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Under a new law, some public schools will be managed by companies. Pinellas is getting ready

Fairmount Park Elementary in St. Petersburg is one of three Pinellas County schools that must be turned over to an "external operator" if their state grades don't improve this spring. An external operator is a private company that would take over all academic aspects of the school, leaving the school district to perform tasks such as bus transportation and providing student lunches. The School Board is set to approve a contract for such a company this month. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Feb. 20, 2018

LARGO — Pinellas County School Board members are not happy about the prospect of having to hand over academic control at three struggling schools to a private company, and paying the firm up to $2 million on top of it.

But that's the course they must take under a state law that goes into effect this year.

The only way to avoid the arrangement is for Fairmount Park Elementary, Lakewood Elementary and Azalea Middle to break with recent trends and earn school grades of a C or better this summer. But until then, the district must plan for the worst.

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A 21-page draft contract discussed by the board Tuesday would pay Learning Sciences International to take over the three St. Petersburg schools as a so-called "external operator."

As distasteful that idea is to local educators, it's considered a better option than the state-mandated alternatives — closing down the schools and reassigning students or converting them into charter schools. Those options are part of last year's massive education bill, House Bill 7069, which was signed into law and has been challenged in court.

The district already has active contracts with LSI to turn around some low-performing schools and provide teacher evaluation framework.

According to the proposed contract, the district would pay LSI $144,000 to conduct a needs assessment at Lakewood, Fairmount Park and Azalea this spring. The company would have control over all academic factors, including the selection, placement, coaching and evaluation of school administrators and teachers, student assessments and development of curriculum and instructional materials.

The district would handle transportation, food service, facility maintenance and security, data collection and entry, services to students with disabilities, English as a Second Language, tutoring and before- and after-care programs. It also would send principals to an LSI conference in Orlando — and foot the bill for all of it.

The money would come from funds the district receives from the federal and state governments. The board is set to vote on the contract at its regular meeting next week.

On Tuesday, board members took issue with two clauses in the contract language that would give LSI the power to hire another company for additional resources, paid for by the district. They also wanted LSI to take ownership of the climate, culture and behavior at the schools.

In addition, board member Linda Lerner questioned whether the salaries of LSI staff would be made public to ensure enough funds are spent on students.

"Those are three stumbling blocks for me," she said. "I will have trouble voting for this contract unless those are addressed."

Board member Rene Flowers asked if the district could get a refund if schools' state grades did not improve under LSI's leadership. She later thanked Libba Lyons, a representative from LSI, for patiently listening to board members' questions and concerns and told her not to be offended by their passion.

"It's understandable," Lyons said.

Deputy school superintendent Bill Corbett offered to look over the contract and provide revisions for board members.

If any of the three schools does not make a school grade of at least a C this summer, the district would pay LSI $624,000 per school next year.

THE GRADEBOOK: All education, all the time

Should the schools' grades improve to a C or better, and LSI is no longer needed under state statute, the district 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.

Lakewood Elementary currently has a state grade of a D, while Azalea and Fairmount Park have Fs.

Kevin Hendrick, the district's associate superintendent of teaching and learning, weighed in on LSI's involvement as an external operator so far.

"This is not about them trying to make money off of schools, like some other contracts," he said. "We're trying to gain a lot more out of this than, 'Ok, we're just trying to turn these schools over.'"

If approved by the Pinellas board, the contract would go before the State Board of Education for approval in October.

Contact Colleen Wright at cwright@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.

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