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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Liberty County superintendent resigns with two weeks to go

Sue Summers had a little more than two weeks left on the job as Liberty County schools superintendent. But with Election Day approaching, Summers apparently decided enough was enough.

The one-term Democrat, who lost her reelection bid in the August 14 primary election, stepped down, leaving a vacancy until the official Nov. 20 swearing in of her replacement. So today Gov. Rick Scott appointed Gay Johnson Uzzell, who took 58 percent of the vote to defeat Summers, to serve until she takes the oath again.

Liberty County has 4,424 registered voters, of whom 3,724 are Democrats. No Republican sought the superintendency. 

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Florida's voucher program for low-income students continues to grow

With a healthy added cash infusion this year, intended to allow more students to participate, Florida's corporate tax credit scholarship voucher program has gotten its expected results: It added 10,000 more children to its ranks, with another 11,000 on waiting lists.

It hit this mark by September, reports Step Up For Students, the organization that runs the program:

"The latest official report on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship places enrollment this fall at 48,938 students – a level that ranks the program among the nation’s top 100 largest school districts.

"The scholarship is not a district, of course; it serves students in 1,298 different private schools across the state. The students are not economically diverse, either; the scholarship is only for those who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and the average income last year was only 12 percent above poverty.

"So these enrollment numbers speak only to parental interest, and the trend is strong." …

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Report near in investigation on coercion in Pasco superintendent's race

It's been three months since the Pasco School Board kicked off an investigation into accusations that top district officials attempted to intimidate or coerce their employees to back superintendent Heather Fiorentino's reelection bid.

A report might be ready in time for Tuesday's School Board meeting, which also just happens to be Election Day. Fiorentino doesn't appear on the ballot, having lost the Aug. 14 primary to former secretary of state Kurt Browning, who faces token write-in opposition for the post.

Board attorney Dennis Alfonso told the Gradebook that he spoke earlier this week with Tampa lawyer Tom Gonzales, who is conducting the investigation for $175 an hour, and learned that the information gathering effort is almost complete. "At that moment in time he had spoken with just about everyone," Alfonso said, adding that one district-level person had not returned Gonzales' repeated calls.

"He is getting ready to draft his report," Alfonso said. "Maybe if we're really lucky we'll get it on Friday." …

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Conservative education reform group calls Rick Scott's plan "tame"

Florida Gov. Rick Scott has received lots of attention, much of it positive, for his education plans for the coming year.

Not everyone is impressed, though. And some of the criticism is coming from the true believers of education "reform."

Joy Pullman, managing editor of the Heartland Institute's School Reform News, is quoted in the conservative Daily Caller as deeming Scott's proposals on charter school expansion, debit cards for teachers and so forth "tame."

"Gov. Scott has released a comparatively tame education agenda, which reflects the vitriolic backlash he’s faced from the education establishment, and possibly a bit of 'reform exhaustion' in a state that has made continual, serious education changes across the past 15 years," she wrote in an e-mail to The Daily Caller News Foundation.

She did acknowledge Florida's role in the past as a leader in the movement.

"It’s noteworthy that as states across the country seek to emulate Florida education policies — more school choice, test-based accountability, providing parents and taxpayers more and better information, focusing on early readers — Gov. Scott seems interested in taking a breather," she said. …

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Florida education news: Marching bands, charter schools, Race to the Top and more

band_2_246116a.jpegSTRIKE UP THE BAND: Twenty area high school marching bands compete for district honors. (Times photo, Michele Miller)

CUFFED: Dunedin school and community leaders look for reasons and solutions to the growing number of arrests among area middle schoolers.

APPROVAL: The Pasco School Board considers approving its second new charter school in as many meetings.

OUSTED: State College of Florida trustees buy out president Lars Hafner, and two trustees resign in protest, the Bradenton Herald reports.

NEW DIRECTION: A Polk man denied a teaching job because of a juvenile offense finds success in construction instead, the Ledger reports.

RACE TO THE TOP: Broward and Miami-Dade get teacher support just before the deadline to apply for the district-level round of Race to the Top, the Miami Herald reports.

INFORMATION PLEASE: Monroe's auditing committee says it can't be effective without more data from the district, the Keynoter reports.

DUMPED: The Florida Department of Education cancels a disputed contract to build a website about new academic standards, the AP reports. …

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Zephyrhills teachers write letters supporting principal on administrative leave

An investigation into the conduct of Zephyrhills High School principal Steve Van Gorden continued Tuesday, with no resolution or recommendation planned until later in the week, superintendent Heather Fiorentino said.

That did not stop several staff and faculty members at the school from beginning a letter writing campaign on Van Gorden’s behalf. In missives to the School Board and Fiorentino, teachers wrote about Van Gorden’s positive influence on the school and called for his quick return to the school.

He has been on paid leave since Oct. 19, pending the outcome of a review of unspecified accusations against him.

"Under his leadership we have all experienced his unique ability to bring the school and community together in a way like we have never seen," the guidance staff wrote in an e-mail. “The rapport he has established between our school, students, parents and community should be a model for our district.  One of his best qualities is that he is not averse to positive change but embraces it.” …

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Mind the flashing reds, school bus safety group urges drivers

images.jpgWith National School Bus Safety Week as a backdrop, a new coalition of student transportation officials, parents and others this month issued a challenge to Florida drivers to better mind the stop arms on school buses. 

The Florida Stop Arm Safety Coalition, created in August, noted that over 21,000 cars passed school buses with the stop arms extended and lights flashing on a single day in April. Over the 180-day school year, that represents a possible 3.7 million violations, the group stated on its Facebook page.

“Whether it is ignorance of the law, distracted drivers or blatant disregard of children’s safety – this increasing problem of stop arm violations should alarm all Floridians,” coalition director Katie Luebker said in a release.

Waiting a few extra seconds on the road can save lives, the group stated. It called for better education and understanding of school bus safety laws, and better enforcement. Follow the group on Twitter.

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The Land O'Lakes High Mitt Romney rally: The aftermath

a4s_romney102812b_245760d.jpgGOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has come and gone from Land O'Lakes High School, his political stump speech delivered to about 15,000 of the faithful

Now comes the aftermath.

Principal Ric Mellin checked out the football field after the crowds left, and discovered a bent goal post, damaged bleachers, lots of trash. Superintendent Heather Fiorentino said all the items will be fixed, replaced and cleaned, with the Romney campaign to foot the bill.

"They're paying for everything," Fiorentino told the Gradebook.

Simmering anger over the way the district handled the event, from seeking students to participate to promoting the campaign event on school media, meanwhile could lead to official complaints. The United School Employees of Pasco, which organized a counter-rally on Saturday, has requested several public records including correspondence to determine if any district rules or state laws were violated in conducting the political activity on campus.

The group has consulted lawyers, president Lynne Webb said, and is looking into whether any action is warranted.

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Two more applicants for Florida education commissioner

With the deadline still a month off, the search for a new Florida education commissioner continues to draw a handful of interested applicants.

Few if any appear to meet the State Board of Education's stated goal of hiring a high profile educator with a strong track record of successfully implementing education reforms along the line of the state's current trajectory. Representatives of the Ray & Associates search firm have advised the board that the top candidates might wait until the last minute to submit formal applications, because of Florida's open records rules that would let anyone know they are in the mix.

But as happened a year ago, the state already has extended its search after its first deadline came and went without interest from those high flying reformers.

This week, the Department of Education released another two applications for the job, bringing the total to 36. They are the superintendent of a small Illinois district with five schools, and the principal of a Maryland middle school of 484 students. …

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Florida education news: University funding, charter school accountability, merit pay and more

imgres.jpegR.I.P.: Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle students grieve the death of popular science teacher Jim Wagenman

QUESTIONABLE: Hillsborough district officials review whether whether Freedom High teacher Jeffrey Shank, who is on leave, was truthful in his job application about past problems.

GO LONG: Florida lawmakers need to adequately fund public higher education to support an educated citizenry, the Times editorializes.

TWISTED: Florida needs stronger accountability laws for charter schools, the Bradenton Herald editorializes.

CHALLENGES: St. Johns superintendent Joe Joyner worries that districts will not have enough money to fund mandated merit pay programs, the Florida Times-Union reports.

PUBLIC BUSINESS: A Manatee watchdog challenges efforts by the State College of Florida to negotiate a contract settlement with president Lars Hafner in private, the Herald-Tribune reports.

SUSPENDED: The Palm Beach school district struggles to craft student suspension policy that doesn't disproportionately affect certain demographic groups, the Palm Beach Post reports.

ONLINE: Marion launches its first virtual elementary school, the Ocala Star-Banner reports. …

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Pinellas parents: Here's your opportunity to learn about magnet, fundamental and career programs

The Pinellas County School District has three sessions in November to help parents learn about magnet, fundamental and career academy programs. The application period for the programs is Jan. 9 to Jan. 23.

Parents can learn more about how the application process works at the sessions. They are as follows:

7 p.m., Nov. 14, Pinellas Park High School, 6305 118th Ave. N, Largo

7 p.m., Nov. 27, Gibbs High School, 850 34th St. S, St. Petersburg

7 p.m., Nov. 29, Countryside High, 3000 State Road 580, Clearwater

There's also a districtwide information fair scheduled between 9 a.m. and noon Dec. 1 at Pinellas Park High and a south county information fair scheduled from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Dec. 4 at Gibbs High. Many schools will have their own informational nights in December and January as well. See a list of "Discovery Nights" here.

For more information, visit the district's website,, or call the district's student assignment office at 727-588-6210.

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Amendment 12: Universities battle over selecting Board of Governors representation

Legislators say Amendment 12 is on the ballot because of fairness. By creating a council consisting of the student body presidents of all the state universities, this amendment will ensure each school has a chance of sending its student representative to the Florida Board of Governors, supporters say.

But a system is already in place that has the same effect, and the state constitution doesn't need to be changed, opponents of Amendment 12 say.

Under the current system, the president of the Florida Student Association (FSA) -- an advocacy organization for state universities that consists of student body presidents -- serves as the Board of Governor's student representative.

All 11 state universities are currently part of the FSA and can help pick the president, but that wasn't always the case. Florida State University has chosen not to participate in recent years. Some alumni and supporters, including several legislators, said that made the student representative selection process unfair and provided the motivation for a bill that put Amendment 12 on the ballot. …

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Three Pasco schools burglarized

Three Pasco County schools were burglarized over the weekend, and deputies believe the break-ins may have been related.

More than 30 classrooms at River Ridge Middle School were burglarized, according to the Pasco County Sheriff's Office. Burglars also broke into portable classrooms at Chasco Elementary School, as well as the concession area at Ridgewood High School.

Forensics units are processing the schools now to find out what was stolen. Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco said at least a few computers were taken and many classrooms were ransacked. He said no alarm systems were activated at the three schools this weekend in relation to the burglaries.

"We're trying to find out when the break-ins occurred," Nocco said. More here.

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School districts walk fine line advocating referendums

The Miami-Dade school district has a $1.2 billion bond referendum going to voters next week, an initiative that superintendent Alberto Carvalho very much wants to see approved. (See his Twitter feed if you doubt it.) 

As part of the campaign, the school district is sending home flyers with all students letting parents know exactly how the money would be spent if they approve the measure. As the Miami Herald reports, the district stops just short of advocating for the referendum, instead just providing educational information about the issue.

“As long as they’re not telling people how to vote, they’re on the safe side in advocating and promoting the issue,” Barry University political science professor Sean Foreman told the Herald. “I think you can even promote through the use of facts, as long as you’re not telling people, ‘Vote for this.’” …

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Florida Education Association rates low in conservative Fordham Foundation's analysis of union strength

When it comes to perceived influence, the Florida Education Association just doesn't have it, the Fordham Foundation contends in its new review of state-level teacher unions, How Strong Are U.S. Teacher Unions?

Not only that, the group states in its analysis, the FEA's goals are almost completely not included in state education policy, membership is low, and its negotiating power is mediocre, even despite having constitutionally protected bargaining rights. The sway it does have often emanates from legal action, Fordham observes, but in the face of a "reform"-minded Legislature with few allies, "the FEA may soon find the gavel insufficient protection.

As a result, the FEA gets ranked 50th of 51 state unions (including D.C.):

"Florida’s state teacher union is one of the weakest in the nation: It has scant resources, few recent policy successes, a feeble reputation, and few allies in the capitol. Florida’s state union is by far the weakest of any state in which bargaining is mandatory."

FEA president Andy Ford told the Orlando Sentinel he found the report "laughable" and of little value. "It's a right-wing think tank, and you have to question, what's the political game?" he said. …

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