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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Pasco school officials prepare for contract negotiations

Responding to a union request to open contract negotiations for 2014-15, the Pasco County School Board has scheduled a closed-door session Tuesday to start planning its proposals.

First order of business? The administration plans to "talk to to the board about what it looks like they have for raises," district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said.

Until the current year, district employees went without raises for six years. Negotiating sessions found the United School Employees of Pasco asking for money and walking away empty handed, with reassurances that the district did the best it could. The administration and board placed layoff avoidance and fully paid insurance benefits at the top of its list.

The rebounding economy has given the district more flexibility, and the board and superintendent have made increasing pay a priority. Before they can head to the table, though, they have to work out the details. Watch for official offers to begin emerging soon.

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Ken Peluso to run for Pinellas school board

A retired Palm Harbor chiropracter and longtime education activist announced Wednesday that he'll run for Pinellas school board.

Ken Peluso, 57, is seeking the District 4 seat currently held by Robin Wikle, who has announced plans to vacate her seat.

"Serving on the school board is an important role that requires a proven effective leader with a passion for excellence in education, extensive community involvement, board experience, proven fiscal responsibility and successful businss background to tackle the many challenges facing our school system," Peluso said in a press release.

According to the release, Peluso has held a number of positions in education since 2007, when he was appointed to serve as the chairman of Pinellas's Early Learning Coalition. He has also served on the statewide Early Learning Advisory Council and spent three years on the Calvary Christian High School board.

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Florida lawmakers increase penalties for sex offenses committed by school workers

These days, the story is about Jennifer Fichter. Perhaps the most notorious name among Florida teachers who have been arrested for having sex with a student belongs to Debra Lafave.

Several more school workers have made the news for their inappropriate interactions with children. Four students from Hillsborough's Armwood High School asked Florida lawmakers to increase the penalties for school workers to take advantage of the youths in their schools.

On Wednesday, the Legislature obliged, with the Senate unanimously approving the Stop Harassing Underage Teens Act. The bill, which already passed the House, would reclassify the level of sexual offenses "committed by an authority figure of a school against a student of the school." For instance, a first degree felony would be reclassified to a life felony.

The student proponents told First Coast News their goal is to keep kids safe.

"It's an amazing feeling because we as students obviously see that there's a problem and if we see there's a problem as students in a public school, you know it must mean something that we're trying to get this done," said Elyse Chinowth, one of the Armwood students.

The bill next heads to Gov. Rick Scott.

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Pasco school district explores ways for outside groups to get information to students

It happens as regularly as the sports seasons. Community athletic teams ask schools to distribute information to students, so they can get more participants.

They're not alone. Martial arts schools, camps, and all sorts of organizations seek similar access. And more often than not, the district rejects the requests, rationalizing that it's not in the business of advertising non-educational programs for private entities. Sometimes, though, schools allow the groups to put papers in the front office for parents to pick up if they're interested.

District leaders are considering a new process that might allow information to flow a bit more freely.

A committee met Tuesday to discuss the creation of a format by which organizations can submit information they'd like to get to students. They would fill out an online form, which a review panel would go over and decide whether to allow distribution to students. This model would create more consistency among schools, while also not forcing individual schools to spend time dealing with outside handouts.

District communication director Linda Cobbe said no decisions have been made.

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Florida education news: Tuition, engineering, charter schools and more

IMMIGRANT TUITION: The Florida Senate removes technical hurdles that had blocked a bill granting in-state university tuition to illegal immigrants. This issue should be a priority for passage before the session ends, the Times editorializes.

ENGINEERING SCHOOL: Lawmakers compromise on a dispute over whether to split the joint FAMU-FSU engineering program.

'FINGERS CROSSED': A Pasco County family fights to keep open a charter school for children with autism.

BRIGHT FUTURES: Florida lawmakers should consider changing the requirements for university scholarships, the Ledger editorializes.

SCHOOL GRADES: The Legislature nears passage of a streamlined school grading law with a one-year transition period, the News Service of Florida reports.

NEVER TOO LATE: A Collier mom and her son graduate together from the district's GED program, the Naples Daily News reports.

SHORT END: Polk public schools lose out in a Tallahassee school construction funding deal, the Ledger reports.

CLEANING HOUSE: A controversial Miami-Dade charter school changes its management, the Miami Herald reports.

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New principal for Middleton High School

Kim Moore

Kim Moore

Kim Moore is the new principal of Middleton High School, replacing Owen Young.Moore, 56, who joined the district in 2000, taught at Gaither High and worked in staff development before she joined Middleton in 2008 as assistant principal.

The Hillsborough County School Board on Tuesday also named April Gillyard as principal of Roland Park K-8 School; Rachel Walters as principal of Shaw Elementary; and Frank Diaz as principal of Webb Middle School.

Jeremy Klein was named supervisor of charter schools, to replace Jenna Hodgens. She's now the director of charter schools, a promotion that reflects the department's growing work load.

In addition, another high-ranking transportation employee left the department. Julia Saltzgaver, who was the department's operations manager, will become an administrator on special assignment in ATOSS (alternative to out-of-school suspension.)


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Pasco principal resigns to take Pinellas administrative job

Lou Cerreta gave his staff at Cotee River Elementary the news early Tuesday: He's resigned his principal post effective May 20, to become director of professional development for Pinellas County schools.

"It's truly bittersweet," said Cerreta, who joined his school in 2011. "I love Cotee River. But there was an opportunity. It sounds very exciting."

In his new job, which the Pinellas School Board still must approve, Cerreta would oversee the training of aspiring leaders, organize teacher recruitment and lead staff development, among other duties. A long-time principal in both Hillsborough and Pasco counties, he has not worked at such a high district level before.

Pasco officials have considered him a rising star, tagging him for advisory groups on a regular basis. He's also won praise for his decision to deemphasize the high stakes of testing for his students, while still making gains in most areas. …

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Immigrant tuition bill headed to a Senate vote

One of the most controversial bills of the session is on its way to becoming law.

In the most quiet of ways on Tuesday, members of the Florida Senate agreed to hear a bill that would allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates at Florida colleges and universities.

The proposal is likely to pass. Twenty-one of the 40 senators have publicly expressed their support. Another four have voted for the bill in previous committee stops.

Advancing the bill to the Senate floor was heavy lift for its sponsor, Sen. Jack Latvala.

Earlier this month, Senate Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, had used a procedural maneuver to block the proposal from moving through the legislative process. Latvala's later attempts at adding the language to separate bills failed.

But on Tuesday, powerful Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher motioned to waive the Senate rules so that the immigrant tuition bill (HB 851) could be considered.

Senate President Don Gaetz asked if there were any objections. There were none.

Gaetz approved the motion and moved on with the agenda.

Gaetz, R-Niceville, opposes the bill. But he had said he would not stop it from reaching the Senate floor. …

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USF prepares for record number of graduates

When the University of South Florida celebrates graduation this weekend, it will mark a new record high in the number of diplomas it confers.

USF officials attribute the nearly 6,500 diplomas to a system-wide effort to increase its six-year graduation rate. That rate is up to 63 percent, an increase of 15 percent from five years ago, according to the university.

Here's how the graduation numbers break out:

USF System Total - 6,431

USF Tampa - 5,547 (Bachelors: 4,213, Masters: 1,140, Doctoral: 194)

USF St. Petersburg - 473

USF Sarasota-Manatee - 268

Commencement events will take place Friday through Monday.

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Florida House gives charter schools another $25 million for facilities

The House and Senate agreed Monday to spend $50 million from the Public Education Capital Outlay trust fund on charter school maintenance.

But just before midnight, the House added another $25 million, bringing the total to $75 million.

That's still less than the $91 million charter schools received last year.

Lawmakers also reached a deal on K-12 education funding that will pump more than $100 million into maintenance and construction for traditional public schools statewide.

District leaders celebrated the news. Most school systems have not received money from the Public Education Capital Outlay trust fund since 2011.

"This is a step in the right direction, considering the capital needs of Florida schools," Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said. "We hope this is a sign of things to come in future years."

Read more here.

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Florida education news: School construction, graduation rates, pension plans and more

CONSTRUCTION FUNDS: Florida lawmakers put $100 million into traditional school maintenance and construction, reversing a trend of recent years.

REMOVED: A top Pinellas teachers union official is barred from the classroom and could lose his teaching certificate over inappropriate conduct with students.

EXPANSION: Pasco-Hernando State College buys land to expand its Spring Hill campus.

GRADUATION RATE: Florida's is among the lowest in the nation, the Associated Press reports.

SPENDING: The Manatee school district implements a targeted spending freeze, the Bradenton Herald reports.

RETIREMENT PLAN: Florida teachers oppose a proposal to change the state pension system, the Sun-Sentinel reports.

GUNS: The Florida House approves a measure to allow teachers to carry weapons in schools, the Miami Herald reports.

TEXTBOOKS: The House does not accept a Senate measure to have school districts run textbook adoptions, the AP reports.

SEEKING MORE INFORMATION: The Alachua school district sends parents a letter asking if their children had been victimized by a teacher recently arrested on sexual abuse allegations, the Gainesville Sun reports.

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Lawmakers OK engineering study language that protects FAMU

From the Buzz:

The Board of Governors will have two options when it conducts a study on the future of the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering. It can keep the status quo, meaning the 32-year-old partnership between Florida State University and Florida A&M University will continue operating as it has. Or the board can decide to create differentiated programs at each university, meaning certain majors or degrees would be offered at FAMU and different ones would be available at FSU.

What is not an option: splitting the school in a way that leaves FAMU without an engineering program, something its advocates feared would happen under the Senate plan to funnel $13 million to FSU so it can begin creating its own engineering school.

"Slowing down was the best thing to do and this Legislature made the right decision in taking time to really evaluate the interests of both universities," said Sean Pittman, a lobbyist for FAMU.

Read more here.

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Bus drivers demand respect in Hillsborough

Respect was the prevailing theme at Monday night's town hall meeting for school bus drivers in Hillsborough. Driver after driver at the Beulah Baptist Church in West Tampa told five School Board members they're not respected by school administrators and they're not respected by students.

As we did during the first three meetings, Gradebook produced an audio recording and took good notes. Here are some of the comments, numbered to pick up from this post. Again, the caveats: There is no response from the administration to any of this, and not all speakers gave their names.

97. Michael Hadley, former president of the transit workers union, warned against allowing the district to privatize the transportation department.

98. Tamara Hightower also spoke out against privatization. "I'm 40 years old and I don't want to go private," she said. "I'm only making $14.03 an hour and I've been driving buses for 19 years." She also said the drivers should go back to designing their own routes. …

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State universities will share $250M in facilities funding

UPDATE: Additional funding for the University of South Florida St. Petersburg business school was among the list of projects on the Senate's supplemental funding list released late Monday. That $2 million is added to the money already in the budget, bringing the total amount to $10 million in state dollars to begin planning for a new business school building.

ORIGINAL POST: Lawmakers agreed on the school funding budget Monday, including more than $250 million for state universities and $108 million for community colleges.

The projects include $8 million for a business school at University of South Florida St. Petersburg. The plan also includes $10 million to expand a college of engineering shared by Florida State University and Florida A & M University that just days ago seemed headed for separation.

Florida International University is allocated $5 million toward completion of its student academic center and $10 million to begin the process of relocating the Miami-Dade County Fair and acquiring land near the Modesto Maidique Campus in Miami. …

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House approves plan to arm teachers

The Florida House on Monday gave its approval to a bill that would let teachers pack heat at school.

The 71-44 vote Monday was largely symbolic. The proposal is a long shot in the more moderate Senate, where it has stalled in committee.

Still, the vote made one thing clear: the National Rifle Association is powerful force in the Florida Capitol.

"This is the sixth gun-related bill that we’ve done this session," said Rep. Lori Berman, a Lantana Democrat. "Meanwhile, background checks have not been discussed. It's no wonder Florida has the nickname the Gunshine State."

The bill (SB 968/HB 753) would let school leaders designate certain employees to carry concealed weapons on campus. In order to be considered, the employees would have to have a concealed weapons license and either military or law enforcement experience.

The proposal would also require schools to hold drills to prepare for active-shooter situations.

Republican Rep. Greg Steube, of Sarasota, first pitched the idea in early 2013, weeks after a shooter killed 20 students and six staff members at a Connecticut elementary school.

The NRA was an early supporter of the proposal. …

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