Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Pasco School Board: Principals should alert families of potentially controversial books

Recently adopted law that gives parents and other residents more opportunities to review and challenge school instructional materials has sparked the Pasco County School Board to take a closer look at how it deals with such situations.

The board last week reviewed proposed policy revisions and quickly turned to how it might prevent disputes from getting out of control.

Board chairman Cynthia Armstrong asked staff to clarify the rule.

"The time to challenge the textbook is prescribed in statutes," she said. "They need to be aware of the adoption schedule … so we aren’t redoing something a second time."

Supplemental materials assigned by individual teachers raised a different concern. Board members said that while they adopt the review policy, school leaders must know they have the authority to handle situations that arise.

"The principals are on the line first," said board member Steve Luikart, a retired school administrator.

Board member Allen Altman suggested teachers tell families if they think something in the materials could be considered offensive.

That’s a potentially tall order, said board member Colleen Beaudoin, a veteran math teacher.

"You can’t anticipate what someone is going to find offensive," she said.

Superintendent Kurt Browning agreed, offering as an example an art class that includes nudes you would see in a museum. Some parents might object, he said, while others might think nothing of it.

He proposed that principals remind teachers to read all the materials they plan to assign and, if possible, distribute lists in advance. That way, anyone with concerns can raise them before their children start asking awkward questions about what they are reading.

That has happened in Pasco schools, most recently in 2016 when a substitute teacher assigned the novel "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" to students without first reading the book. Parents complained about the sexual content, and the school later removed the title from its shelves.

Browning said at the time he wanted schools to post reading lists, but that has yet to become a district requirement.

CHARTER CLOSING: An online-based charter school with a history of trouble in Pasco County is abandoning its contract at the end of the school year.

Florida Cyber Charter Academy, formerly known as Florida Virtual Academy, has advised superintendent Kurt Browning that it will not seek renewal, but will continue to offer classes through May.

The school’s closure does not mean its 348 students will suddenly have to seek a new venue for their education.

"Fortunately, parent and student choice remains viable as students currently enrolled in the virtual school program can continue their on-line experience through other counties," Reid Cocalis, a lawyer for the group, wrote in a letter to Browning.

Florida Cyber will bolster its operations in Osceola and Duval counties, charter board chairwoman Melissa Ley said.

She said the Pasco-enrolled students who want to continue need only to fill out paperwork to remain in the programs they’ve been attending.

Florida Cyber was on a rocky path in Pasco long before reaching its decision. The School Board reluctantly approved its original charter, and regularly warned the school that its poor performance jeopardized its future.

The organization already had schools shut down in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

COURT COSTS: The Pasco County school board’s failed effort to reassign a small number of west-side students to different schools could end up costing taxpayers more than $500,000.

Parents who fought the board’s 2017 decision to move about 170 children in the Longleaf and Ellington subdivisions have asked the court that voided the move to make the district cover their legal expenses.

Parents estimated that after accounting for time, complexity and other factors, their costs totaled $511,409. District officials have not provided the board’s full legal expenses in the case, but estimate they reached about $125,000 so far.

Jim Stanley, one of the plaintiffs, noted the rezoning resulted in the move of fewer than 60 children. At the same time, schools targeted for crowding relief remained over-capacity.

In the latest school district average daily attendance reports, Mitchell High School had 2,208 students, and Seven Springs Middle had 1,635.

"It should outrage every taxpayer in Pasco County that our Superintendent and School Board chose to defend an unlawful process that moved 47 children and which in the end could cost the taxpayers over $750,000," Stanley said via email.

District officials repeatedly have denied their rezoning process was improper.

IN THE HUNT: A longtime Pasco County music teacher with a strong Dade City family history has resigned his job and submitted paperwork to run for School Board District 1.

Kenneth Mathis, who taught at Pasco Middle School until about three weeks ago, is the second challenger to seek the east-county seat held by three-term incumbent Allen Altman.

Mathis said he left his job to "dedicate 100 percent of my time" to his campaign. His primary goals, he said, are to improve student discipline and teacher morale.

He said he would aim to reduce student testing.

District records indicate that Mathis resigned amid an employee relations investigation into his use of time while on the job.

"A meeting was scheduled for me to go talk with him," said employee relations director Kathy Scalise. "He resigned."

She said the review involved Mathis saying he was leaving school to go to the nearby county fair grounds, but then being seen "somewhere else far from there."

Mathis had done such things in the past, according to district files, and was on a last-chance agreement.

For his part, Mathis said he did not see eye-to-eye with the Pasco Middle administration on the way it deals with students sent to the office because of misbehavior.

He said he had a no-nonsense approach to disrespectful students and would not tolerate their defiance of authority. Sometimes, he said, that got him crosswise with the office.

Mathis also took issue with the "gotcha" approach to teacher evaluations he said the staff had experienced.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected] Follow @jeffsolochek.

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