaigning.

CHURCH AND STATE: A Lee virtual school third grader says she wants prayers removed from her online lessons, NBC-2 reports. • A local pastor says Orange County's ban on chaplains at high school football games won't change the way he mentors students, the Orlando Sentinel reports. …

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On the Hillsborough School Board campaign trail

Sally Harris, a candidate in District 2, wants Michael Weston's supporters. But she doesn't want to accuse her opponent of allowing special-needs children to die.


Sally Harris, a candidate in District 2, wants Michael Weston's supporters. But she doesn't want to accuse her opponent of allowing special-needs children to die.

The votes in School Board District 2 that didn't go to Michelle Shimberg were divided almost evenly between Sally Harris, a preschool owner; and Michael Weston, a former teacher who never minces words when he's upset at the district.

Harris squeaked through to the runoff and thought it would be a good idea to ask Weston for his support. Sure thing, Weston said, who asked his voters to back Harris in the Nov. 4 general election.

What happened next surprised the 64-year-old Harris.

On his campaign Facebook page, which now features Harris's profile picture instead of his own, Weston penned a side-by-side comparison of Harris and Shimberg.

“Sally supports teachers; Shimberg supports Bill Gates,” Weston wrote.

Then: “Sally supports special needs; Shimberg supports status-quo - the status-quo that has killed special needs students in your District!”

Does Harris stand behind those words?

“I've already called him and asked him to soften that statement on my behalf,” she said Thursday. “That statement is pretty dangerous is a good way to put it. Our system does a fabulous job with special children but we have room to grow.”  

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School voucher lawsuit sparks debate

Photo (46) Photo (45)

There were no surprises at a pair of Thursday press conferences addressing the legal challenge to the school voucher program.

The first press conference was held by the plaintiffs: the state teachers union, the school boards association, the school administrators association, the PTA, the Florida League of Women Voters, and the Florida Conference of the NAACP, among others.

In her opening remarks, Florida Education Association Vice President Joanne McCall referenced the 2006 state Supreme Court ruling that declared the Florida's original school voucher program unconstitutional.

"Since that time, the Florida Legislature has gone down the path of making more voucher programs, in spite of the fact that the court said it was unconstitutional," McCall said. "The Florida Legislature is not above the courts. It is not above the constitution."

Later, school choice supporters gathered outside the union headquarters in Tallahassee to make the case for the keeping the program, also known as the Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

The crowd included parents, about 50 schoolchildren from Leon County, and a handful of pastors from around the state. …

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Billiris paid her property taxes

Beverley Billiris, a candidate for the Pinellas County School Board and former mayor of Tarpon Springs, has paid her property taxes.

Billiris, 66, and her husband, George, 87, owed $6,990 in unpaid taxes from 2013 on their home and commercial property, both in Tarpon Springs. The couple fell behind on their taxes, she said, because of an illness in the family. The Times wrote about the unpaid taxes earlier this month. Billiris said then that the taxes would be paid within a month. She paid them on Aug. 19, according to the property tax collector.

Billiris is running for the District 4 seat, which includes Tarpon Springs, Palm Harbor and parts of Clearwater. She faces Ken Peluso, a retired chiropractor and former chairman of the Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas, in a run-off race in November. Peluso and Billiris beat a third candidate, John Nygren, in Tuesday's primary, with Peluso capturing the largest number of votes.

The non-partisan seat opened up after Robin Wikle unexpectedly announced in February that she would resign in the middle of her term.  …

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Still no pay proposal in Pasco school contract negotiations

With employees back to work nearly a month, the Pasco County school district had hoped to have pay and benefit terms close to closure by now.

Instead, the first proposal has yet to hit the negotiating table. 

Small details have emerged, such as the district's intention to give raises -- although the level has shrunk from 2 percent to 1 percent. The United School Employees of Pasco has talked about increasing wages for teachers who substitute in their colleagues' classrooms.

But the whole package hasn't come.

Usually, the USEP makes the first offer. It has said it will do so again this year. But this week's talks came and went without a proposal, and the next bargaining session is not scheduled until Sept. 11.

"The superintendent is very concerned about when we will be able to put raises in the pockets of employees," district employee relations director Betsy Kuhn said.

She said the district will wait for the USEP to start the conversation. …

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On the Hillsborough school board campaign trail

Dipa Shah doesn't know who sent this mailer out and doesn't intend to investigate until after the Nov. 4 election. She said she prefers to focus on the campaign.

Dipa Shah doesn't know who sent this mailer out and doesn't intend to investigate until after the Nov. 4 election. She said she prefers to focus on the campaign.

Six candidates remain in three races to serve on the Hillsborough County School Board. Over the coming months Gradebook and Bay Buzz will follow some of the twists and turns in their campaigns.

Starting with: The hate mailer.

As we reported earlier, someone sent out a highly inflammatory postcard that accused Dipa Shah (candidate for countywide District 6) of wanting to “indoctrinate our children” into a liberal agenda espoused by “Latinos, Indians, African Americans, Muslims,... Hindus, Gay & Lesbian.”

So if that isn't bizarre enough, consider the response from the Shah campaign.

First campaign manager Mark Proctor sent copies out to the media. Shah did not return phone calls when reporters tried to get a response. Then Proctor called a news conference to discuss the mailers. But when the reporters arrived, Shah essentially said she wanted to move on and focus on her vision for a better school board.

Was this a case of bait and switch? Did Proctor and Shah turn lemons into lemonade?

Here's how they explained their actions on Thursday. …

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Can they do that? FSBA document raises concerns about opting out of state testing

The Lee County School Board's surprise vote late Tuesday to drop state testing generated cheers from high-stakes testing opponents across Florida.

But this move, the first in the state and possibly the nation, comes with a vast potential downside. The Florida School Boards Association notes the problems that could arise in a document it will discuss at its Sept. 5 board of directors meeting. Among them:

- Students cannot complete graduation requirements

- High school and middle grade students may not be able to obtain credit for completion of courses which require that 30% of their grade be based on the student's performance on the end of course test

- The school district would not be able to comply with provisions of Florida Statute concerning the evaluation of instructional personnel and school administrators.

- Failure to participate in such assessments would put the district at risk of losing federal IDEA funds and Title I funds

- The State Board of Education may withhold the transfer of state and discretionary funds until the school district complies with law requiring assessment of at least 95 percent of students. …

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Florida education news: Voucher lawsuit, testing opt-out, English learners and more

VOUCHERS: A coalition of education groups plans to file suit against Florida's corporate tax credit scholarship program, prompting a flurry of criticism and threats from voucher backers.

GETTING ALONG: The candidates remaining in the hunt for Hillsborough School Board seats say they will seek a more collegial atmosphere for the board and district.

OPTING OUT: The Lee School Board votes to opt out of state testing despite misgivings by the superintendent and others, the Fort Myers News-Press reports. More from the Naples Daily News.

LEARNING ENGLISH: Gov. Rick Scott and commissioner Pam Stewart threaten legal action if the USDOE doesn't reverse course on Florida's testing of English learners, Education Week reports. More from the Miami Herald, State Impact Florida.

MORE SLEEP: Charlotte teens and educators say high school could benefit with a later starting time, WINK reports.

MORE SELECTIVE: Florida Atlantic University officials decide to admit fewer applicants with higher GPA's, the Sun-Sentinel reports.

DUAL ENROLLMENT: Sixth graders soon could be able to take courses at Daytona State College, causing some concern for college officials, the Daytona Beach News-Journal reports.

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Florida leaders call on feds to reverse course on ELL testing

Florida Gov. Rick Scott and education commissioner Pam Stewart have given the U.S. Department of Education 30 days to change its position on Florida's accountability measures relating to English learners.

If the feds don't relent, they said, the state will begin investigating "every legal option available" to maintain its two-year flexibility in counting test scores for those students in school grades.

"This is yet another overreach by federal education officials into the practices of Florida education leaders who best understand the needs of our students," Scott said in a release. "If the federal government was truly interested in accurately measuring the results of Florida students while respecting and celebrating the diversity of their backgrounds, they would withdraw the denial of our exemption and allow Florida to operate consistent with our long-standing policy. Our teachers and students have made incredible gains over the last three years, and we will not allow bureaucrats in Washington to continue tarnishing our schools’ success."

Read more about the dispute here. …

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Grego lists accomplishments in state of the district speech

In his second "State of the District" speech Wednesday, superintendent Mike Grego emphasized a long list of accomplishments in his short tenure, ranging from an expansion of summer school and after-school programs to an increase in career academies and the number of students earning industry certifications to the move last year to raise the starting teacher salary to $40,000 a year. 

"Our district is moving in a very positive direction," he said.

Grego said that Summer Bridge and Promise Time - what the district calls summer school and after-school programs - will target an achievement gap between black and white students. To make progress, he said students need to make more than a year's worth of learning in a year's time. That's tough unless the district finds a way to keep students in class longer. He said there was "nothing wrong" with learning over the summer. …

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Teachers union to announce new "legal action" against voucher program

The statewide teachers union plans to announce new "legal action" against Florida's school voucher program at a press conference Thursday, union leaders said.

The voucher program, also known as the Tax Credit Scholarship Program, enables corporations to fund private-school scholarships for low-income children. The businesses receive dollar-for-dollar tax credits in exchange for their contributions.

The cap on tax credits for the program is set by state law.

About 69,000 students statewide are currently receiving tax credit scholarships. Supporters say the program provides choices for students who might not succeed in a traditional public school. But opponents argue the dollars would be better spent within the public school system, where there is more oversight and accountability.

The lawsuit is separate from the union's recent challenge to a 2014 law expanding the voucher program. That litigation, which is pending in Leon County, raises questions about the way the legislature approved the voucher expansion -- not the program itself.

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Pasco School Board has questions about after-the-fact requests

At least one Pasco School Board member is growing frustrated with staff requests for approval of spending for activities that have already taken place.

Two schools have asked the board, which next meets Sept. 2, for permission to hold training sessions that took place in early August. Weightman Middle conducted its positive behavior training event on Aug. 5-7, while Zephyrhills High ran its Advanced Placement Preparation Academy Workshop on Aug. 7-8.

Each scheduled teachers to spend dozens of hours at the events. They did not bring their proposals, which include hourly wages for those employees, to the board when it met July 22 or July 29.

School Board chairwoman Alison Crumbley was not amused.

"These will definitely be discussed publicly," said Crumbley, who also criticized the administration's request to pay for a recent trip that eight people already had taken.

She said the practice of acting without advance permission must end. She would not predict how the board might respond to these newest items.

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Florida governor, commissioner to ramp up pressure over ELL testing

Gov. Rick Scott and education commissioner Pam Stewart head to Miami this afternoon, where they're expected to announce Florida's planned pushback against federal opposition to state policies regarding the testing of students still learning English.

The U.S. Department of Education recently told state officials that Florida could lose its No Child Left Behind waiver if it does not change the way it counts state test results of English-language learners. Florida law says the students' scores will not count toward school grades until they've been in a U.S. school at least two years, while the feds want those results to be included immediately.

State lawmakers have predicted a fight over the issue.

Scott, Stewart and Miami-Dade superintendent Alberto Carvalho, a staunch defender of ELL students, have scheduled a news conference for 3 p.m. today at a Miami elementary school to offer their views on the subject. In the past, FLDOE spokesman Joe Follick has said that the commissioner and administration stand behind the two-year flexibility. …

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Florida education news: Elections, prayers, unions and more

ELECTION NEWS: Incumbents win new terms in Pinellas and Pasco, stay on track for reelection in Hillsborough but lose big in Hernando.

KEY ISSUE: Education should be among the top priorities for Florida's next governor, the Times editorializes.

CHURCH AND STATE: The Orange School Board says high school football teams may no longer have outside pastors as chaplains, Fox News columnist Todd Starnes writes.

MORE KIDS: The Manatee school district sees 2 percent enrollment growth and might have to do more hiring, the Bradenton Herald reports.

LABOR NEWS: The Brevard School Board approves a new teacher contract, then raises concerns about the teacher ratification given unrest in the local union, Florida Today reports.

LET THEM VOTE: A circuit judge says the Clay School Board can proceed with its November vote on whether to keep electing the schools superintendent, the Florida Times-Union reports.

NEVER MIND: The Marion School Board backs off its proposal to fully restore art and music classes to elementary schools, the Ocala Star-Banner reports. • The Bay School Board moves to overturn its policy that eliminated valedictorian and salutatorian honors, the Panama City News Herald reports. …

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Area school board results deliver good news for incumbents

With all but a few precincts reporting, Pasco County School Board vice chairman Steve Luikart was cruising to an easy reelection victory, holding about 72 percent of the ballots cast over challenger Marc Yacht.

Luikart, who's in line to become chairman in November, said he appreciated the public support and belief in his efforts.

"I am a student advocate and I will continue to be a student advocate," the retired high school assistant principal said. "If I see something wrong I will speak out about it. That's why they elected me."

See our story here.

Meanwhile, all the sitting Pinellas board members seeking reelection were leading in their races (story), and Hillsborough at-large board member April Griffin looked likely to survive a seven-person primary and head to the general election (story).

Click on the story links for updates.

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