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Pinellas School Board puts off vote on teacher-University of Florida partnership

A 4-year-old teacher partnership between the Pinellas school district and the University of Florida was suddenly put in limbo Tuesday night as a sharply divided school board voted to postpone contract extensions until they can discuss it at a workshop next month.

Several board members raised concerns about the costs and benefits of the program, which UF's Lastinger Center for Learning is aggressively pushing as a national model to make teachers better.

Much of the money spent on the partnership — a top priority for superintendent Julie Janssen — goes toward master's degrees for a handful of teachers, at roughly $20,000 a pop. So far, 34 teachers have earned the degrees. Another 124 are in the pipeline.

"There is no doubt in my mind it's an exemplary degree," board member Linda Lerner said. "But we cannot afford $20,000 (each) for a small group of teachers."

The board voted unanimously to delay votes on two Lastinger contracts, totaling $1.6 million and affecting 39 schools, until Aug. 9.

A workshop date was not immediately set.

Since 2007, when the partnership began, Pinellas has spent $3.7 million on the program, with the money coming from state and federal grants for teacher training in high poverty schools. Besides the master's degrees, Lastinger offers a suite of trainings that emphasize an "inquiry-based approach" to tackling problems. Teachers get $500 stipends for working on yearlong "inquiry" projects.

Some teachers rave about the Lastinger-led effort, and several of them spoke in favor of it Tuesday.

"I learned new teaching strategies and tried them out on my students," said Dana Robinson, a third-grade teacher at Dunedin Elementary. "It's changed my teaching."

Teacher training experts also say the program is promising because it combines many best practices for professional development into one, comprehensive package. But in the wake of budget cuts and tensions over Janssen's leadership, school board members have subjected it to increasing scrutiny.

A chief concern: a lack of evidence that the program is rubbing off on student achievement.

As part of a $5 million federal grant it won last year, Lastinger agreed to hire an outside research firm to do an in-depth review of its model in Miami-Dade schools. Results from the student achievement portion are scheduled for 2015.

In the meantime, Pinellas officials told the St. Petersburg Times two weeks ago that the district was conducting a "comprehensive evaluation plan" of the Lastinger effort, but could not provide details on when the plan began, when the results might be ready and what specific indicators the district is looking at. The district did not respond to several subsequent requests for more information.

Janssen continued to back the program in the face of questions from board members, saying it was a bargain that has helped attract and keep top teachers in high-poverty schools. Ultimately, she said, it will pay off for kids.

"When teachers are inspired, so are their children," she said.

Board member Janet Clark also suggested the lack of hard data proving effectiveness was not a problem.

"I'm really coming around to, 'Yeah, a master's degree is a great reward … a stipend is a great reward,' " she said. "There are some things we're not going to be able to count."

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Proposed budget includes property tax hike

The Pinellas school board voted unanimously to give initial approval Tuesday night to a $1.25 billion budget that includes a slight increase in the property tax rate.

The proposed rate is $8.39 for every $1,000 of taxable property value, up a nickel from last year's rate of $8.34. The owner of a home with a taxable value of $100,000 both years and a $25,000 homestead exemption would pay $3.88 more under the new rate. With property values down, the proposed rate is still projected to generate $20.8 million less for schools in 2011-12.

Overall, the district budget is about $100 million smaller than last year's. The district is determining how to cut $55 million from next year's operating budget.

The school board recently approved most of the cuts, but a district proposal to raise health insurance costs and mandate furloughs has yet to be bargained with employee unions.

The final vote on the budget and tax rate is set for Sept. 13.

Pinellas School Board puts off vote on teacher-University of Florida partnership 07/26/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 27, 2011 8:19am]
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