Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Education

Hillsborough School Board takes on safety of special-needs students

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School Board got down to the business Tuesday of responding to safety concerns raised in its exceptional student education department.

In a meeting that showed clear divisions in attitudes toward the administration, the board agreed to hold a three-hour workshop on the ESE program in January.

The agreement came amid talk on the board about the degree of oversight members should exert over the district's administration. April Griffin, in her first meeting as chairwoman, stopped short of trying to hire an outside auditor.

"Right now there is a great need for restoring the confidence that the public has in the school district," Griffin said afterward.

She said she had intended to put the auditor idea to a vote. But after discussing it earlier with superintendent MaryEllen Elia, she decided to wait until January.

Griffin did introduce two other motions intended to clarify board instructions to the staff and to track their responses. Both motions passed.

While the board undergoes a shift in power — the result of Griffin's chairmanship and the arrival of Cindy Stuart — the administration is responding to two student deaths this year, both in ESE.

In January, Sessums Elementary student Isabella Herrera stopped breathing aboard a school bus and later died.

In October, Rodgers Middle student Jennifer Caballero drowned in a pond by the school.

A work group, commissioned by Elia and assisted by the Council of the Great City Schools, produced an 88-page report this week that recommended numerous changes in training, verification of training, staffing and communication.

Already, Elia said, bus drivers are getting added training. Work on the other issues — which, in some cases, would require costly technological upgrades — is expected to continue at least through May.

"As thorough as the work group report is, it is not a completed task," Elia told the board. "It's a work in progress and it's an ongoing process to meet the needs of our students."

But while no one disagreed with the steps she has taken, some board members are troubled that they did not know until recently about the death of Isabella earlier this year.

"I am very disappointed in staff," member Stacy White said.

He applauded the work group report as a step in the right direction. But, he said, "we need this administration to work with this board. Keep this board in the loop. Take this board seriously."

Issues of accountability resurfaced as the board discussed how often Elia should report to them on the ESE reforms.

"Are we going to now micromanage the superintendent and the staff on every committee that they have?" member Carol Kurdell asked. "I'm having trouble with this."

Members White and Susan Valdes responded that, under the circumstances, they thought close scrutiny was appropriate.

Member Candy Olson urged the board not to lose sight of successes in ESE as the district proceeds with the needed reforms.

"Let's remember that we have strengths and build on our strengths," she said.

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