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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Weatherford stands by vote to establish Florida Polytechnic

Earlier this week, House Speaker Will Weatherford seemed to indicate he regretted his vote last year in favor of establishing Florida Polytechnic University. When asked to clarify recent statements, Weatherford said he essentially had no choice but to go along with then-Senate budget chief JD Alexander's push for the university, but stands by the decision.

"I voted for it, we all voted," Weatherford said today. "It was the budget. We didn't have a budget without Polytech. I think that was abundantly clear, and I think we all remember that process very well."

Weatherford told the Tampa Tribune's editorial board Tuesday that Polytechnic's creation was a "disaster." He later clarified his comments in an interview with the Lakeland Ledger, saying he was referring to recent reports that the school would be asking the Florida Legislature for an extra $25 million. The school has now indicated it will no longer request the additional cash. The Legislature couldn't afford that request anyway, Weatherford said. …

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Sequestration could cost Hillsborough district $11-million

What does sequestration look like in a big school district?

In Hillsborough, officials have budgeted conservatively for this year and next, just in case they lose $11-million in federal funding.

That's right, $11-million.

The biggest hits would come in Title I ($4-million) and exceptional student education ($3.5-million). Federal law requires schools to accommodate students with disabilities, regardless of funding. What the district stands to lose is money from the IDEA grant, which pays for enhanced services and covers many of the costs of administering the ESE program.

Tutoring programs under the SES program would take a $423,000 hit. Adult education and career education would lose close to $300,000 combined.

You won't notice the cuts right away. But, as budgeting continues for next year, federal programs director Jeffrey Eakins said it will be hard to avoid making changes that will be felt at the classroom level.

Here's a list of the grants that are in danger of being reduced.

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Pasco school employee contract talks near end

Representatives from the United School Employees of Pasco and the Pasco school district administration head back to the table on March 6 for what both sides suggest might be the final time to discuss their 2012-13 contract.

"I believe we will finally finish negotiations Wednesday night," USEP president Lynne Webb said. District employee relations director Kevin Shibley said he also expected an end to the talks, if the union accepts the district financial offer presented two weeks ago. The district has removed furloughs from the picture, but offered no raises.

USEP officials had requested additional financial information about the district's health insurance program, such as enrollment and available reserves, leading to the talks. Webb said the details would make a difference in the union's stance, adding that she was disappointed to learn that the district had no added available money in the system.

"I can't say I'm happy," Webb said. "But I think they've been forthcoming."

Once talks conclude, the sides would have their ratification votes. The district then hopes to jump into bargaining on the 2013-14 contract soon after. …

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New Pasco County charter school delays opening

Parents and students waiting to attend Florida's first classical preparatory school will have to wait a bit longer.

Classical Prep, a charter school proposed by Anne Corcoran (the wife of state Rep. Richard Corcoran), has asked the Pasco County school district to defer her charter contract a year past its scheduled August 2013 debut.

The decision allows the school founders to focus on facility options, Corcoran said.

"We don't want to be moving every year," she said. "We want to be comfortable where we get."

The school also had applied for a federal charter school grant, which would help cover non-staff costs, but was denied. The delay also will allow the school to seek the grant again, Corcoran said.

School district charter school supervisor Nancy Scowcroft praised the decision: "That shows great judgment and a true desire to be educating their kids as best they can," Scowcroft said. …

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Florida education news: Common Core, FCAT, teacher rankings and more

NEVER FORGET: Some Pinellas Park High students design a specialty license plate to honor fallen officers.

NOT GOOD ENOUGH: Hernando gets 11 candidates for chief finance officer but none meet the job requirements.

MIND THE PAST: Dade City's African-American community deserves respect as the Pasco school district decides the fate of Moore Mickens Education Center, the Times editorializes.

TOP OF THE CLASS: Winding Waters K-8 students present history in 'wax' • Central High special education students take a daylong trek around the world without leaving campus.

POOR MARKS: Seminole district officials worry that teacher evaluation ratings will plummet if the current model continues, the Orlando Sentinel reports.

REWRITE: Duval superintendent Nikolai Vitti works to improve the district's strategic plan, the Florida Times-Union reports.

BAD TIMING: Collier officials worry that Immokalee High students weren't focused on the FCAT as many were upset with a weekend shooting of a classmate, the Fort Myers News-Press reports.

REJECTED: Miami-Dade officials turn down a private school's request to expand to accommodate a charter school relocation, the Miami Herald reports. …

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U.S. Education Department details local cuts by sequestration

With mandatory across-the-board federal budget cuts looming, the U.S. Department of Education released its estimate of how much money local school districts stand to lose in Title I funding for low-income students:

Hillsborough: $3.44 million

Pasco: $853,000

Pinellas: $2.66 million

Statewide, the sequestration could lead to a $55.4 million reduction in Title I funding, or a cut in service to more than 96,000 students in as many as 132 schools, according to the USDOE. And these would not be the only cuts affecting the schools. (See this administration state estimate of cuts for more details.)

Secretary Arne Duncan said in a press release that this represented a "wrong choice," and urged parents, educators and others to "urge (lawmakers) to figure out a solution to avoid this."

See also the USDOE's recent blog post on sequestration for more information.

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Student with autism helps a Pinellas educator in trouble

Mike Dupuis was eating breakfast in the New Heights cafeteria when he went to grab orange juice. Dupuis did not drink the juice, but gave it to an Exceptional Student Education associate who he noticed was acting strange -- she was sweating, and confused.

Audrey McCaulsky was having a severe diabetic episode. And Dupuis, a New Heights fifth-grader with autism, is credited by the St. Petersburg school system for saving McCaulsky's life by getting her juice and alerting an adult to the situation.

According to Pinellas County Schools, paramedics checked McCaulsky's sugar levels at 26. When blood sugar falls below 50, a person begins to lose mental function, can lose consciousness, and have seizures.

"Mike's quick thinking and calm reaction saved Ms. McCaulsky," the boy's teacher, Cheryl Collette, said.

McCaulsky was hired by the school system in 2007. She lives in St. Petersburg.

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Parents get chance to speak up on planned temporary school closures in Pasco

The plans are in motion for the Pasco County school district to temporarily shut down Shady Hills and Quail Hollow elementary schools, while renovations and improvements are made to the aging campuses.

Quail Hollow students would attend Watergrass or Wesley Chapel elementary school in the meantime, while Shady Hills students would go to a trial K-8 site at Crews Lake Middle.

Although the deal is expected to move ahead, the superintendent and his staff want to hear feedback from parents and children. They have scheduled town hall meetings to present the idea and then answer questions and concerns. The sessions are:

Quail Hollow Elementary: 7 p.m. Wednesday March 6, in the school media center, 7050 Quail Hollow Blvd.

Shady Hills Elementary: 6 p.m. Tuesday March 12, in the school media center, 18000 Shady Hills Road

The School Board has approved the school upgrades as part of its Penny for Pasco renewal, which voters supported in November. It has not yet acted on the temporary student transfers to the other locations.

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Should Pinellas students be able to ride in more than one school bus?

What's the bigger safety risk: Sending a child home to an empty house, or allowing him to potentially be forgotten by a bus driver? That debate divided the Pinellas school board last week when they tried to move on a proposal to allow students to go home on a different bus than they arrived in. Suffice it to say, they didn't get very far.

Michael Bessette, the associate superintendent for operational services, said that he gets about 50 requests each year from parents who want to sign their children up for "dual bus stops," or the option of traveling on different buses at different times. It's a concern among working parents, who would rather have their children go home to a grandparent's or friend's when the parent won't be home yet. …

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Florida Democrats seek to cushion expected changes to charter school law

Majority Republicans in the Florida House and Senate have made no secret of their desire to expand the reach of charter schools in the state, with legislation filed to give charters more access to construction funds and to allow even more growth of the publicly funded, privately run schools.

Democrats might not have the votes to stop the initiatives. But that isn't preventing them from filing bills of their own to limit the impact of the proposals on the traditional public school system, particularly if the new ideas fail. They've put forth three bills this week to protect districts from financial stresses associated with charter schools closing midyear, something that isn't a fantasy fear as it's happened more than once this year already.

Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Palm Beach Co., is proposing that if charters are nonrenewed or terminated, their capital funds and federal charter grant funds be distributed to the sponsor — not to the state as has been the case to this point. (SB 1230) …

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Florida education news: School closing, teacher furloughs, FCAT testing and more

THINK IT OVER: Community members and school employees urge Pasco County school district leaders to reconsider a proposal to move all programs out of the historic Moore Mickens Education Center.

SCHOOL SAFETY: Hillsborough high school students have several questions and concerns about campus security for the School Board.

COST CUTTING: The Volusia school district considers teacher furloughs to save money, the Daytona Beach News-Journal reports. • Polk's interim superintendent proposes cutting eight jobs from the district facilities department to save about $700,000, the Ledger reports. • The St. Johns district, by contrast, looks at hiring 70 new positions to bolster its operations, the St. Augustine Record reports.

EXTRA TESTING: The Palm Beach school district will require middle schoolers taking high school algebra to take the FCAT math exam even though the state doesn't require it, WPTV reports.

ANGER ALL AROUND: Parents are upset about a plan to move their Kendall charter school to Coral Gables, as are the school's possible new neighbors, the Miami Herald reports. …

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Weather causes FCAT delays for 10 districts

Storm squalls prompted ten Florida school districts to put off the FCAT writing exam Tuesday for at least one school.

In addition to six Pasco County elementary schools, Pinellas County postponed testing for Plumb Elementary because of portable classroom evacuations. Other districts dealing with portable evacuations were St. Johns (one school) and Alachua (one school). Two districts — Leon and Walton — requested an extra day of makeup testing on Thursday, according to the Florida Department of Education.

Four other Panhandle districts — Franklin, Holmes, Jackson and Washington — had it worse, closing schools on Tuesday and pushing back testing for all students by a day.

Students across the state have been sworn to secrecy about the writing prompts, as the state does not have replacement tests for the delayed exams or the makeups that are scheduled for the rest of the week.

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Largo High teacher could be fired for allegedly partying with students

A teacher at Largo High could lose her job after she allegedly drank alcohol and smoked marijuana with students from the school.

Joelle Bishop, 26, has been accused of going to a party on Jan. 3 with three students, a boy and two girls. She allowed the boy to drive her car, picking up the two girls on the way, according to the complaint against her. Witnesses said they spotted Bishop drinking that night and that she offered alcohol to the two girls. Both girls told investigators that they drank with her, according to the complaint.

Bishop also has been accused of smoking pot in her car with the three students.

Superintendent Mike Grego recommended that the School Board fire Bishop. She denied the allegations and asked for an administrative hearing, so the board will vote Tuesday on whether to suspend her without pay pending the outcome.

Bishop is a special education teacher. She was hired in May 2011 and earns $37,095 a year. Her most recent performance evaluation isn’t available to the public.

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Teach for America eyes Tampa market

Teach for America -- the national organization that aims to have recent elite college graduates commit to two years teaching in schools serving high-poverty areas -- is looking into whether it will move into the Tampa region.

Nicole Brisbane, the group's managing director for new site development, plans to visit Tampa next week to explore the viability of opening a Tampa Bay region office. She has contacted area superintendents seeking an audience to learn more about their districts and their "vision for student achievement," and to talk about the possibilities for partnership. …

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Florida Polytechnic reconsiders $25 million request

Florida Polytechnic University's chief operating officer Ava Parker is recommending that the school backtrack from its plan to request $25 million from the Legislature, the Lakeland Ledger reports. Parker said her recommendation was based on additional information about the school's finances and projections, but we wonder if the expected dressing down at the next Board of Governors meeting and indications that the Legislature might not be willing to write Poly another check might also have something to do with Poly Trustees' about-face.

From the Ledger:

Florida Polytechnic University COO Ava Parker recommended Monday that board members not ask for an extra $25 million they had planned to request from the state to start the new school.

Earlier this month, the Florida Poly Board of Trustees authorized Parker, who is serving as interim head of the school, to ask the state for more money. Leaders said once they put pen to paper, it was clear the nearly $100 million already allocated wasn't going to cover everything needed to get the school open. …

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