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Statements by Pasco superintendent Fiorentino touting her record are mostly on the mark

LAND O'LAKES — In seeking reelection to a third term, Pasco County schools superintendent Heather Fiorentino is touting the district's record as proof of her successful leadership.

In a press release announcing her bid, she cited statistics ranging from graduation rates to the number of new schools built as evidence that "the District School Board of Pasco County continues to shine with Fiorentino at the helm."

Fiorentino's facts and figures are generally correct, but they don't always tell the full story. We evaluated four statements from her press release.

The statement

The district "increased student achievement, with the district increasing its overall points under the state recognition system, earning an outstanding B rating (earning just five points below an A)."

Heather Fiorentino, superintendent

The ruling

The district did get a B, earning five points below an A, in the 2010-11 state recognition system. The total points earned — 520 — was up from a year earlier, when the district scored 517 points.

The points were down, though, from both 2007-08 (526 points) and 2008-09 (530 points), when the district earned an A grade from the state. But they're up overall from 2006-07, when the district earned 507 points and a B.

Before 2006-07, the state graded districts on fewer criteria, so scores before that year don't correlate.

Test scores largely support Fiorentino's claim of "increased student achievement." Since 2005-06, the first full school year under Fiorentino's watch, the district has improved its percentages of students achieving at grade level or better in reading, math and science on the FCAT. But it has seen declines in the percentage of students writing at grade level and the portion of students in the lowest 25 percent making gains in reading and math. The district also had its first F-rated schools — Gulf Highlands Elementary and Anclote High — in the past two years.

Fiorentino has tempered her language since issuing the press release, saying simply that the district has earned either an A or a B from the state in every year she has been superintendent. That is correct.

Fiorentino's original claim is accurate, but it overlooks the ups and downs in the district's ratings and grades over the past several years. We rate this claim Mostly True.

The statement

The district achieved "increased graduation rate[s] of 88.5 percent (Florida calculation) and 85.5 percent (National Governors Association calculation), which are substantially higher than the state average." It also "secured [a] dropout rate of 1.0 percent, which has plummeted below the state average."

The ruling

State reports show that Fiorentino correctly states the district's graduation rates for 2010-2011 and that they are higher than the state averages, which were 81.2 percent and 80.1 percent, respectively. Pasco's rates were also up significantly from 2006-07 on both the state (73.7 percent) and Governors Association (67.8 percent) measures. These rates reflect the percentages of students who graduate within four years.

Pasco also was among a handful of districts that did not have significant gaps in the rates among its various demographic groups.

Fiorentino accurately touts the district's improved dropout rate. State reports show the district dropout rate was 1.0 percent for 2010-11, down from 3.5 percent in 2006-07. The overall state rate was 3.3 percent in 2006-07 and 1.9 percent in 2010-11, so Pasco did show more improvement than the state did.

Fiorentino is on solid ground with these two numeric claims about the district's academic performance. We rate these claims True.

The statement

The district "opened 22 new schools over six years to keep pace with growth in student population and implement the class size amendment."

The ruling

The school district's own website contradicts Fiorentino on this one. It lists just 20 new schools as having opened from 2005 through 2011. Fiorentino said Friday that the press release contained a typo, and agreed that the correct number is 20.

This building boom did take place to help the district deal with rapidly increasing enrollment. The district's student body grew from 59,474 at the end of the 2004-05 school year to 66,696 by the end of 2010-11. And, for a time, the new schools did help reduce class sizes districtwide.

But when it came time to implement the class size amendment for 2011-12, even with enrollment changed only slightly, the district did not meet the 2002 voter requirement for smaller classes.

The state imposed a $4 million penalty against Pasco for its failure to comply, the fourth-highest fine among the 35 districts that did not meet the rule. Fiorentino and the School Board have since submitted a plan to the state Department of Education for meeting the amendment's requirement, which could reduce the punishment.

While the district did open many new schools to cope with growth and the class size requirement, it didn't open the same number Fiorentino said, and it didn't meet class size rules every year. We rate this claim Half True.

The statement

The district "focused on career preparation, opening at least one certified career academy in each of Pasco's high schools."

The ruling

When running for her second term in 2008, Fiorentino said one of her top goals was to strengthen career and technical education, with at least one career academy at every high school within two years. "We will continue to strengthen our business partnerships," she said in a 2008 candidate questionnaire.

By the start of the 2009-10 school year, the district had met that goal, with a handful of schools actually offering two academy programs. The state requires districts to have only one career academy.

There's more to the story, though. School Board members have complained that the initiative hasn't worked as they had hoped. In the spring of 2011, they said the district hadn't done enough to encourage enrollment. Students outside each school's zone also had to provide their own transportation to campus, which limited participation.

Moreover, board members said the district hasn't effectively partnered with the business community, even though area firms have offered to help create and implement the curriculum. Some business leaders said they walked away from the concept in frustration because of perceived inaction in certain schools. Lately, the Economic Development Council has stepped up to help grow the initiative.

Fiorentino said Friday that she sees the career academies as improving and added that the board might have had expectations that were too high in the program's infancy.

But Fiorentino didn't claim that the academies were perfect, just that they were opened. So we rate this claim True.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at jsolochek@tampabay.com, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

Statements by Pasco superintendent Fiorentino touting her record are mostly on the mark 03/03/12 [Last modified: Saturday, March 3, 2012 12:54pm]

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