Cara Fitzpatrick, Times Staff Writer

Cara Fitzpatrick joined the Tampa Bay Times in 2012 and is an education reporter. She grew up in Washington State and graduated from the University of Washington and Columbia University.

Phone: (727) 893-8846


Twitter: @Fitz_ly

  1. Parent info sessions coming up in Pinellas


    This is that time of year when we at the Gradebook start reminding you with annoying regularity about parent information sessions in the Pinellas County school system. Special programs, such as fundamental schools and magnets, are notoriously difficult to get into - and the application period is coming up in January - so here is your opportunity to get informed.

    Three information sessions are scheduled in November:...

  2. Holding students back in earliest grades a challenge due to Florida law


    At Maximo Elementary, "where learning is our business," nearly half of kindergarten students show up unprepared for school. It's day one and they're already behind.

    Some catch up and some don't. But last year no one got held back before third grade.

    At some of the lowest-performing schools in Pinellas County, where only a handful of students have passed the FCAT in later grades, many of the youngest children weren't retained last year — despite research that indicates early intervention is best....

    A third-grader draws on her iPad during art class at Lakewood Elementary in St. Petersburg in January. It was part of a traveling arts lab.
  3. Pinellas County School Board: District 4


    School Board | District 4

    Retired teacher Beverley Billiris and retired chiropractor Ken Peluso are vying to replace Robin Wikle, who resigned. District 4 includes Tarpon Springs, Oldsmar, Palm Harbor, Safety Harbor, Dunedin and parts of Clearwater. By Cara Fitzpatrick, Times staff writer

    Beverley Billiris, 66Ken Peluso, 58
    Experience Billiris was elected mayor of Tarpon Springs in 2004 and served until March 2010. Prior to that, she was on the City Commission from 1998 to 2002. She has been chairwoman of the Pinellas Planning Council. She retired from the Pinellas County School District in June, after teaching at Tarpon Springs Elementary. She also is owner of Sponge Merchant International. After a long career as a chiropractor, Peluso retired last year. He owned the Peluso Chiropractic Center in Palm Harbor from 1989 to 2013. He was chairman of the Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas from 2007 to 2012, served on the state's Early Learning Advisory Council, and is on the board of directors for the Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital Foundation. He lost a 2008 bid for School Board.
    EducationBachelor's degree; master's degreeBachelor's degree; doctor of chiropractic medicine.
    Ideas to make the district more efficient?As we buy new buses, we need to have them be fuel-efficient and clean. The district has properties that need to be sold.Review every department's budget and staffing, and weigh that against the needs of students, families and community.
    What should the district do differently to help low-performing schools?Low-performing schools are mostly Title 1 schools and have many more challenges than other schools. However, we treat them the same. We need to give more autonomy to the individual school and classroom teacher.The first and most obvious action is to determine why the schools are underperforming. Then evaluate the school administration, community outreach programs, staffing and available technology, and act according to that analysis.
    How would you adjust the teacher evaluation system?The evaluation formula still needs to be revised. The system should consider factors that teachers have no control over, such as low parent involvement and poor attendance.It would be prudent to wait for the results of the district's pilot program. It also is the law that teachers be evaluated based on test scores, and the School Board can't change that.
    Fundraising$12,985 raised.$41,416 raised.
    Financial disclosureAssets: Commercial property. Liabilities: Car, commercial loans. Income: Social Security, businesses.Assets: Stocks, bonds. Liabilities: None. Income: Life insurance, income from chiropractic center.
    PersonalMarried. No children. Lives in Tarpon Springs.Married. One adult stepson, one adult son. Lives in Palm Harbor.;;

  4. District 4 School Board candidates bring different education experience to the race


    Two familiar faces are vying for the only open seat on the Pinellas County School Board.

    Beverley Billiris, 66, is the former mayor of Tarpon Springs, a local business owner and a recently retired teacher. Ken Peluso, 58, is the former chairman of the Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas and a retired chiropractor. He narrowly lost the 2008 election to board member Robin Wikle.

    The nonpartisan District 4 seat is open only to voters in that district, which covers much of northern Pinellas, including Tarpon Springs, Palm Harbor, Safety Harbor and parts of Clearwater. Wikle stepped down two years early; the winner on Nov. 4 will serve the end of her term....

    Beverley Billiris.
  5. Pinellas School Board gives superintendent Grego rave reviews


    LARGO — In his second evaluation, superintendent Mike Grego earned near-perfect marks and enthusiastic praise from the Pinellas County School Board.

    Board members credited Grego for giving employees raises, increasing starting teacher pay to $40,000 and being visible in the schools. Board chairwoman Carol Cook said Grego has "gained the public's respect for the job you're doing."

    Board member Terry Krassner said the district "could not be in better hands."...

  6. School Board gives Grego glowing marks on his evaluation


    In his second evaluation, superintendent Mike Grego earned near-perfect marks and high praise from the Pinellas County School Board.

    Board members credited Grego for giving employees raises, increasing starting teacher pay to $40,000, and being visible in schools. Board chairwoman Carol Cook said Grego has “gained the public’s respect for the job you’re doing.” Board member Terry Krassner said the district “could not be in better hands.”...

  7. Pinellas' use of substitute teachers skirts class size rules


    With the state's annual class-size count looming earlier this month, the Pinellas County school system put out an urgent call for substitute teachers.

    An email sent to prospective substitutes made it clear that the jobs were easy to get and short term. With a classic recruiting poster of Uncle Sam — "We Want You!" — it blasted: "Pinellas County Needs You Now!!!" and "No interviews required." Co-teaching positions were available "from October 6 through October 31," wrote Seymour Brown, a district director, on Oct. 2. ...

    An Oct. 2 email from a Pinellas School District  official suggests a last-minute effort to meet the state’s class-size requirements by using substitute teachers.
  8. Pinellas School Board approves 2.5 percent pay raise for employees


    LARGO — The Pinellas County School Board voted unanimously Tuesday to give employees a 2.5 percent raise on average. The board formally signed off on negotiated agreements with its four union groups. It also approved raises for administrators. Pay increases are retroactive to July 1, and employees will see the money in their paychecks later this month.

  9. Pinellas School Board signs off on 2.5 percent raises


    The Pinellas County School Board voted unanimously Tuesday to approve 2.5 percent raises for employees.

    Four union groups, including teachers, ratified negotiated agreements with the school district for the 2.5 percent average raises. Administrators and other non-union employees in Pinellas also will receive raises. Raises are retroactive to July 1.

    Bruce Proud, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association and PESPA, encouraged the School Board to approve the agreements. He said there were challenges in the negotiations this year, particularly for teachers, as the two sides tried to follow a state law calling for a performance pay salary schedule. He said he received "a number of phone calls" from teachers who understood the challenges of the legislation, but still felt the distribution in the schedule was unfair....

  10. Pinellas County Schools looking for mentors


    The Pinellas County school system is looking for people to become mentors.

    The district will hold its annual mentor fair on Monday at the Feather Sound Country Club, at 2201 Feather Sound Drive in Clearwater. The fair will provide information about mentoring and other volunteering options. Attendees will be able to volunteer, get a background check, attend a mentoring workshop, and be matched with a student. Potential mentors will be able to select the school they're interested in at the event....

  11. Pinellas still seeking director of communications


    The Pinellas County school system still is looking for a new communications director.

    Donna Winchester, the former director of strategic communications, left the school district in August for a gig at the University of Florida. The School Board agreed to downgrade the requirements of the position after Winchester's departure. Human Resources posted the job Friday. Applications will be accepted until Oct. 17....

  12. Bay Point Elementary cleared in cheating investigation


    District officials concluded that no cheating took place at Bay Point Elementary last school year. State officials accepted the results of the district-run investigation and gave the school a C grade for 2014.

    Superintendent Mike Grego told the state that "no wrongdoing or testing irregularities were discovered." In a letter sent to parents today, principal Felita Grant announced the C grade and said that the state "fully endorses all components of our testing protocols." The letter made no other mention of the investigation, focusing instead on plans for the new school year. ...

  13. Former opponent endorsed Billiris


    Beverley Billiris, former mayor of Tarpon Springs and a retired teacher, has picked up the endorsement of one of her former opponents in the race for Pinellas County School Board.

    John Nygren, a retired teacher, said he will support Billiris in her bid for the District 4 seat. Nygren lost in a three-way race for the non-partisan seat in the August primary. Ken Peluso, a retired chiropractor and former chairman of the Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas, took the most votes in the primary, but not enough to avoid a run-off race with Billiris in November....

  14. Communications director requirements downgraded


    Well, that didn't take long.

    Donna Winchester, director of strategic communications, left the Pinellas County School District last month for a new job at the University of Florida. District officials now are proposing a downgrade in the requirements to fill her position....

  15. Teachers get 2.5 percent pay bump in Pinellas


    Teachers in Pinellas County Schools will see another bump in pay this year.

    The school district reached a tentative agreement with its employee unions, including the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, to provide employees with an average 2.5 percent pay raise. That follows last year's average 5.6 percent bump....