Pasco schools say virtual ed's a real budget breaker

LAND O'LAKES — As Pasco schools look to the future of education, online courses for kindergarten through eighth grade rate high on the priority list.

"It's the smart thing to do," said Angie Murphy, a curriculum specialist who's heading the district's preparations for a virtual K-8 school.

But with revenue shrinking and spending cuts ongoing, it's not the right thing to do just now, superintendent Heather Fiorentino said Tuesday. Yet unless Florida lawmakers change the law, all 67 school districts, including Pasco, will have to launch full-time virtual learning options for elementary and middle school students by August.

"I'm not being funded to do it. I'm just being told I have to do it," said Fiorentino, who is leading a statewide effort to get a reprieve. "We just can't afford doing it this year."

She said her staff has estimated the startup costs for the program — including such things as curriculum development and infrastructure — could run as high as $1-million. Although over time it would be expected to become self-sufficient, the school's initial price tag looks too steep when the district can't even afford employee raises, she added.

"When you're tightening, that's not the right thing to do," Fiorentino said.

Other districts are taking up the cause, as well.

"We're advocating a change in the language from shall to may, to give districts the option during this tough budget time to do it or not do it," said Scott Howat, lobbyist for Orange County schools and president of the Florida Education Legislative Liaisons.

That way, districts such as Hillsborough, which already offer K-8 online programs, would not have to stop. But the larger number that have yet to establish theirs won't be forced to jump into the idea by hastily adopting courses and setting up the structure, or by entering contracts with one of the two vendors that offer courses.

"We are really looking for flexibility," Howat said.

Fiorentino argued that the initiative is important enough to warrant waiting to get the best quality curriculum for students, when the money is available to pay the costs and free up the people to prepare it.

"It's not something that we can say, 'Let's just do it,' " said Murphy, who's been studying ideas for about six months and recently put together a planning task force. "We are moving in the right direction. It's just, how fast do we need to go?"

Pasco leaders tried to get lawmakers to delay the required implementation date during the special session that is ending this week. Fiorentino suggested that the issue is perhaps second only to the class-size amendment in terms of imposing deadlines that appear impossible to meet.

It gained no traction. But that doesn't mean lawmakers weren't listening.

"I think it's something we will look at during special session," said Rep. Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel, one of the lawmakers who pushed to expand local virtual education options last spring. "I'm a believer in what it does. But also I recognize we can't ask them to do things they don't have the money to pay for."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

Pasco schools say virtual ed's a real budget breaker 01/13/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 13, 2009 8:32pm]

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