O'Shea: I have confidence in Janssen
Despite the criticism, Superintendent Julie Janssen is helping Pinellas make progress, said school board member and candidate Peggy O'Shea.
Janssen is "in the unenviable position of having to make difficult and painful decisions in order to move this district forward during very trying times," O'Shea wrote in a questionairre for the St. Petersburg Times editorial board. "I have seen an increase in transparency, greater communication efforts, and more accessibility than before."
O'Shea said she supports the district's efforts to change how Pinellas teachers are evaluated. She wants the district to consider adding a third International Baccalaureate program and the possibility of gender-specific classes or schools.
O'Shea faces challenger Greg Hunsinger for the at large District 3 seat.
Here's the full questionairre:
1) The school district faces a $26 million budget gap for 2010-11, and a potential shortfall of $53 million the following year. Gaps that wide call for major cost cutting. What should be cut? What should be spared?
In the 3 1/2 years I have been on the Board, we have faced large budget cuts each year. We must look at all expenditures and evaluate what benefits are derived from each. We need to audit our processes and procedures to ensure efficiency. That being said, we are faced with unprecedented shortfalls without an end in sight. Ideally, cuts directly impacting children should be spared. This year, the cuts really started to impact employees. Mandatory Unpaid leaves are looming. I agree with giving the larger number of unpaid days to administrators and less to classroom teachers and school based support services. We have done a good deal of re-organization which has eleminated non-school based adminstrative positions, or combined positions. We need to look further at the staffing numbers within departments and identify additional cuts. Positions have been downgraded to lower pay scales. I have supported all of these. It is time to look at what today's school district needs to look like and start re-building the organization to provide relevance for today and the future. The Board is looking at ideas related to this. Ultimately, the budget is a great challenge, but not an excuse.
2) Four Pinellas high schools are expected to be under state oversight this fall because of inadequate performance. Who is to blame and how can the problems in those schools be fixed?
There are several causes for the performance levels in the four high schools. One significant factor is the change in school demographics. For many years, Pinellas County Schools were under Federal Court order to desegregate. This required mandatory bussing and racial ratios in the schools. Under this system, there was a more "level playing field" among the schools. Pinellas County is different today than it was in the 70's when the Court Order was implemented, however, I believe there is an "academic & economic segregation" today that is impacting these schoools. The Board is planning discussions related to secondary schools starting at the July 6th workshop. I would like to see us look at the magnets, career academies and Centers of Excellence and what they can provide to engage students in school, and provide diversity. In addition I would like to have a discussion on adding a 3rd IB program to the county, look at gender specific classes or schools (lowerst graduation rate is among African American young men-27%), possible expansion of fundamental seats and the fundamental elementary district concept, stronger attendance policy, etc. We hve applied for the Teacher Incentive Fund Grant, which will provide funding for a performance based compensation system at our high needs schools and it will include the schools that feed those high schools. The grant is for schools with 50% or greater free or reduced lunch. The four high schools and their feeder schools are in that category. The superintendent has re-designed our areas into feeder clusters. We are using grants to privide additional professional development for the teachers in specific schools. Finally, we need to continue to build relationships with the parents and community to stress the importance of school in the life of a child.
3) Julie Janssen has been superintendent for just under two years, and while she still enjoys the support of the School Board, she has been criticized this year for being tone deaf in some public comments and unaware of developing problems in some schools. Does Janssen have the skills to lead the district through this difficult time?
I supported the selection of Dr. Janssen for superintendent and I still have confidence in her ability. She is in the unenviable position of having to make difficult and painful decisions in order to move this district forward during very trying times. I have seen an increase in transparency, greater communication efforts, and more accessibility than before. While some criticism is inevitable, Dr. Janssen is able to hear it and still stay focused on the mission of this district. In discussion regarding her evaluation this past year, she suggested that we add a section based on district data. Her view is that if teachers are going to be evaluated based on student performance, she should as well. A previous superintendent told me that this district is far more complex than he had imagined. I respect the superintendent's decisions, but not blindly. I have candid conversations with the superintendent about various issues.
4) What changes would you like to see at the district administration level?
I would like to see continued look at re-organization in order to create greater efficiency. Additionally, I would like to look at the relevance of each position to today's needs, in other words, a continued re-invention.
5) What steps should the superintendent and School Board take to improve student behavior? What should be done with chronically disruptive students?
I believe in strong discipline and support for the principals and teachers in maintaining discipline in the schools. Although this is being done, perhaps it needs to be strengthened; a two pronged approach. First, to prevent problems with clear expectations communicated to the students. Second, when there are problems, try to solve them in school. The RTI(Response to Intervention) has been providing training to teachers on problem solving-response to behavior problems. I would like to see greater use of in-school suspension vs. out of school. Students do not learn if they are not in class. A related topic is attendance. I brought forward the need for a stricter attendance policy which will be discussed at the July 6th workshop. Based on comments from high schools and middle schools when I visited, they are having a problem with attendance. Again, this will send clear expectations to students and parents related to the importance of being in school and on time.
6) Parents are clamoring for more fundamental schools in Pinellas, and at least three high schools have asked to be next in line to go fundamental. Do you support the expansion of fundamental schools? Under what conditions?
When the issue of more fundamental high school seats came to the Board last year, it was proposed as a way of expanding the options around the county including the "school within a school" concept. I supported the idea, but wanted it as part of the larger discussion of high school re-design. Every time you change the student assignments and capacity of a school, it impacts every other school zone. As I mentions earlier, I want to have the discussion of fundamental as well as other options for high schools. Since the earlier discussion, funadmental advocates have approached the three high schools to become fully fundamental. We need to see if we have the demand and which way to approach the expansion. This discussion is scheduled to begin on July 6th.
7) Schools that have a high level of parental involvement generally have fewer problems. What ideas do you have for increasing parental involvement in schools, especially schools in low socioeconomic areas?
We are discussing a "fundamental elementary district" concept. This would take the advantages of the fundamental schools, primarily the parental engagement, and implement it in all elementary schools. This would be a bold change but I believe it would be welcomed.
8) What is your opinion of the current school district's proposal to change how teachers are evaluated? Does it go far enough in encouraging good teachers and providing a way for the district to remove ineffective teachers?
It is a positive change. My biggest concern in evaluating teachers is the lack of a level playing field. Each school, each classroom is very different. I want a thorough, but fair evaluation. It is difficult to remove an ineffective teacher. Pinellas County won a two year effort to do so, but it should not take two years! We need to ensure fair and adequate due process, but not the current system that went through years of legal wrangling. Other districts were watching and pleased with our result. Perhaps we can work with the State to make changes to the process or at least the time it takes.
9) Grade the school district on its management of the transition to neighborhood schools. What has it done well? What has it done poorly? What would you have done differently?
For the most part, the transition went well. We offered grandfathering without transportation to the elementary parents. At the high school level the grandfathering has only one more year. During the Choice Task Force in 2006, a survey was done asking parents about neighborhood schools. It was strongly favored in the elementary level. Parents wanted their children close to home. At the high school level, they were willing to have the children further away, particularly to attend special programs, eg. magnets, career academies. The neighborhool school has created a re-segregation in many schools. As I mentioned earlier, I would describe the effects as creating socio-economic and academicallly identifiable schools. This has created different needs.
10) Across the bay in Hillsborough County, the school district is awash in innovations and creative thinking resulting from the award of a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In comparison, Pinellas looks tentative, conservative and mired in problems. Is that comparison accurate? What can be done to inspire more creativity, innovation and public involvement in Pinellas?
I do not think the comparision is entirely accurate. While the Gates grant is a valuable asset to Hillsborough, it does not come without strings and controversy. Pinellas is actuvely gaining partnerships and grants. (Lastinger Center at UF, Helios, SRI, Kellogg's,
Race to the Top, Teacher Incentive Fund, etc.)
Pinellas is having discussions and implementing new ideas and the Board is retirning to those conversations in July. Some examples include the expansion of our own Virtual schools, the talk of a flexible scheduling for high schools, new partnerships with community groups and business, decentralized-decision making, increased career education.
11) Should the School Board change the start time for high schools? Why or why not?
Ideally, yes we should. We looked at it this year, but we are not yet in the financial position to make the change. High School should be later and middle school earlier.
12) Last year the school district signed a memo of understanding to address the achievement gap between white and black students. What is your opinion of that agreement? Does it go far enough?
I respect the Memorandum of Understanding, because it was the collaborative effort of the plaintiff's in the Bradley case. In a real sense, I don't know that it goes far enough. However, it does not limit our efforts to go farther. I view it as a minimum expectation for the district. I am looking at what we can do (again, the conversations to be held on July 6th and beyond) for all students. This includes looking at all subgroups and trying to drill deeper into the cause of the achievement gap and what efforts will have meaningful impact.
13) In November Florida voters will reconsider the 2002 class size amendment. What is your position on that issue?
I support the revised amendment for 2008. All else being equal, a smaller class is better than a larger one, but all else is not equal. The State did not adequately fund the Class Size Amendment as the constitutional amendment called for. Flexibility would allow us to match the needs of the classroom. From a practical standpoint, with neighborhood schools, the current amendment will cause us to deny access to someone who moves into the zone, but that grade level may be full, so we have to assign the child to a school somewhere else in the county and transport them. It will create the bussing problems that choice gave us.
14) Describe why voters should consider you for this office and what you hope to accomplish:
I am passionate about children and the importance of education. I have committed myself to the job as School Board Member full time and would like one more term to continue the efforts currently underway in this district. As a Board Member, I have been available to the public and provide an open and honest view of the District. I listen to all issues with an open mind and always seek to hear both sides. As a Board Member, I belive it is imperative to keep the big-picture view and understand the impact our decisions have on the district as a whole. I work with everyone and strive to encourage open conversation and provide an environment where the Board Members respect all opinions and can discuss ideas without personal criticism.