Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Crist campaign: We had permission to film video at St. Pete High

The Republican Party of Florida wants TV stations to stop airing one of Charlie Crist's ads.

The TV spot has drawn scrutiny because it was shot at Crist's alma mater, St. Petersburg High School, in violation of school board policy.

On Thursday, school district officials asked the Crist campaign to stop running it.

The Florida GOP made sure the stations knew.

"Now that you are aware of the express wishes of Pinellas County schools and the Crist campaign’s apparent violations of Florida law in filming this ad, we request that you cease airing the ad immediately," RPOF Executive Director Juston Johnson wrote to stations in Tampa, Orlando and West Palm Beach.

The Crist campaign responded by providing a June 10 letter from St. Pete High's Assistant Principal for Facilities Darlene Lebo, acknowledging that the school had given them access to the campus for the purpose of filming a video. 

"This was done free of charge," Lebo wrote. "This is a service we would offer and provide to any candidate regardless of political affiliation."

Crist spokesman Brendan Gilfillan also noted a kerfuffle involving on-duty police officers who attended a campaign event for Republican Gov. Rick Scott last month. …

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Pinellas asks Crist campaign to stop airing ad shot at school

Lawyers for Pinellas schools are asking former Gov. Charlie Crist to stop running a campaign ad shot at St. Petersburg High School.

In a statement, district officials also said thecommercial should not be perceived as an endorsement for Crist's gubernatorial run by the school system.

An administrator erred in allowing Crist to use St. Pete High, his alma mater, in the campaign spot.

"The school district's legal office has reached out to Mr. Crist's campaign headquarters and has asked that campaign officials cease running the ad," reads a statement sent out on behalf of Pinellas County Schools by spokeswoman Donna Winchester. "The school district is taking this opportunity to clarify this particular School Board policy to all Pinellas County Schools employees."

The Republican Party of Florida asked Superintendent Mike Grego to demand the ad be taken down.

Pinellas did not name the administrator who granted Crist permission to shoot at St. Pete High. It also did not say whether there was any discipline taken against the administrator. …

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School board candidate donations enter six-figure territory

Dipa Shah at the June 20 Tiger Bay Club forum


Dipa Shah at the June 20 Tiger Bay Club forum

In the race for Hillsborough County School Board, Dipa Shah just crossed into six-digits, logging $103,247 in cash and in-kind contributions so far in her bid to replace April Griffin in at-large District 6. That's the most so far, but not all 14 candidates have turned in their reports for the period ending July 25.


Paula Meckley (also D-6), Michelle Shimberg (South Tampa's D-2) and Melissa Snively (East Hillsborough's D-4) have also been raising large sums in this campaign season. Some are believed to be record amounts, and the primary isn't even over yet.


Shah, an attorney, is one of several candidates who filed to run before Griffin announced she would seek re-election. Also in that group are Asher Edelson, Alison Fernandez, Stacy Hahn, Randy Toler and Lee Sierra.


In D-4, Snively is spending the most money as she goes up against Terry Kemple, a conservative activist with longtime name recognition; and Dee Prether, an Army veteran and trained teacher. In D-2, meanwhile, former teachers Sally Harris and Michael Weston are up against Shimberg, whose donor list – which could also top $100,000 by the end of the day – is studded with political officials and business leaders.


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Florida education news: Classroom instruction, opting out, team mascots and more

CORE CHANGES: Florida's transition to new academic standards prompts teachers to reevaluate and change their classroom instruction.

CAMPAIGN MODE: Candidates for Pinellas School Board find a few areas of disagreement during a two-hour public forum. • The challengers in Hernando's District 1 School Board race question the incumbent's integrity. • The Times makes its recommendations for Pinellas School Boardfor Pasco School Board and for Hernando School Board.

SECOND TRY: A group reapplies to open a charter school at MacDill Air Force Base.

BACK TO SCHOOL: Visit the Times education page for several stories about the new school year.

THE LIST: Brevard officials reveal the school projects a new local sales tax would pay for, Florida Today reports.

PLEADINGS: A Pasco school bus aide accused of slapping a student pleads not guilty to child abuse charges, Bay News 9 reports.

OPTING OUT: A Lee School Board member says he will not have his children take state tests next year, the Fort Myers News-Press reports.

MASCOTS: A local Native American advocacy leader asks the Sarasota School Board to remove the name "Indians" from schools in Venice, the Herald-Tribune reports. …

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Hillsborough superintendent to charter schools: We might shut you down

Hours after a second application was filed to open a charter school at MacDill Air Force Base, a foundation connected with the project received this warning from the Hillsborough County school district: Answer our questions or we might shut down your other Hillsborough schools.

A letter, unsigned but dated July 29, suggests that Charter Schools USA and the Florida Charter Educational Foundation, two Fort Lauderdale entities that are closely aligned, have too much control over three charter schools in Hillsborough County: Woodmont, Winthrop and Henderson Hammock.

For months, district officials have tried to ascertain the relationship between the Fort Lauderdale-based foundation and the local boards that are supposed to govern the schools.

"Although several letters have been exchanged, there has been no documentation submitted by you or the schools to explain the governance structure of the schools," Elia's letter says. …

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Should Pinellas County Schools object to Crist ad? The Florida GOP thinks so.

School administrators at St. Petersburg High allowed Charlie Crist to film a campaign ad at their school in violation of School Board policy. Now the Republican Party of Florida would like superintendent Mike Grego to ask Crist to stop using the ad.

Juston Johnson, executive director of the RPOF, wrote a strongly worded letter to Grego in which he said the TV advertisement made it appear that the School Board endorsed Crist, who is running as a Democrat against Gov. Rick Scott.

Johnson wrote, "I write to respectfully request that you take immediate action to prevent the appearance of the School Board's endorsement of a political candidate by demanding that all stations currently airing this ad cease doing so."

He said that Grego needed to ensure that the integrity of the school system is maintained.

The Crist campaign started airing the TV spot last week. In it, Crist attacks Scott's record on education. Crist also references his own education at St. Petersburg High, where he was class president and quarterback of the football team. The name of the school is featured in the beginning of the ad. …

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Parents, Goldwater Institute seek to intervene in voucher lawsuit

Six families -- and their powerful attorneys -- want to intervene in a lawsuit challenging a controversial new school choice law.

The families have asked a judge to help defend the law, which creates scholarships for children with profound special needs. The money can be used for private-school tuition, tutoring, educational materials and various types of therapy. The average award is expected to be about $10,000.

The scholarship program came into being as sweeping education bill that also expanded the school voucher program, created collegiate high schools, and addressed middle-school reform. It passed largely along party lines on the last day of session.

Earlier this month, the statewide teachers union challenged the constitutionality of the law, saying it violates a requirement that each pieces of legislation be limited to a single subject. The families want to join the existing defendants: Gov. Rick Scott, the Cabinet and Education Commissioner Pam Stewart.

The lawsuit is pending, but the plaintiffs have indicated they do not oppose allowing the families to join the case. …

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Students push Pasco School Board to end tobacco use on campuses

Hoping to spur some action, anti-smoking advocates including students this week continued to press the Pasco County School Board to change their rules that allow smoking and tobacco use on half the district's properties.

Representatives from Students Working Against Tobacco urged the board to negotiate a deal with the United School Employees of Pasco to end the 18-year-old agreement that permits workers to smoke at schools and facilities opened before July 1, 1996. They read letters from classmates who found the practice disgusting and unhealthy, and talked about the need for the district to remove the "poison" from their midst.

The speakers were, however, singing to the choir. The board already has authorized a proposal that would do what the group wanted. The USEP has yet to agree, though.

The subject, first approached in contract talks July 15, awaits a union response, which did not come during bargaining sessions this week.

Ed Ronda, USEP negotiator for school-related personnel, praised the students for their dedication to the cause. But he declined to tip his hat on the issue, which so far hasn't gained much traction. …

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Florida education news: Campaign ads, sales tax, new teachers and more

POLITICS: A Charlie Crist campaign ad filmed at St. Petersburg High violates school district policies.

TAXES: The Hernando School Board approves a referendum to extend its sales tax for school capital projects.

FIRST DAY: Hillsborough officials welcome hundreds of new teachers to the district.

TEACH THE PARENTS: The Martin school district offers Parent University to explain the 43 new laws affecting education, the Palm Beach Post reports.

CHARTER SCHOOLS: Lauderhill city leaders approve a new K-8 charter school, the Sun-Sentinel reports. • The Palm Beach School Boards ends the contract of a persistently failing charter school, the Sun-Sentinel reports.

STATUS QUO: Florida's education statistics have not dramatically changed with Rick Scott in the governor's chair, the Stuart News reports.

LEAD THE WAY: Several teachers attend Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University classes on how to better teach science and engineering, the Daytona Beach News-Journal reports.

TESTING: Some central Florida schools suspected of irregular FCAT results are cleared of wrongdoing, the Orlando Sentinel reports.

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St. Petersburg High violated board policy with Charlie Crist ad

Strolling toward the double doors of St. Petersburg High School, gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist says, "This isn't just a doorway to a school. It was my doorway, as a public school kid to opportunity."

The 30-second television ad, which began airing last week, shows Crist walking through the halls of the historic school, his alma mater, where he was class president and quarterback of the football team.

There's just one problem. The political advertisement never should have been filmed.

The Pinellas County school system prohibits the use of school property for "advertising or otherwise promoting the interests of any commercial, political or other non-school agency or individual organization." School administrators gave Crist's campaign permission to film in violation of that policy. Read the rest of the story here.

Also, for the eagle-eyed reader out there, pay attention to what the teenagers at the end of the ad are wearing. It appears there are a few violations of the school dress code. (And a quick shout out to Education Editor Tom Tobin for spotting those. Yes, he's a bit of a nerd.)

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Six families to defend new state scholarship program

Six families will be in Tallahassee Thursday to make the case for Florida's new scholarships for students with special needs.

The program came under fire earlier this month, after the statewide teachers union filed a lawsuit questioning the way it became law.

The six families are planning an 11 a.m. press conference to say the scholarship program should not be abandoned because of the lawsuit.

"If we're not convenient to their cause then we just don't matter," said Ashli McCall, a certified teacher in Florida and the parent of an autistic child. "We matter."

Other participants will include former Sen. Alfred Lawson, Jr., a Tallahassee Democrat; Allison Aubuchon, of former Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education; and Clint Bolick, of Goldwater Institute.

The Goldwater Institute has defended similar school choice programs nationwide.

"These children deserve high-quality educational opportunities that are customized to suit their unique needs, and we will stand up with their families and defend these scholarships from the very people who have failed these students in the public schools,” Bolick said.

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Investigation into possible cheating at Bay Point Elementary continues

Bay Point Elementary in St. Petersburg still is under investigation for possible cheating, district officials said Wednesday.

The state Department of Education flagged the school after a large number of fourth-grade students turned in math tests that were so similar as to be statistically improbable. On multiple-choice tests, it's not unusual for students to give the same answer if it's the correct answer. But about 30 students were giving the same wrong answers on the same questions, according to the state.

A state analysis concluded the likelihood that students produced such similar tests under normal conditions was less than 1 in 1 trillion.

It's up to the Pinellas County school system to investigate and then forward its results to the state. Until that investigation concludes, Bay Point Elementary will remain without a school grade for 2014. District officials had predicted a C grade for the school.

Octavio Salcedo, testing director, said the investigation could take a couple weeks. Interviews with staff and students still are going on, and the state hasn't set a deadline for the investigation's completion.

The Gradebook will check back in a couple weeks. Stay tuned.

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Is Duval over-suspending black students? The district doesn't know, and finding out will take five weeks and cost $3,000

On his way to becoming superintendent of Florida's sixth largest school system, Nikolai Vitti specialized in turning around some of the worst-performing schools in the state.

A job like that requires attention to detail and a good grasp of how things like race and poverty can affect how students get an education. And it would have taught Vitti that inequities in how discipline is handed out can be one major barrier to learning in low-performing schools.

School discipline often has been a hot topic, with stories like this one in the Washington Post periodically focusing attention on the issue.

The Times is interested in how schools handle discipline, too. As part of a still-ongoing, statewide study of how districts are faring on this front, the newspaper in March asked for basic data from the state's largest districts, including a breakdown of how many students were suspended in the past 15 years and whether they were black, white, Hispanic or some other race.

Most of Florida's largest districts keep this information at the ready, and they're able to consult it to make decisions and gauge how effective their policies are. Not Duval County. …

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Pasco school district works to round out administrative staff

With the new school year fast approaching, Pasco County district leaders continue to fill the handful of administrative posts that remain vacant.

Interviews continue Wednesday for a new Bayonet Point Middle School principal, after the unexpected retirement of longtime leader Mike Asbell, whose last day is Thursday. Todd Cluff, executive director of the northwest county learning community, said the candidates seemed strong, although he would not say whom he might recommend.

The applicants include two locals -- Seven Springs Middle assistant principal Tracie Beerman and Wesley Chapel High assistant principal Shelly Carrino -- and three administrators from outside the county. Two Pinellas educators, Adam Lane of Largo High and Robert Florio of John Hopkins Middle, are seeking the post, along with Lawrence Hinkle, an assistant principal from a New York middle school.

Cluff said he hopes to have a selection this week, although the School Board does not meet again to approve an appointment until Aug. 12. …

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Three Pasco elementary schools to push back final bell for fourth, fifth grades

Fourth- and fifth-graders at Pasco County's Cox, Gulfside and Lacoochee elementary schools will be in school 50 minutes later each day starting in the fall, but their younger schoolmates won't.

Pasco district officials devised the plan to meet a state mandate for extra reading instruction at the 300 elementary schools with the lowest FCAT reading results. They were able to add an hour of reading at the primary level without extending the day, but couldn't make that effort work for the intermediate grades.

Each school will have one set of buses leaving at the same dismissal time as a year ago, and another set departing an hour later. (That's 3:40 p.m. for Cox and Gulfside, and 4:40 p.m. for Lacoochee.) Teachers would get supplemental pay, which still must be negotiated.

Superintendent Kurt Browning said the cost would not exceed $350,000, much less than the $1 million he projected if all grades had to go longer.

School Board members raised few questions about the proposal, after noting they considered it an unfunded state mandate. Their biggest concern centered on making sure parents knew about the change and understood the reasons behind it. …

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