State demanding leadership changes as failing schools work to improve

Published Dec. 7, 2016

The Florida Board of Education has gotten serious about its position that leadership matters when improving low-performing schools.

It recently reiterated that message to the Pasco County School District, pointing directly at Gulf Highlands Elementary School in Port Richey.

Gulf Highlands became Pasco's first F-rated elementary school back in 2011. The administration quickly brought in a new principal, who helped raise student performance to a C.

That principal, Kara Smucker, won a promotion for her efforts less than two years into the job. Judy Cosh, who followed Smucker into Gulf Highlands, didn't maintain the success at the school, which serves a heavily low-income community, amid changing state standards and tests.

The school earned a D in 2013, fell back to F in 2014 and received D's in 2015 and 2016. That performance triggered a state requirement for a turnaround plan, which the district sent in for state board review in the fall.

It won only conditional approval.

"If the school does not earn a grade of C or better in 2017, the state board will require the superintendent to present on the school's progress at a subsequent state board meeting in order to determine whether the plan will be renewed for the 2017-18 or require adjustments, such as replacement of the principal," chancellor Hershel Lyons informed superintendent Kurt Browning in a late November letter. The board made similar demands of other school districts over the summer and fall, repeatedly rejecting turnaround plans from schools that did not change administration after years with little test score improvement.

Browning in the past has bristled at state intervention, which he considers interference, in turnaround efforts. This past summer, while seeking approval of Hudson Elementary's plans, he acknowledged that districts have little wiggle room in the face of an increasingly insistent state board.

The board did not place any conditions on turnaround plans for Pasco Elementary or Gulfside Elementary, each of which hired new principals in the past year and a half.

REZONING: Parent anger has not subsided in Pasco's two middle and high school attendance boundary revision efforts, after the committees advising the School Board revamped their recommendations based on input from town hall meetings.

It's just a new set of parents complaining.

The unabated level of upset promises to yield continued protests to the board, as it nears its final decision. That scenario has prompted a handful of residents to suggest that the board hold different hearings for each proposal, rather than taking up the east and west county plans on the same nights of Dec. 20 and Jan. 17.

"These two rezonings were done separate from the beginning and I believe should have separate reading meetings to give us parents the opportunity to give you our feedback and concerns with the new lines," Trinity-area parent Christina Snyder wrote to board members and superintendent Kurt Browning.

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After some internal discussion, the administration decided not to change the dates, spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said. However, board member Steve Luikart said, the board might arrange its sessions into clear halves.

One idea might be to hear all views on the west side rezoning at one time, and all the input on the east side boundaries either before or after that.

"I'm pretty open," Luikart said, adding that the board would have to decide as a whole how to proceed. "I would want people to be able to voice their opinions."

He noted the spate of emails coming in from parents who do not want to change their children's schools, and said he expected as much. Given the growth and crowding, though, he did not expect any delay in the process, even with criticism mounting that the proposed new maps do little to solve the problems.

"Anytime this takes place, there's going to be a left and a right — those who feel left out, and those who feel you got it right," Luikart said. "You can never make everybody happy."

AUDIT FINDING: A preliminary state audit of the Pasco County School District for fiscal 2016 has found the district did not deliver all required special education federal funds to a charter school in an appropriate time frame.

According to the tentative report, the district provided services greater than or equal to the amount required for four of five expanding charter schools. For the fifth, though, which was not named, the district did not distribute the added funding in a timely fashion to help offer services to the growing student base.

"Subsequent to our inquiry, in November 2016, the district provided the additional funding of $28,080 to the charter school," the Auditor General's Office wrote in its initial finding.

The district may submit a corrective action plan, or an explanation of why none is needed, before the final audit is released.