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  1. Education

State investigating Pinellas schools for possible class-size infractions

The Pinellas County School District is under state investigation for using temporary teachers last fall to meet Florida's class-size requirements.

Pinellas officials defended their use of so-called "co-teachers" — not a common practice in other districts — shortly before the Department of Education Office of Inspector General launched its review in December.

District spokeswoman Lisa Wolf declined Thursday to comment on the investigation, but said Pinellas is cooperating with state officials. Wolf said the district continues to place co-teachers in classrooms that exceed the state cap of 18 students in kindergarten through third grade, 22 in fourth through eighth grades, and 25 in high school.

"Co-teachers are certified teachers and co-teaching (also known as team-teaching) is a statutorily approved instructional delivery model and meets the class-size statute," Wolf said.

The concern centers on how those co-teachers are used.

State law says: "In order to be considered team teaching or co-teaching, each teacher is responsible for planning, delivering, and evaluating instruction for all students in the class or subject for the entire class period."

Yet when the district put out an urgent call for substitute teachers in October, the message came through that the co-teachers would not have to meet that standard. An email to prospective hires made clear that positions would be available from Oct. 6 through Oct. 31. "No interviews required."

One district memo indicated the substitutes were not expected to perform basic teaching duties such as lesson planning or grading papers. And they were free to leave in November, after the state completed its first-semester head count. That runs counter to state's desire that classrooms have the proper student-teacher ratios for the entire school year.

Superintendent Mike Grego said at the time that the effort was intended to keep the substitutes "month to month," if student enrollment didn't drop — regardless of what the written documents stated.

The activity captured the Department of Education's attention, and it kicked off its examination soon afterward. State officials routinely review how school districts are complying with the class size law. But DOE spokeswoman Cheryl Etters said no one in the department could recall a district receiving the level of scrutiny being given to Pinellas.

The investigation came to light only this week after it was mentioned in a report the DOE sent to Gov. Rick Scott's office.

Districts found to have violated the state's class-size requirements can receive financial penalties.

Department records show that, in December, Commissioner Pam Stewart asked Grego and last year's School Board Chairwoman Carol Cook to provide information about the district's class-size hiring activity. To back it up, Stewart also turned to the state's accountability division to get a separate list of all Pinellas substitute teachers listed as the sole teacher of record in core classes for 2013-14.

After getting those documents, investigators decided they needed more details. They next requested additional personnel records, which later prompted them to ask for class rosters.

With the data in hand, the department then interviewed some of the former co-teachers. In June, investigators visited the district to hear the administration's perspective.

Their work continues.

Information from Times files was used for this report. Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @JeffSolochek.

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