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Pinellas contracts with outside company to turn around struggling schools

LARGO — Joining other districts across Florida, the Pinellas County school system is reluctantly entering new territory with an agreement that could put three struggling public schools in the hands of a private company.

The School Board voted 7-0 Tuesday night to hire Learning Sciences International to operate Fairmount Park and Lakewood elementary schools and Azalea Middle School starting in August, if their students don't do well enough on state tests this spring.

The deal is the result of a controversial new state law, known by its bill name HB 7069. It requires that any public school with three consecutive grades below a C to choose one of three "turnaround" options: reassigning students to another school, closing the school and reopening it as a charter, or contracting with an outside entity to operate the school.

Pinellas has chosen the latter, but officials spoke Tuesday as if they had to be dragged into complying. The district is one of several Florida school systems suing the Legislature over the new law.

Before the vote, school superintendent Mike Grego called it a "state requirement we are grinding our teeth on."

Deputy superintendent Bill Corbett called the contract "the best option we have moving forward."

And board chairwoman Rene Flowers said it was "by no means any statement that we have given up on these three schools."

She added: "This is something we have to do in order to remain compliant with state statute."

Lakewood Elementary is coming off consecutive D grades over the last two years, while Azalea and Fairmount Park each had D's in 2016 followed F's last year. All three are in St. Petersburg.

The state will not issue grades until June or July, so it's not clear if all or any of the Pinellas schools will fall below a C again. But Learning Sciences International stands to be involved either way.

The district's contract with the West Palm Beach company calls for two options. It would pay LSI $624,000 next year for any of the three schools that does not earn a C this summer. Should the schools' grades improve to a C or better, and LSI is no longer needed under state statute, the district still would pay $498,000 to make one school a model school as agreed to in the contract, and pay $198,000 for supports at the other schools.

The company said in a statement: "The goal for our partnership with Pinellas County Schools is not simply to achieve a score of C, but to go beyond to an A, and to turn them into model schools of research and learning whose visible transformation will enrich the remaining schools in the district."

The Hillsborough County school district, facing the same state requirements, is expected to choose an Indiana-based nonprofit organization to operate seven of its struggling schools. Phalen Leadership Academies, which operates charter schools, was chosen in a competitive bidding process.

The Hillsborough schools are Foster, Mort, Oak Park, Potter and Sheehy and Booker T. Washington elementary schools, and Memorial Middle School. The cost to the district will average $315,000 per school, depending on size, and the contracts will come up for a vote on March 6.

Hillsborough school superintendent Jeff Eakins said in a recent letter that he is confident all seven schools will avoid the arrangement by earning at least a C after spring testing. If that is the case, no money will be paid to Phalen.

Times Staff Writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report.