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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Communications director requirements downgraded

Well, that didn't take long.

Donna Winchester, director of strategic communications, left the Pinellas County School District last month for a new job at the University of Florida. District officials now are proposing a downgrade in the requirements to fill her position.

The job currently requires a master's degree in communications, journalism or public relations and 10 years of experience. If the School Board signs off Tuesday on the proposed change, job candidates would only need a bachelor's degree and five years of experience. None of the major functions of the job would change, however, and preferred qualifications would include a master's degree.

Board members discussed the change at a recent workshop. The idea was to broaden the applicant pool for the job. It hasn't been posted yet. 

Winchester had worked at the school district since 2009, after about a decade at the Times. She left the school district to become the director of communications for UF, leading a couple major initiatives. 

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Teachers get 2.5 percent pay bump in Pinellas

Teachers in Pinellas County Schools will see another bump in pay this year.

The school district reached a tentative agreement with its employee unions, including the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, to provide employees with an average 2.5 percent pay raise. That follows last year's average 5.6 percent bump.

The raise doesn't include the increase in referendum dollars that occurred with this year's improvement in property values. Teachers will get nearly $300 more each. All raises are subject to ratification by the unions as well as a vote by the Pinellas County School Board.

District employees not represented by unions - such as administrators - will also see a 2.5 percent pay bump. All pay raises will be retroactive to July. Employees will be alerted about when they can expect to see the extra money. 

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Florida Virtual School may sue over naming trademarks

The Florida Supreme Court has ruled that Florida Virtual School can sue Florida Virtual Academy over its name.

"We hold that the Florida Virtual School’s statutory authority to 'acquire, enjoy, use, and dispose of . . . trademarks and any licenses and other rights or interests thereunder or therein,' and the designation of its board of trustees as a 'body corporate with all the powers of a body corporate and such authority as is needed for the proper operation and improvement of the Florida Virtual School,' necessarily includes the authority to file an action to protect those trademarks," the Court stated in a ruling issued Thursday.

The question arose after Florida Virtual School sued Florida Virtual Academy in 2011, alleging trademark infringement. That case made it to a U.S. appellate court, which ruled last year that Florida had conflicting laws on the matter. …

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Voucher supporters seek backing from Pasco School Board

Crystal Kryder had a simple message for the Pasco County School Board: Support vouchers.

Students come to First Christian Academy in New Port Richey for many reasons, the mother of three told the board, and not all can afford the cost. Step Up For Students, the organization that oversees the state's corporate tax credit scholarships, makes it happen for nearly half of the school's students, she said.

Kryder spoke of the school's recent salutatorian, who she said grew academically and socially in the school with a voucher. "This wouldn’t have been possible for her to do without the Step Up program," she said, urging the School Board to throw its weight behind vouchers.

And she was not alone. Another voucher proponent from a Dade City Christian school also asked the board to back vouchers, calling the system "wonderful." A few others in the audience nodded in support but did not speak. …

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About those alternatives to the Hillsborough ticket sale calls...

Much as people might complain about those automated phone calls, in this case selling tickets on behalf of the Hillsborough County school district, the options aren't always popular either.

Gradebook heard from Susan Whitaker, the mother of a high school student and a recent high school graduate, who did not like the suggestion of using paper flyers instead.

"Flyers? That's so 20th century," she wrote. "I am grateful for your (the school district's) use of the automated phone system and completely disagree that the District should use flyers to notify parents of events and activities.  I haven’t received a flyer from school since my kids were in elementary school and I checked their backpacks every day.  And the thought of printing a flyer for every child in the Hillsborough County school system (what, the 5th or 6th largest district in the country?) makes the tree-hugger and tax-payer in me cringe.  What a waste of resources!  Personally I would prefer to have the choice of receiving an automated phone message or an e-mail or a text.  But until the school district has those options in place, automated calls are just fine." …

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More fallout from Florida's FAIR test suspension

When Florida suspended its FAIR exam for kindergarten through second grade, high-stakes testing opponents cheered the change as a step toward a deescalation of the state's attachment to assessments.

Since then, though, the Florida Department of Education has moved to tamp down any such notion. The decision to cut the reading test had nothing to do with growing complaints about how Florida relies on test results too heavily, spokesman Joe Follick told reporters. 

It was all about the app, he said. The DOE changed the test's technology over the summer, he noted, and it simply didn't work properly. Superintendents and assessment coordinators let the department know, and officials decided to pull the plug. Simple as that.

That action, in fact, showed just how much high stakes testing still affects what happens in both schools and preschools. One prekindergarten provider contacted the Gradebook to point out that, without FAIR results, her school could suffer because it won't get a state rating that some parents use when selecting pre-k programs for their four-year-olds. …

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Florida education news: Assault rifles, end of course exams, financial aid and more

ARMED AND READY: The Pinellas school district police department gets 28 M-16 assault rifles from the military, just in case.

BUDGETING: The Hernando School Board adopts a new budget with a lowered tax rate.

FINANCIAL AID: Florida's universities say they need $45 million to offset changes to the Bright Futures scholarship program.

TESTING: Palm Beach schools prepare for hundreds of new end of course exams to help evaluate teachers, the Sun-Sentinel reports. Broward schools, too, the Sun-Sentinel reports.

DISMISSED: The state ethics commission dismisses complaints against a Clay School Board member and the board attorney, the Florida Times-Union reports.

VOUCHERS: Duval Republican Party leaders support a resolution deploring a lawsuit that challenges Florida's school voucher program, WJCT reports.

ACCOUNTABILITY: The Palm Beach School Board calls on the state to slow its transition to new tests, the Palm Beach Post reports.

COMMUNICATIONS: Lee home-schooling parents question a school district letter that suggested their children must take a state test that's not required, the Fort Myers News-Press reports. …

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Jeff Atwater says FAU bid shouldn't affect re-election efforts

Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater met with the Times' editorial board today and talked about achievement during his first term office as he runs for re-election. He touched on effects of no-fault auto insurance reform, new policies that allow his office to monitor state contracts and even the environment.

Atwater also explained the story behind his decision to apply for the presidency at Florida Atlantic University and why he believes voters should elect him to a second term without wondering if he is still looking for greener pastures elsewhere.

Read more on The Buzz.

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Florida PTA calls for changes to state's school accountability system

The Florida PTA has called upon the state Department of Education to reconsider its approach to school accountability amid the heated debate over the role of testing in public education.

Just after noon Wednesday, the group released recommendations it said would make the system more fair and viable. They were:

- Allow for proper field-testing and test development in areas with similar demographics to Florida's diverse demographics;

- Suspend the issuance of school letter grades until performance data has been deemed reliable;

- Allow additional testing and calculation flexibility to students with disabilities and students who speak limited English;

- Consider using multiple years of a new exam as a baseline for generating school grades and teacher evaluations.

To date, the state has not agreed to most of these ideas, although it has tried to win flexibility for testing of English learners and students with disabilities from the federal government. The State Board of Education meets later this month in Tallahassee, where testing issues are likely to arise given recent statewide discussion over opting out and problems with the FAIR test. …

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Meet the four finalists in FSU's presidential search

A report in today's paper gives insight into the four finalists for FSU president:

Most of the attention surrounding the search for Florida State University's next president has been on state Sen. John Thrasher. But he is just one of four finalists, and the only who has never worked in higher education.

The FSU board of trustees is expected to make a final selection Tuesday, though that could change because one of the finalists, Michael Martin, had to postpone his interview after having emergency surgery for a detached retina.

Click here and you'll find more about all four finalists -- including former provost Michele Wheatly and university vice president Richard Marchase -- and why they want the job, gleaned from resumes and cover letters they submitted.

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Does it matter if kids miss school?

Pasco County school officials want students to come to school more often. High absenteeism -- 10 or more days -- has concerned officials for years. (They've often bemoaned the situation, which has changed little, in 2011, 2013, and again this week.)

The common refrain: "You can't learn if you're not there."

True for many. But true for all? Not necessarily.

In parsing the numbers, district officials discovered that absences don't always correlate to poor academic performance, particularly in the high schools.

According to district data, 56.46 percent of high school students who missed four days or fewer scored at a level of proficient or better on the FCAT. That percentage held fairly steady, though, for students absent 5-9 days (56.39 percent), 10-14 days (56.49 percent), and 15-19 days (50.5 percent).

The trend differed for elementary and middle school students, whose results more closely mirrored attendance, with higher passing rates at the lower absentee levels. Grade-point averages, by contrast, declined as absences rose. See the district's charts here. …

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Florida education news: Attendance, solicitations, testing and more

STUDENT NUMBERS: Hillsborough school enrollment continues to surge. • Pasco schools grapple with high absenteeism.

UNPREPARED: A St. Petersburg College official says too many Pinellas schools graduates arrive needing remedial work.

STUDY ABROAD: The Hernando School Board decides to extend its exchange program with a Chinese boarding school.

WHO'S CALLING? Some Hillsborough parents complain about a district robocall offering discounted Tampa Bay Lightning tickets.

TESTING: The Florida Department of Education faces major challenges as it implements new accountability measures, the Times editorializes. • The Duval School Board considers a resolution urging the state not to use new state testing results to grade schools, the Florida Times-Union reports. • The debate continues over the strength of the opt out movement in Lee County after the FDOE suspends FAIR testing for K-2 students, the Fort Myers News-Press reports. • Florida schools prepare to launch a new round of end-of-course exams to help evaluate teachers, the Orlando Sentinel reports.

TAXES: Brevard leaders debate the value of a proposed sales tax for school construction, Florida Today reports. …

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Universities need $45 million to offset changes to Bright Futures scholarship program

When Florida lawmakers made it harder to earn a Bright Futures scholarship, they celebrated the cost savings.

But the changes to the eligibility criteria may actually come with an unforeseen price tag.

State universities say they will need an additional $45 million next year to provide more need-based financial aid, according to a new budget proposal.

"The additional funding will be targeted to ensure lower-income students who are impacted by the loss of Bright Futures scholarships and academically qualified will continue to have the opportunity to pursue higher education goals without depending solely on student loans," university officials wrote.

The Board of Governors will hear a presentation on their request Wednesday.

Prior to 2011-12, students who scored 970 or higher on their SATs were eligible to receive a Bright Futures scholarship. Now that the law has been changed, students must earn a score of at least 1170 to receive the award.

According to a staff analysis by the universities, the change affected 38 percent of last year's freshman class. …

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UWF trustees stand behind Judy Bense after faculty no-confidence vote

From the Pensacola News Journal:

University of West Florida faculty and the Board of Trustees are at odds over the perceived performance of President Judy Bense.

University faculty aired a laundry list of grievances against Bense to a packed room in an emergency meeting of the Board of Trustees Monday morning, culminating in their call for Bense to step down from her position when her current term expires in June.

The University's Board of Trustees, however, voted overwhelmingly to pass a resolution in support of the president, citing the University's ascension to the national stage during her tenure.

The emergency meeting comes in the wake of a Motion of No Confidence vote in Bense by the 21-member faculty senate last Friday.

"The board thought that it was important (to pass this resolution) because of the comments made last Friday that the community might seem to think that was representative of the entire faculty," board chairman Lewis Bear, Jr. said. "We thought it was very important that we let the community know that we are in full support of our president, and we spelled out the many reasons why in this resolution."

Read more here.

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Michael Martin, finalist for FSU president, won't make his Wednesday interview

Michael Martin, one of four finalists to become Florida State University's next president, notified the school today that he is sick and unable to travel to Tallahassee for his interview on Wednesday.

Martin, chancellor of the Colorado State University System, is one of the favorites of FSU faculty although the vast majority of the schools' community has not had a chance to get to know him. Renisha Gibbs, vice chairman of the search committee, said Martin is still considered a candidate and any decision about rescheduling his interview will be made by this afternoon.

All four finalists were expected to participate in full-day interviews on campus this week. State Sen. John Thrasher was Monday, former West Virginia University provost Michele Wheatly is up today, Martin was to appear Wednesday and Richard Marchase, vice president for research and economic development at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, is coming on Friday. …

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