Pinellas board chair Cook addresses Tiger Bay
Pinellas County school board chair Carol Cook addressed a less-than-packed Suncoast Tiger Bay luncheon Thursday, laying blame at the feet of the state legislature for many of the financial challenges Pinellas County schools face.
Cook, who has served on the board since 2000, said that between funding cuts, state-mandated class sizes and sunsetting sources of revenue, she feels the legislature hasn't met its constitutional requirement to adequately fund public schools.
But besides facing a $60 million shortfall that could cost as many as 400 jobs in 2011-12, Pinellas County schools have been plagued recently by plenty of other hard-to-swallow news.
In case you've missed it: A decade of test scores show black students here are dropping further and further behind their black peers in the rest of the state in math and reading at every grade level. White and Hispanic students are sliding below state test score averages, too. And, as if she didn't already have her hands full handling the district's finances, school district superintendent Julie Janssen has come under scrutiny for how she is handling her personal finances.
And though none of the Tiger Bay members -- known for peppering public officials with tough questions -- asked about Cook's assessment of Janssen, several members asked about the the quality of education Pinellas offers.
What are you doing to address the disparity between African-Americans and white students? one person asked.
Cook answered with few specifics, and sounded as if she still isn't sure there is one: "One of things we have to really look at is these latest figures," she said. "We have to figure out there a trend going on? What is happening? Is this an anomaly?"
She said she wonders if problems with the FCAT scoring last year might have affected the scores. And she said Janssen is considering hiring a specialist to examine the district's data. "We need to look at what kinds of programs we're offering," she said. "And look at what we're doing in Pinellas County that is different than in other counties."
"That achievement gap is very important to us," she continued, "And not only do we want our minority scores to be high, we want our high achieving students to also improve . . . It is a matter of keeping them both challenged."
We've read that Pinellas County is ranked among the bottom of school districts academically, another person said. What is your plan to change that?
"That’s not correct," Cook answered. "When you hear that we’re 48th or 49th or 47th, that is in our funding for education. It is also in our salaries."
Cook said she heard recently someone at the state level say that Florida, "ranks eighth in the country as far as education is concerned." When asked what her source was for that figure, Cook said she wasn't sure but would try to find out.
Education Week magazine this year ranked Florida schools fifth nationally, up from eight a couple of years ago. But, again, that figure is intended to be representative of the state as a whole and does nothing to single out Pinellas County's comparative performance.
As part of her speech, Cook detailed several good things that are happening in the school district, including: A Walsingham Elementary teacher named the National Adapted Physical Educator of the Year by the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance; Jamerson Elementary named a School of Distinction by the National Organization Magnet Schools of America; 40 Pinellas students named National Merit Semifinalists; and the award-winning robotics team at East Lake High School.
It was, she said, the "Pollyanna" in her, requiring her to let people know all the positive things happening in Pinellas -- things she said that don't make the news.