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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Pasco officials reveal "Item 2" budget cut

A day after it won tentative approval in the FY2014 budget, Item 2 — a $1.5 million spending cut — became public during contract negotiations with the district's non-instructional staff.

The plan, which neither staff nor board members would discuss during a public hearing, calls for the elimination of an early retirement benefit that the district had offered since 1997. It has been used to supplement the retirement pay of workers who left the district shy of full vesting in the state pension system, and who had 25 years of service (including at least 12 years of service in the district), and who had reached the top of the pay schedule.

If employees aren't in the system by Sept. 30, the proposal states, they wouldn't be eligible any longer. See the proposal here.

Board members said they wanted to reveal the information at their budget hearing, in the name of transparency. But they did not want to damage contract negotiations by presenting the details too soon. …

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Four new middle school programs coming to Pinellas in 2014

Superintendent Mike Grego has talked about the need to revamp some of the programs at underachieving schools in Pinellas County to make them more attractive to parents and students.

Earlier this year, a committee met quietly to analyze data at 11 schools. Committee members were looking for "potential barriers" and enhancements to attract high-performing students. The schools included: seven elementaries — Belleair, Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo, Melrose and Sandy Lane — and four middle schools: Azaelea, Bay Point, John Hopkins and Pinellas Park.

Now it appears that the school district will add four new middle school programs in August 2014, including two schools from the original 11. Pinellas Park Middle will have a Cambridge Pre-Advanced Certificate of International Education, while Azalea Middle will have an "engineering gateway to technology" program. 

Pinellas Park Middle and Azalea Middle both are undergoing state-mandated restructuring this year because of chronic low performance.  …

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Gov. Rick Scott says Tony Bennett is 'doing a great job'

Gov. Rick Scott and Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett met with superintendents, teachers and principals from around the state in December.


Gov. Rick Scott and Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett met with superintendents, teachers and principals from around the state in December.

After a couple days of radio silence about the scandal involving Florida's education commissioner, Gov. Rick Scott finally has something to say. He told Channel 5 in West Palm Beach that Tony Bennett is "doing a great job."

Scott praised Bennett for being "very focused on accountability" and reiterated how well Florida's students are doing. Scott didn't say whether Bennett's job is secure, however. See the interview here. Scott has been through several education commissioners during his tenure as governor.

Bennett has been defending himself all week against an Associated Press report that he changed the grade for a charter school in Indiana run by a prominent Republican donor. See our story here.

Bennett told reporters Tuesday that he's gotten a lot of support from legislators and those in the governor's office. Former Gov. Jeb Bush's foundation put out a statement of support Tuesday. Rick Hess posted Wednesday his own interview with Bennett.

Two Democratic lawmakers called Wednesday for Bennett to resign.

Scott's comments to Channel 5 are similar to a statement released by his communications director, Melissa Sellers: 


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Task force recommends nine-week grading period in Pinellas

A task force of district officials and union leaders have recommended that Pinellas County's public schools switch from a six-week grading period to a nine-week period, saying that it would provide students with more instruction and a greater ability to recover from poor marks early on.

The recommendation isn't one that could be implemented for the coming school year. That calendar already has gone through committee and been approved by the School Board. There doesn't appear to be much research about whether a particular length is better for students, so it might be a matter of preference. Many school districts nationwide use a six-week grading period; many others use a nine-week period. At the college level, grading periods can be 12 weeks or longer.

The task force was formed last year under former superintendent John Stewart after the teachers union agreed to give up early-release Wednesdays in the 2013/14 school year. (Point of clarification here: The task force wasn't created by Stewart. It was part of the negotiated agreement between the district and the union.) The group was instructed to consider how school schedules could be arranged to allow teachers enough planning time without taking away from instructional time.

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Pasco district officials blast community college over proposed dual enrollment fees

Though unhappy about it, Pasco County schools superintendent Kurt Browning had resigned himself to the fact that his district would have to pay tuition costs for students to take dual enrollment classes at Pasco-Hernando Community College.

The Legislature approved the funding change in the spring to deal with college president complaints that the program costs had grown too steep. And like it or not, Browning acknowledged, the law is the law.

What Browning wasn't prepared for was the college's demand for administrative fees of $37.73 per student, beyond the $73.20 per credit hour. Making matters worse, he said, the college wants the fee even when students are taking dual enrollment courses at Pasco County schools from Pasco County teachers.

"It’s ridiculous," Browning said during a presentation to the School Board on Tuesday. "I want  to know what costs the college is incurring for using our buildings and our teachers. ... I will tell you I am not happy about it." …

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Florida education news: Tony Bennett, school grades, first grade retention and more

UNDER PRESSURE: Florida education commissioner Tony Bennett defends himself against accusations of political manipulation of school grades in Indiana, while speculation rises about his future in Florida. The stories about Bennett's actions in Indiana lead to questions about his credibility, the Times editorializes. More from the Associated Press, Orlando Sentinel, Education Week

SPARKS FLY: Hillsborough School Board members confront their superintendent and lawyer over comments made at a recent board meeting.

NEEDS IMPROVEMENT: School grades bring surprises and more work to several Pasco schools. • Polk's superintendent says she will focus on data rather than grades as she aims to turn around six struggling schools, the Ledger reports. • Bay superintendent Bill Husfelt says he's lost faith in the state grading system, the Panama City News Herald reports.

EXTRA MONEY: Hernando officials reconsider whether to keep charging students activity fees, which are poorly collected.

BUDGET NEWS: Public hearings take place in Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando.

ARRESTED: PolitiFact investigates a claim that Florida led the nation in school-related arrests and finds it "half true." …

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Principals are named, Hillsborough district hires Times marketing manager

Joshua Hodges, principal, Essrig Elementary School

Marlene Sokol / Times

Joshua Hodges, principal, Essrig Elementary School

The Hillsborough County School Board named these principals at its meeting Tuesday.

  • Bevis Elementary School: Melanie Cochrane.
  • Essrig Elementary School: Joshua Hodges.
  • Barrington Middle School: Amy Lusk.

The board also approved these appointments:

  • Grace Posada, marketing manager for the Times Publishing Company in Tampa, will be manager of the department of strategic initiative communications and marketing.
  • Jason Pepe, manager of customer services in human resources, will be manager of communications.
  • Barbara Miraglia, evaluator and lead mentor at Giunta Middle School, will be supervisor for professional development.

The full set of administrative appointments and transfers is here.

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Hillsborough School Board ponders budget transparency

As they prepared to vote for a $2.8-billion budget and a property tax rate of $7.69 per $1,000 of value, several Hillsborough County School Board members reminded the audience how imperfect the system is in Hillsborough and statewide.

First the state issue: Unless the board approves the tax rate mandated by the state, Hillsborough misses out on nearly $1-billion in state funding.

"This is the most convoluted taxation system that I have ever seen with respect to education finance," said member Stacy White. "I'm going to be voting yes to the millage rate in protest... That yes vote will be with my hands tied and at gunpoint."

Homeowners are likely to be assessed more money due to rising property values, he said, even though the rate is going down. "I want to remind those folks that it's not really the school board levying that tax, but it's bureaucrats in Tallahassee levying that tax."

Echoing his statements in years past, he added that there is still not as much transparency in the budget process as he would like. …

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Trainings seek to improve ESE safety

Hillsborough County School Board members were shown a safety video that will be presented to all school employees before the start of school. It is part of an effort to increase training in response to elementary school shootings in Connecticut in December and the deaths in Hillsborough of two special-needs students.

Marlene Sokol / Times

Hillsborough County School Board members were shown a safety video that will be presented to all school employees before the start of school. It is part of an effort to increase training in response to elementary school shootings in Connecticut in December and the deaths in Hillsborough of two special-needs students.

In addition to half-days of paraprofessional training, the Hillsborough County is expanding the training it offers to all school employees at the beginning of the school year.

The training, some of it using videos, is the result of a district work group that met after the deaths in 2012 of two special-needs students. Deputy Superintendent Jeff Eakins said the effort also considered overall security issues in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Connecticut in December.

School Board members on Tuesday were shown a short introductory video that stresses the need for all employees to take responsibility for all students. More specific videos will focus on emergency procedures and special-needs students, Eakins said.

More than 700 exceptional student education paraprofessionals -- formerly called aides and attendants -- have signed up for mandatory training Aug. 14 and 15. Nancy French, a national expert on paraprofessional training, will be a keynote speaker.

Board members hope the videos will soon be on the school district website for public viewing.

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Bush's foundation backs Bennett

Embattled Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett received support Tuesday from Foundation for Florida's Future, the education organization helmed by former Gov. Jeb Bush.

Bush, of course, pioneered Florida's system of school grades. Bennett was accused Monday of meddling with Indiana's school grading system to benefit a school run by a GOP donor when he was the schools chief there.

Bennett said that seeing a school he knew was doing great work receive a "C" made him realize the grading formula was incorrect.

"Commissioner Bennett and his department found and corrected a mistake that would have unfairly penalized 13 schools missing data for grades they did not even serve. They fixed a problem to be accurate and fair - any accusation otherwise is false and politically motivated," reads the statement released by Bush's foundation Tuesday afternoon.

It goes on: "A-F school grading empowers parents to know how well schools are serving their children, in a transparent and easy to understand way. In 2012, Indiana was in its first year of its new school grading calculation, and there is always a learning process when implementing a policy new to a state. …

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Bennett continues to defend himself against grade change report

Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett continued to defend himself Tuesday against an Associated Press story that said he changed the grade of an Indiana charter school for political reasons. See the original AP story here.

Bennett told the Times/Herald Monday that he changed the grade for Christel House Academy last fall because it had earned a C - a sure sign that the new grading calculations were off. The A grade it ended up with better reflected its academic prowess. He said few in Indianapolis would disagree that the charter school is one of the best schools in the area. 

He called it "absurd" that anyone would believe the change was politically motivated.

"That's fictitious at best and it's totally unfounded," he said Tuesday during a media call with reporters.

Bennett repeatedly said Tuesday that he and his staff members were simply trying to correct a clear problem with a new formula. Indiana, while it had a school grading system for years, was using a new calculation last year in its switch from a numeric system to one with the A to F grades. 

"We did nothing wrong, we did nothing covert, we did nothing secretive," he said. …

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Is the Common Core good or bad for school choice?

As Common Core implementation approaches, teachers across the country are preparing to use the new model for instruction. The advent of this sea change has generated many debates, such as whether local schools should be subjected to a national curriculum, if that's indeed what the Common Core is.

Over at the Redefined blog, run by the group that oversees Florida's corporate tax credit scholarships, the discussion has turned to whether the CCSS will benefit or hurt the school choice movement.

Jason Bedrick of the Cato Institute wrote that the Common Core will damage choice:

"Rather than complement school choice, Common Core undermines it. To address the diverse needs of diverse children, we should be supporting an education system that provides a truly diverse array of options and entrusting parents to decide which option best meets the individual needs of their children. In exerting tremendous pressure on private schools to conform, Common Core would reduce the number and diversity of those options."

Doug Tuthill of Step Up for Students took the opposite position: …

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Pasco teachers reminded to keep classrooms safe

As Pasco teachers prepare to return to their classrooms in just over a week, the district is reminding them of the most common violations of fire code that inspectors have found year after year.

The message is to avoid these problems as much as possible going forward.

These include:

- A non-fire sprinkled building may not cover more than 20% of each classroom wall.
- A fully fire sprinkled building may not cover more than 50% of each classroom wall.
- No paper or student work is allowed on these walls as this is your path out of the building in the event of a fire.
- Paper or anything combustible is prohibited from being hung from the ceiling.
- The use of extension cords is not permitted. The power strips that have a circuit breaker are allowed providing they are plugged directly into the wall outlet.
- No hanging of paper on exit doors. Only exception is when a lockdown is taking place.

So if you're wondering why classrooms display only limited amounts of student artwork, for instance, you'll understand that it's just teachers following the rules.

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Florida education news: Tony Bennett, F grades, tax rates and more

UNDER FIRE: Florida education commissioner Tony Bennett defends himself against a report that he used his position to change the grade of an Indiana charter school run by an influential political supporter. See the original AP story and the related emails for more information.

OUSTED: The principal of Hernando Eastside Elementary is removed days after the school receives its first F grade from the state.

IN THE RUNNING: The backer of several reform-minded Hillsborough School Board candidates decides to run for a seat himself.

BUDGETING: The Hillsborough school district tax rate is slated to decrease even as spending looks to rise in key areas.

HEALTHY EATING: All Florida school districts are complying with new federal school nutrition laws, but some complaints still remain, the Fort Myers News-Press reports.

LABOR NEWS: The Charlotte school district begins rehiring laid off teachers and looking at raises for support employees, the Fort Myers News-Press reports. • The University of Florida declares impasse in negotiations with faculty, the Gainesville Sun reports.

FOR SALE: The Manatee school district continues to market excess property to raise needed cash, the Bradenton Herald reports. …

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Hernando elementary principal out after school earns F

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County superintendent Lori Romano vowed late last week she would take immediate action after Eastside Elementary became the first school in the county’s history to receive an F grade from the state.

And she has.

On Monday, Romano announced that Brooksville Elementary principal Mary LeDoux would take over the struggling school, replacing Tim Urban, who came to the school a year before after it earned a D from the state.

Romano said the F grade was a “strong factor” in removing Urban — but not the only one.

“We really looked across a lot of different data — not just school data,” she said.

Click here to read more of the story.

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