Monday, December 11, 2017
Education

Controversy erupts in Pasco over social studies textbook selection

LAND O'LAKES — A storm is brewing in the Pasco County School District over normally noncontroversial textbook adoption.

After spending several months reviewing options for new elementary social studies materials, a committee that included dozens of Pasco County teachers supported books by a publishing group called TCI.

Superintendent Heather Fiorentino and her staff overruled the recommendation — a first, according to many insiders — to back the committee's second-place choice by textbook giant McGraw-Hill. That firm was represented by a former district employee who is dating assistant superintendent for elementary schools David Scanga.

District spokeswoman Summer Romagnoli said Scanga was not in the room when Fiorentino and her team decided to differ with the committee. He was asked to leave, she said, to avoid any conflict of interest.

The superintendent's staff then focused on two key reasons for the $850,000 purchase of McGraw-Hill items over those of TCI, Romagnoli said. One had to do with technology capabilities at all the schools, and the other centered on the books' clarity on adhering to new standards.

School Board members, who have received complaints about the process and the result, said they planned to delve into the situation before deciding whether to approve Fiorentino's textbook recommendation.

"I understand that Dr. Scanga may have been sent out of the room. And I understand that Ruth (Reilly, assistant superintendent for curriculum,) has reasons which she told me of why they decided to overrule the committee," School Board chairwoman Joanne Hurley said. "I can also understand why the public feels there may be more to the story."

Board member Alison Crumbley focused her concerns on the fact that a group of top district teachers dedicated their time, often after work hours, to study all the materials and make a recommendation only to be ignored.

"Why have a committee giving you recommendations?" she said. "That's what bothers me."

Board member Steve Luikart was similarly irked.

"I'm not voting for any kind of expenditure on textbooks until I get to the bottom of this," he said. "Right now, I don't have any confidence in that at all."

Board member Allen Altman said he had heard some details about the situation, and he wanted to learn more.

"Based on the limited information that I have been provided, it seems to me another case ... where the effort of the teachers and the committee was ignored," he said. "I can see why the committee members would be upset and angry, and probably rightfully so."

The issue arose as part of the state's regular cycle of textbook adoptions. Social studies texts, like math and science and other subjects, come up for review and revision every six years.

The Pasco district curriculum and instruction department put together a committee that included social studies teachers from every school, plus some other educators.

Starting last summer, the team went over the content, with many members going so far as to test the materials from each publisher with their own students.

"All of the experiential data was in support of TCI," said Paula Lesko, a teacher who works in the district's curriculum department. She oversaw the committee that evaluated the social studies textbooks.

She said the group sat together in March to make its final ranking, and although not everyone agreed, the committee did reach consensus with TCI first and McGraw-Hill second.

"My role has been to find the best instructional materials for the students of Pasco County," Lesko said. "I feel like the committee followed the process that was in place. I supported and do support the committee's decision."

Some assistant principals and teachers did not, though. And a couple of them contacted the district office.

One of the concerns, Romagnoli said, was that the TCI materials relied heavily on technology, and some Pasco schools weren't fully equipped to use digital materials.

The McGraw-Hill books use technology more to supplement the printed works, she said, while TCI integrates digital materials more heavily into primary instruction.

Committee member Mindy Predmore, an assistant principal at Deer Park Elementary, said she worried that the TCI materials would require too much added preparation time for teachers and relied on technology that many teachers might not be able to access.

"We needed to think about every teacher in every building and make sure we were selecting the series that would best meet the needs of all," she said. She said she accepted the panel's recommendation, though, and she did not contact the district office with her views.

The second concern dealt with Florida's move to national standards, called the Common Core. The McGraw-Hill books more explicitly labeled each Common Core standard attached to each lesson than did the TCI materials, Romagnoli said.

"We're trying to make that transition as smooth as possible," she said.

She said that's why Fiorentino and her team decided to recommend McGraw-Hill over TCI, even knowing the controversy that might erupt.

And the complaints did come. Teachers called board members. TCI's local representative, Deanna Morrow, also let her disappointment with the decision be known with an email that quickly circulated around the district.

In it, she wrote that "with one fell swoop, the teacher voice has been disenfranchised."

Morrow said in an interview that she and another company representative are scheduled to talk Tuesday with Fiorentino about what has occurred.

School Board members said they expect a conversation on the topic to take place at their meeting the same day, particularly if the textbook adoption comes to them as an action item.

"I expect people will be coming to the board meeting," chairwoman Hurley said. "I do believe it is the board's responsibility to talk about this in a public forum."

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

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