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School superintendent foes' statements fair, if not precise

The race for Pasco school superintendent has focused largely on the subjective issue of who's better suited to lead the 10,000-employee, 65,000-student district. But within the debate, some specific claims have emerged regarding the state of the school system. While we can't objectively judge whether challenger Stephen Donaldson or incumbent Heather Fiorentino will be better for student performance or employee morale, we can evaluate their statements to determine whether they're giving you the straight scoop.

The statement

"Our district has one of the lowest administrative overhead costs in the state of Florida (3.04 percent)."

Heather Fiorentino, in response to a campaign survey to the Times

Our ruling

Fiorentino frequently makes this comment at campaign forums and School Board meetings to demonstrate that the district is frugal with its resources, putting the bulk of the money into classroom-related expenses. Florida Department of Education reports show Pasco does have one of the lowest administrative costs per student in Florida — it has stood among the 10 lowest for the past decade. But state reports also indicate that in 2006-07, the latest available figures, Pasco's administrative costs totaled about 7 percent of the general operating budget, not 3.04 percent. Fiorentino says she's speaking about the amount budgeted for administrative costs at the district level, while the state has a more expansive definition that includes some costs at the schools. Even Fiorentino's own staff has urged her to change her statement to make it more accurate. Chief finance officer Olga Swinson "has been saying I need to say, 'administrative indirect costs,' " Fiorentino acknowledges. Until she does, we rate her statement HALF TRUE.

The statement

"Pasco County high schools are ranked 35 of 67 in the state with a combined GPA of 2.1."

Stephen Donaldson, in response to a Times questionnaire

Our ruling

Right after citing these numbers, Donaldson states, "Average is not good enough. We can do better." He's challenging Fiorentino's campaign claims that the district has improved academically during her tenure. But he misstates his case. When asked for the data that backs up his statement, Donaldson provided a 2006-07 Department of Education spreadsheet of FCAT results for all Pasco schools — not just high schools. It shows that, based on the state's test scoring, Pasco was 35th among all districts. It also showed that Pasco's 10 high schools had received two D's, six C's, one B and one A — a "grade-point average" of 2.1. One more thing: He provided that document nearly three months after the state released a 2007-08 report that put the district in a better light. The newer numbers showed Pasco tied for 31st in the state, with the high schools' GPA coming in at 2.45. Donaldson explained in an e-mail, "We forwarded you the 06-07 data to show you where we obtained our statistics. As for the last year — we haven't seen significant improvements for the 07-08 year." The district could still "do better," as Donaldson said, but it's not quite as bad as he suggested, either. We rate his statement HALF TRUE.

The statement

"Fifty percent of our teachers have five years or less (experience), and 40 percent of those have alternative certification."

Heather Fiorentino, during a campaign debate on Oct. 7, 2008, at Pasco-Hernando Community College

Our ruling

Many teachers have argued that Fiorentino's $5-million implementation of a staff development initiative called Learning Focused Strategies has been a waste of time and money. Fiorentino says the expense was necessary to get all teachers using the same "best practices." That was especially important, she says, because so many in the system have limited experience. The records back her up. In 2007, when many teachers were being trained in the strategies, 2,103 of the district's 4,409 teachers — or 48 percent — had five years or less experience. Certification statistics from the Florida Department of Education support her statement that about 40 percent of the less-experienced teachers did not attend a traditional teacher education program. Fiorentino has noted, during the debate and elsewhere, that the percentages dipped this year because the schools were able to hire more experienced teachers. Our review of district employee records this year shows that 2,033 of 5,065 teachers (or 40 percent) started in 2004 or later. Like LFS or not, the numbers behind Fiorentino's justification are sound. Allowing for some rounding, we rate Fiorentino's statement TRUE.

The statement

"We can be an A district, as my opponent has pointed out, yet not all of our schools have made AYP [adequate yearly progress under No Child Left Behind]."

Stephen Donaldson, during a campaign debate on Oct. 7, 2008, at PHCC

Our ruling

Donaldson argues that the district's A grade from the state, which Fiorentino touts as a measure of success, does not take into account the fact that many schools have yet to fully meet federal academic progress standards. And it's completely accurate. Of the district's 79 mainstream, charter and alternative schools, just seven — that's 9 percent — made adequate yearly progress, or AYP, last year. That's down from the previous year, and lower than the statewide rate of 24 percent of schools. As the Florida Department of Education stresses, though, not making AYP does not mean a school is failing, but rather that it has not met all 39 criteria set forth by the federal government. And that's a tough measure. To meet all the criteria, students in every demographic group must make sufficient gains in reading, math and writing. In Pasco, 66 schools met at least 80 percent of those criteria. But the federal guideline is a pass/fail, and almost isn't good enough. We rate Donaldson's statement as TRUE.

School superintendent foes' statements fair, if not precise 10/25/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 30, 2008 7:22pm]
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