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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Media specialist debate returns to Pasco School Board

Pasco County school media specialists and literacy coaches will have another chance to defend their jobs on May 7, when the School Board again considers superintendent Kurt Browning's proposed school allocations for 2013-14. This time, instructional technology specialists might join the defense.

After board members asked Browning to reconsider his plan to eliminate the media specialists and literacy coaches in favor of regional media-literacy coaches, Browning quickly issued a Plan B in which he would cut all three jobs from the schools and add a single media-literacy-technology coach at every school.

The plan also calls for a revamped technology repair "geek squad" to help schools as needed.

On Tuesday, the board will consider approving the new ITC coach job description and then whether to authorize their placement at each school, along with the elimination of the other three jobs. At least one board member has signaled his hesitation to move so quickly with the change, which is projected to save the district $4.8 million. …

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Hillsborough district defends itself against second Herrera lawsuit

As expected, the Hillsborough County school district has again asked a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit brought by the parents of the late Isabella Herrera.

The case of Isabella, a disabled 7-year-old who died after suffering respiratory distress on a school bus, does not belong in federal court, the district argues in a motion filed this week.

After the first lawsuit was dismissed, Judge James Moody gave lawyers for the Herrera family a chance to re-file. Seeking to establish a pattern of misconduct that would qualify as deliberate indifference to the rights of special-education students, they listed a series of incidents dating back to 1999. They also noted the district's last director of exceptional student education lacked state certification in ESE.

The district, in its response, argues that the Herreras do not have standing in these other matters, have not backed up their claims and have not proven indifference. "There are no allegations as to how the ESE program, which the plaintiffs expressly allege provides services for at least 29,000 students, is ineffective," the motion states.

With the exception of Isabella's case, "the plaintiffs cite no instance in which what they categorize as a meaningful investigation was not conducted."

As in prior motions, the district also argues that the Herreras cannot sue under the Americans with Disabilities Act concerning an alleged violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The original suit was filed Nov. 1. Since then, the district has named a new General Director of ESE and a task force has begun to implement new training protocols for employees on the bus and in the schools.

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Pinellas debates how to tell employees about changes

With some major changes coming to five schools facing state intervention and the closing of a special education center, the Pinellas County School Board and superintendent Mike Grego talked Tuesday about how to tell employees in a sensitive and timely manner.

Board members asked Grego Tuesday to give employees some peace of mind about their jobs for the coming school year.

“We have a lot of people out there who don’t know where they’re going to be,” said board member Terry Krassner.

Grego said that he prefers to talk to the School Board about proposed changes first in a public work session. But, with Florida’s open records law, that means the details are available to the press. For two items on the board’s agenda today – the schools facing state intervention and the possible closing of a special education center – that meant press coverage ahead of when district officials scheduled themselves to talk to employees.

To avoid that problem, many superintendents in other school districts speak to board members individually – to avoid breaking the law – and communicate possible changes to school faculties ahead of public meetings. Grego said he wants the board conversation. But he noted that the “era of social media” makes it a challenge.

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Parent trigger bill dies in Florida Senate for second straight year

For the second consecutive year, the Florida Senate has killed a controversial bill known as the "parent trigger." And again, the bill died on a 20-20 vote after having won approval in the Florida House.

This year, the Senate bill differed dramatically from the House version in that the Senate would have given school boards the final authority whether to approve a parent requested turnaround model for a failing school. The House would have left that decision with the State Board of Education, paving the way for further debate even if the Senate had backed the measure.

Instead, the Senate killed the measure on a bipartisan vote, with Republicans Charlie Dean, Nancy Detert, Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, Greg Evers, Rene Garcia and Jack Latvala joining the Democrats in opposing the effort. Detert spoke passionately against the bill, urging her colleagues to allow the good education measures the Legislature has passed the time and opportunity to take effect instead of adopting the questionable parent trigger. …

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Gov. Scott signs education repealer bill, says red tape is reduced for schools

Back in September, Gov. Rick Scott declared at the end of his education "listening tour" that teachers face too many "unnecessary requirements and regulations" that get in the way of classroom teaching. On Monday he signed into law SB 1096, which he said provides that relief.

"Many teachers and administrators I spoke with expressed the need for flexibility which led me to convene a group of superintendents from around the state to review and recommend red tape rules and regulations we should cut in order to increase teachers’ time in the classroom.  This legislation is a direct result of recommendations provided from the workgroup and we appreciate the input received from superintendents from across the state," Scott said in a news release. "This legislation removes unnecessary hurdles to preparing our students for college and careers and puts more control and flexibility into local districts hands so teachers can be where they belong – in the classroom, educating our students."

What does the bill do? Among its many provisions it: …

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Pinellas could close Hamilton Disston, move students to other centers

Pinellas school superintendent Mike Grego has proposed major changes to special education centers, closing Hamilton Disston and changing or eliminating some staff positions. The change would save the district about $6.5 million.

With the proposal, students who attended Hamilton Disston would be moved to either Calvin Hunsinger or Richard L. Sanders. Hamilton Disston would be renamed and used for the district’s extended transition program. The change would save about $1.8 million of the total – with the savings coming from the elimination of positions, such as principal and assistant principal.

Grego also wants to change some special education staffing.

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Florida education news: State budget, first-year teachers, Gay-Straight Alliance and more

FUNDING: Florida budget negotiators arrive at a compromise that includes more money for schools and universities, a teacher raise and a tuition increase. The education budget doesn't do what Gov. Scott asked for, though, and he should veto it, Tallahassee bureau chief Steve Bousquet writes. More from the Naples Daily News, Palm Beach Post, Orlando Sentinel.

SHOWDOWN: The Florida Senate moves toward a final vote on the parent trigger, its version differing from the House bill.

OUTTA HERE: Duval schools lose about half their first-year teachers after five years, the Florida Times-Union reports.

BROKE: A closed Collier private school sues two banks for failing to have adequate safeguards for embezzlement, leading to the school's downfall, the Fort Myers News-Press reports.

APPROVED: Students at Polk Kathleen High School get the OK to start up a Gay-Straight Alliance after many delays, the Ledger reports.

IMPACT FEES: Volusia officials near agreement to end a two-year moratorium on school impact fees, the Daytona Beach News-Journal reports. …

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USF shakes up its diversity practices

Jose Hernandez


Jose Hernandez

The University of South Florida is stepping up efforts to create a diverse campus for employees and students, expanding its Office of Diversity and Inclusion and creating the job of Chief Diversity Officer.

Monday, USF president Judy Genshaft gave the title to Jose E. Hernandez. Hernandez is a former USF employee who left the school in 2008 to become Associate Provost for Institutional Diversity and Inclusion for the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Before that, he was USF’s Director of Diversity and Inclusion from 2002 to 2008, and coordinator of USF’s McNair Scholars Program for graduate students from 2000 to 2002.

His job will be to oversee all diversity efforts, make sure a wide range of professors are getting hired and placed on tenure tracks and come up with programs to help students and staff from all walks get along. All the university’s diversity celebrations – gay pride, Hispanic heritage, recognitions of senior citizens, for example – will fall under Hernandez’s lead. …

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Grego trying to reassure employees at five schools

Pinellas school superintendent Mike Grego wants employees at the five schools facing state intervention to know that their jobs are most likely safe. We wrote Saturday that employees will be asked to reapply for their jobs at Melrose Elementary, Maximo Elementary, Fairmount Park Elementary, Pinellas Park Middle and Azalea Middle.

The action is required as part of a state turnaround model selected by district officials. But in a message sent out, Grego said that media coverage suggesting jobs could be on the line was "at best premature and at worst erroneous." He said the district is "simply intent on staffing these high need schools with individuals who have a special talent for helping high need students, as the law requires." The letter, which is posted below, reads in part:

"It’s true that there could be some personnel changes at your schools both at the leadership and instructional level. But to say that you are in danger of losing your jobs, which has been implied in recent press coverage, is at best premature and at worst erroneous. While some principals and teachers may be asked to reapply for jobs at their current school, and while some may be offered opportunities at other schools, most principals and teachers, especially high-performing ones, should not be concerned about their jobs with Pinellas County Schools." 

This is interesting to the Gradebook given that both Grego and district officials confirmed Friday that employees would be asked to reapply for their jobs. (Now, as it says in the story, that process for some teachers could be as simple as having their principal tell them they have a job next year.) The district hasn't asked for a correction, but Melanie Marquez Parra said today that district officials were concerned that the third paragraph of the story left the impression that affected employees could be out of a job entirely, rather than moved to a new school. To be clear, the district has several hundred openings every school year, so it's unlikely that anyone would be out of a teaching job entirely. The story was about the current job held by the employee - and it's clear that employees' jobs at the schools aren't guaranteed for the 2013/14 school year. 

Parra also said today that most people on the staff will keep their jobs and that principal decisions could be made as soon as next week. Asked Friday if Grego already had some indication that principals at certain schools were safe, so to speak, he said, "We're reassessing the principals." Of the district's choice of turnaround model, Grego said Friday, "The method by which were doing it is to re-examine all of the teachers." 

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Plant High senior has artwork in national competition

Ginger Goepper, Plant High School art teacher; Dorca Rivera; Hansel  Rivera; U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor; Rob Nelson, Plant High School Principal.

Office of U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor

Ginger Goepper, Plant High School art teacher; Dorca Rivera; Hansel Rivera; U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor; Rob Nelson, Plant High School Principal.

The artwork of a Plant High School senior will be on display at the U.S. Capitol during the Annual Congressional Art Competition on June 26.
Hansel Rivera is the winner of the U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor’s Congressional Choice Award. She congratulated Rivera personally during a visit to the south Tampa high school.
Rivera’s artwork will remain on display one year and automatically entered into the national congressional art competition, according to a statement from Castor's office.
Rivera has studied art throughout his four years at Plant. His winning entry was a portrait of his deceased grandfather, Rumaldo, in black and white charcoals. He plans to study business administration in college.

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Drug dogs-in-schools idea is still on a leash

It's not entirely clear if drug-sniffing dogs will make random appearances at high schools in Hillsborough County next year.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office told the Tampa Bay Times recently it is pretty far along in a plan to bring the dogs into school, in response to an apparent increase in marijuana use.

That was news to some School Board members.

"This board member has not heard about it," said board chairwoman April Griffin, who learned about the plan from our news report on Saturday. "I was not informed. I have a one-on-one tomorrow [with superintendent MaryEllen Elia] and I can tell you it will be discussed."

An email to board members from the district's communications office described the idea as speculative - not really a plan, but the subject of ongoing discussions between the district and its law enforcement partners.

Nevertheless, Griffin said, since the idea is bound to be controversial, she'd have wanted to be in the loop a lot sooner. …

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Florida lawmakers give schools more leeway to deal with cyberbullying

School leaders often have said their hands are tied when confronted with complaints of students bullying one another online outside of school.

The Florida Senate on Monday unanimously approved legislation that would give schools more power to deal with cyberbullying, regardless of where it takes place.

HB 609, which passed the House unanimously nearly four weeks ago, extends a school's reach to deal with bullying activities that happen away from campus if they disrupt learning or school operations. The language, which next heads to the governor, prohibits:

"Through the use of data or computer software that is accessed at a nonschool-related location, activity, function, or program or through the use of technology or an electronic device that is not owned, leased, or used by a school district or school, if the bullying substantially interferes with or limits the victim's ability to participate in or benefit from the services, activities, or opportunities offered by a school or substantially disrupts the education process or orderly operation of a school. This paragraph does not require a school to staff or monitor any nonschool-related activity, function, or program." …

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More Pinellas schools could face state intervention

Five chronically struggling schools in Pinellas County are facing state intervention in the coming school year, a process that includes forcing the principal and faculty members to reapply for their jobs. We wrote about that issue Saturday. But there are 10 other schools in Pinellas on the state's watch list and, if they don't improve soon, they'll be subject to the same state policy.

All of the schools earned D grades from the state and all dropped from a C grade the year before. They include: Bear Creek Elementary, Belleair Elementary, Campbell Park Elementary, Dunedin Elementary, High Point Elementary, Largo Middle, Pinellas Park Elementary, Ponce De Leon Elementary, Tyrone Middle, and Woodlawn Elementary. 

The School Board is scheduled to discuss the five schools at its work session Tuesday. But it will be interesting to see if any of the discussion involves a look at what's coming for the other 10 if things don't start looking up. 

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Florida lawmakers bend on teacher raises

While many of us were sleeping Sunday night, Florida lawmakers negotiated a plan to give many more teachers raises than they initially were inclined to give.

Facing a veto threat from Gov. Rick Scott, who campaigned hard for across-the-board $2,500 raises for teachers, House and Senate leaders moved away from their strict insistence that all raises be based on performance results. Instead, they crafted a last-minute compromise that would give districts flexibility in how to spend their share of $480 million set aside for teacher pay.

The new deal would let districts bargain the most favorable performance plans to spread the money as far as possible. Gov. Scott and Florida Education Association president Andy Ford issued a joint press release late Sunday praising the agreement.

"I want to thank the House and the Senate for ensuring that we build on our work to implement performance pay, while also allowing school districts the flexibility to use the $480 million in new funding to give every Florida teacher a pay raise," Scott said. "Our teachers are some of the best in the nation and they deserve to be rewarded for their great work." …

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Florida education news: Charter school funding, parent trigger, high school diplomas and more

MONEY FOR CHARTERS: Florida legislative budget negotiators agree to give charter schools $91 million for capital expenses, but fall short of finding a repeating revenue source. More on the budget deal from the News Service of Florida. See also statements from the House and Senate leaders.

DID YOU SIGN? Questions emerge about the validity of signatures on a petition supporting Florida's parent trigger legislation. The bill hits the Senate floor Monday.

SPEND TO SAVE: The Monroe School Board considers hiring an auditor to recoup some of the costs of rebuilding a middle school, the Keynoter reports.

NEW DIPLOMAS: Frequently asked questions about Florida's new graduation rules from the Orlando Sentinel. More from the Gainesville Sun.

LABOR NEWS: Monroe teachers push the district to end unpaid furloughs, the Keynoter reports.

COMMON CORE MATTERS: Education Commissioner Tony Bennett makes the case for the Common Core to a Broward audience, the Sun-Sentinel reports. • Duval's superintendent says his district teachers are not ready for the transition, the Florida Times-Union reports.

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