1. The Education Gradebook

Hillsborough School Board discusses special-education reforms

TAMPA — Some fixes to the Hillsborough County Public Schools exceptional student education department are relatively simple.

Training videos? Hillsborough has plenty of student actors. Disaster drills? The district hired a top security consultant after the Connecticut shootings.

It gets more complicated when it comes to the daunting issue of paying teachers and aides a competitive wage.

Vacancies exist in both the teaching and paraprofessional ranks, School Board members were told at a workshop on Thursday afternoon.

Parents and aides, responding to an online survey, complained at length about pay that can barely compete with the fast food sector.

"When you are a teacher of students with disabilities, there are plans and there are meetings, and those additional responsibilities are a barrier to some," said Jeff Eakins, co-chairman of a district task force on ESE safety.

Superintendent MaryEllen Elia assembled the task force in November in response to two deaths of ESE students. Both children were in the care of district employees.

As Eakins took the board step by step through the multifaceted plan that includes safety training for all employees, he took questions from the board members but it was an unusually congenial meeting.

One by one, they thanked the task force. Some also thanked a group of ESE teachers who sat in the audience, and acknowledged the department has been on the defensive because of publicity surrounding the student deaths.

"They are demoralized and disheartened, and a lot of it is rhetoric," said board member Candy Olson, urging her fellow members to be careful in their public criticism.

Member Susan Valdes said that although she appreciates the teachers, she would not apologize for airing the department's problems.

"I think that the employees need to understand that this board operates in the sunshine," she said. "And unfortunately, sometimes these conversations are not pleasant at all. … Unfortunately, it has taken two tragedies in our own back yard to get us to this point."

Olson also raised the issue of inclusion, a principle that says students with disabilities are most likely to succeed if they are educated alongside typical children.

With rare exceptions, the district is keeping ESE students safe in mainstream schools, she said. "But at what cost? At what cost to teachers and other staff, and at what cost to other children?" she said.

"I know there are parents who will say, 'But I want my child to go to the school across the street.' I think we need to have a candid conversation about that and sometimes we have to say, 'That school is not set up to serve your child or your child's needs.' "

Others asked technical questions about funding, training, and how the district might make itself more competitive in recruiting ESE teachers.

Eakins made it clear that many of the reforms will take months, and will be complicated by issues such as state and federal funding, and labor negotiations.

The group already has met with Michael Dorn, a consultant hired to examine school security as a whole. They're considering buying short safety videos to kick off staff training sessions, and he showed the board some samples.

Other ideas — such as a proposal to increase pay for the aides as they acquire more training — are in the formative stages.

The workshop was strictly informational, and board members were not able to vote.

Eakins said he plans to keep the board updated through reports they typically receive every Friday.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or