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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

ICYMI: Florida education news in review, week of April 23, 2017

The Florida Senate

Times file photo

The Florida Senate

The Florida Legislature is nearing end of session, and activity is fast and furious on bills and budgets. Meanwhile, districts deal with finances, special education, safe schools and more. Catch up on the week's highlights below.

You can keep up with our conversation on Facebook, hear our podcast, and follow our blog to get all the latest Florida education news. All tips, comments and ideas welcome. Know anyone else who'd like to get this weekly roundup or other email updates? Have them send a note to jsolochek@tampabay.com.

So much for 'unprecedented openness' as Corcoran, Negron cut budget deal in secret, Steve Bousquet
"After promising unprecedented openness, House Speaker Richard Corcoran has spent long days and nights negotiating an elaborate budget deal in secret with Senate counterpart Joe Negron, keeping most other lawmakers and the public in the dark. Like two attorneys privately resolving a court case, the two lawyers are cutting deals on tax policy, public school spending, charter school expansion, major environmental projects and levels of local pork-barrel spending." …

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Senate committee stymies bill to limit job guarantees to highly-rated Florida teachers on annual contract

Sen. Jack Latvala questions the need for a bill to limit school districts' ability to guarantee teachers on annual contract an added year if they earn a strong evaluation rating. He voted against it.

The Florida Senate

Sen. Jack Latvala questions the need for a bill to limit school districts' ability to guarantee teachers on annual contract an added year if they earn a strong evaluation rating. He voted against it.

A bill to bar Florida school districts from guaranteeing teachers on annual contract an additional year of employment if they earn a strong evaluation unexpectedly stumbled Friday in its final committee before full Senate consideration.

The Senate Rules Committee voted 6-6 against the measure, casting doubt on SB 856 as it otherwise appeared headed to approval. The Florida House adopted a companion measure (HB 373) three weeks ago.

Proponents cast the initiative as a simple clarification to 2011 law, in which the Legislature said any teacher hired after July 1 of that year could receive only a one-year contract. That ended the practice of professional services contracts, which some likened to tenured job protection.

Dozens of districts negotiated around the rule by agreeing to extend by one year the employment of any annual contract teacher who gets a rating of "effective" or better, and has no disciplinary issues.

Sen. Rob Bradley called such actions a circumvention of the "obvious will of the Legislature."

When unions challenged districts that refused to offer similar agreements, they got mixed responses from special magistrates. …

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More about Hillsborough's HR chief

More information is emerging about Thursday's firing of Hillsborough County School District human resources chief Stephanie Woodford, but it's contradictory.

Woodford told the Tampa Bay Times Friday that when Chief of Staff Alberto Vazquez fired her for cause, he did not say why.

"I said, 'What is the cause?' and he said, 'I don't know yet,'" Woodford told The Times. "He said, 'We're going to send you a letter and tell you what the cause is. We'll send it to you in a letter.' When I told him I could not respond if I did not know the cause, he said, 'We haven't decided yet.'"

The Times called the district and got an entirely different account from spokeswoman Tanya Arja, who spoke on behalf of Vazquez.

"Ms. Woodford was offered the chance to resign, but she refused," Arja said. "She was then told she was being terminated with cause."

Contrary to Woodford's description, Arja said Vazquez spent 20 minutes discussing the cause with the former human resources chief.

Specifically, Arja said, Woodford was fired for violations of school district policy 1210, which covers standards of ethical conduct. …

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Gradebook podcast: Classroom diversity, charter school expansion, prom dresses and more

Campbell Park Elementary in St. Petersburg lost its principal over her directive to make sure white students are placed in classes together next fall.

Times file photo

Campbell Park Elementary in St. Petersburg lost its principal over her directive to make sure white students are placed in classes together next fall.

News of a Pinellas County elementary school principal's directive to ensure the few white students in her school be placed in classes together next fall drew community outrage and national attention this week. Reporter Colleen Wright talks with editor Tom Tobin and reporter Jeff Solochek about the situation that led to the principal's removal. Also in this week's podcast, a discussion about a controversial $200 million charter school plan moving through the Legislature, the latest U.S. News and World Report high school rankings, and more.

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Pasco County school district sets new student registration rules

Pasco County schools this week toughened their proof of residency requirements for enrolling students, amid criticisms that it failed to root out children using false addresses to attend popular but overcrowded campuses.

The new rule, which asks for three forms of evidence of residence beginning with the 2017-18 academic year, would do little to deal with the complaints that parents made while trying to avoid being zoned out of their current schools, though. It would apply only to students who are new to the district, including all kindergartners.

At one point, district officials discussed having all students file updated registration information, to ensure they are attending the correct schools. Under current practice, many of the district's more than 70,000 students never present proof of address after their initial arrival, even if they move.

School Board attorney Dennis Alfonso said he drew up language to change the process for everyone. Officials also looked at having families provide new documentation any time they change schools, including the move from elementary to middle school, and middle to high school. …

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Florida education news: Sunshine law, 'schools of hope,' superintendents and more

Two members of a school board with 5 or more members would be able to meet privately under legislation moving through the Florida House.

Times file photo

Two members of a school board with 5 or more members would be able to meet privately under legislation moving through the Florida House.

SUNSHINE LAW: The Florida House considers allowing two members of a school board or other elected body to privately discuss official business.

'SCHOOLS OF HOPE': State lawmakers near a compromise on the controversial charter schools proposal. • Teachers and activists protest the proposal in a Tampa rally, Florida Politics reports. • A conference committee on the concept is coming, WFSU reports.

SUPERINTENDENTS: Hillsborough County superintendent Jeff Eakins gets low marks for communication in his performance evaluation. • Leon County superintendent Rocky Hanna reviews his first 100 days in office with the Tallahassee Democrat.

REZONING: An administrative law judge sides with the Pasco County school district in a challenge of its recent attendance zone revisions.

EVALUATIONS: The Pinellas County school district considers changes to the way it scores teachers in observations.

BAD ACTS: A Clay County high school student is suspended for posting a fake ad on Craigslist offering two classmates for sale as slaves, Local 10 Jacksonville reports.

AFTER HIGH SCHOOL: The percentage of Marion County high school graduates headed to post-secondary education decreases, the Ocala Star-Banner reports. …

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NAACP Legal Defense Fund responds to Campbell Park Elementary principal's email

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which has long represented plaintiffs in a 50-year-old federal desegregation case against the Pinellas County school district for shortchanging black students, issued a statement Thursday in response to an email that instructed school staff to keep white students together in class in a predominantly black school.

The email, sent April 18 by Campbell Park Elementary principal Christine Hoffman, was written with no context or explanation. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibits schools from segregating students “on the basis of race, color, or national origin in making classroom assignments.”

Hoffman on Monday requested a transfer to district offices while she is under investigation by the school district's Office of Professional Standards. School district officials confirmed that Hoffman would not return to Campbell Park after the investigation concludes.

The Legal Defense Fund is currently in mediation with the school district, as are the plaintiffs of a separate state lawsuit, which also alleges the district discriminates against black students.  …

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Hillsborough school district fires its HR chief

Stephanie Woodford, the Hillsborough school district's chief of human resources, was fired Thursday.

MARLENE SOKOL | Times

Stephanie Woodford, the Hillsborough school district's chief of human resources, was fired Thursday.

Stephanie Woodford was "relieved of her duties" as the Hillsborough County School District's head of human relations "with cause," district spokeswoman Tanya Arja said Thursday.

There was no information about what the cause was. Efforts to reach Woodford by phone were unsuccessful.

Woodford will be replaced, on an interim basis, by Marie Whelan, the district's general manager of employee evaluation. The district will conduct a search for a permanent replacement.

"The superintendent recognizes that Ms. Woodford has made valuable contributions to the school district during her years of employment," Arja said.

Woodford, the former principal of Wilson Middle School in South Tampa, held other jobs in administration before former superintendent MaryEllen Elia named her human resources chief in 2013. She was paid $148,000 a year to oversee a workforce of 26,000.

Woodford was one of 13 cabinet level administrators who current superintendent Jeff Eakins asked to reapply for their jobs in 2016. But, with many personnel-related changes under way, he changed his mind and did not go through the application process in her case. …

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Administrative judge rejects parent challenge to east Pasco County school rezoning

Parent Doug Wood testifies during a March hearing on the validity of the Pasco County School Board's attendance boundary revision process.

Parent Doug Wood testifies during a March hearing on the validity of the Pasco County School Board's attendance boundary revision process.

Second verse, same as the first.

State administrative law judge D.R. Alexander on Thursday upheld the Pasco County School Board's recent redrawing of east-side middle and high school attendance zones, rejecting a parent complaint that the process was flawed

Alexander used the same logic in this ruling that he employed in a similar case challenging a revision of west-side middle and high school zones.

He agreed with the plaintiffs that the setting of attendance boundaries must follow state laws regarding rule making, something the district argued was not so. But he disagreed with the contention that the district failed to meet the legal requirements as the parents alleged.

The district well publicized its several meetings on the rezoning proposals, Alexander stated, and the parents knew enough about it to either participate or choose not to.

"The steps taken by the School Board during the rezoning process substantially comply with all procedural requirements," he wrote.

Alexander also ruled that the board's standards for drawing boundary maps were not vague or inadequate. And he stated that the resulting attendance zones were not arbitrary or capricious. …

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'Marzano lite' teacher evaluation model may be coming to Pinellas school district

Pinellas County school district teachers have long bemoaned Marzano, which is widely deemed a complicated and confusing teacher evaluation model. District leaders now say they may have found a remedy.

Deputy superintendent Bill Corbett told the Pinellas County School Board at a recent board workshop that the district is considering implementing a “focused Marzano model."

Instead of using about 60 indicators to sum up an educator's observation score (worth 57 percent -- the largest chunk -- of the total evaluation), the new model would streamline the observation process down to 23 indicators. 

Corbett described it as "supposed to be a simpler version where nothing gets lost," with the goal being to "reduce the number of elements so it’s easier to get a mental model of how they all connect."

"We’re not changing the instructional model," Corbett said. "We’re only changing the way to do the scoring on the observations." He described the switch as a "minor change and a quick learning curve." …

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Pasco School Board plans calendar workshop after Good Friday flap

The Pasco County School Board will discuss whether to hold classes on Good Friday in future years.

Times file photo

The Pasco County School Board will discuss whether to hold classes on Good Friday in future years.

Stung by criticism after holding classes on Good Friday, the Pasco County School Board wants to talk about whether to repeat the scenario in 2018.

The board already has approved its 2017-18 calendar with March 30 as a class day. Spring break is set for the week before.

It's not too late to make changes, though, and at least one board member has proposed doing so. Yet superintendent Kurt Browning so far has not been inclined to recommend an amendment, despite feeling the heat.

He said if a high absentee rate hindered the district's daily operations  — such as buses running late because of missing bus drivers — he might consider making Good Friday a day off. But absence, though higher than usual, did not substantially hurt the district, Browning observed.

At the same time, he said, he wasn't thrilled with the idea of observing just one religion's holiday in the school calendar, which he insisted should be created for academic reasons.

"There is no other religious holiday this district observes," Browning said, adding, "We're not the only district that was in school that day. Almost half the districts were in school that day." …

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Florida education news: Secrets, contracts, constitution and more

Senate President Joe Negron and Senate Appropriations chairman Jack Latvala are in the midst of final budget negotiations as the legislative session nears its end.

Associated Press

Senate President Joe Negron and Senate Appropriations chairman Jack Latvala are in the midst of final budget negotiations as the legislative session nears its end.

BUDGETS: Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron cut deals on education and other issues in private, after pledging "unprecedented openness." • Many details remain to be seen, the News Service of Florida reports. More from Politico Florida. • Meanwhile, some education observers worry about the fate of Title I funding in a House spending proposal.

MORE ON OPENNESS: Three Senate committees spent a total of 90 minutes debating key House education proposals on charter schools and teacher bonuses, compared to nine hours of discussion in the House, the Miami Herald reports. 

CONTRACT TALKS: Pasco County school district and employee union leaders reach a tentative contract deal after months of dispute. • Broward County teachers also are in line for a retroactive raise, the Sun-Sentinel reports.

CONSTRUCTION FUNDS: A committee of parents and home builders recommends a school impact fee increase on new Pasco County homes.

TESTING: Advocates of state testing reforms remain hopeful that some changes will emerge from differing train legislation moving through the Florida House and Senate, the St. Augustine Record reports. …

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Committee recommends impact fee increase, added sales tax for Pasco County schools

A 10-member committee of parents and home builders discusses Pasco County school impact fee proposals Wednesday.

Jeffrey S. Solochek | Times

A 10-member committee of parents and home builders discusses Pasco County school impact fee proposals Wednesday.

A committee of Pasco County builders and parents is recommending higher school impact fees on new homes, plus more, for new school construction. 

Committee members contended a fee hike alone would not meet the district's school building needs. And they further worried that the School Board might not have the political will to seek other solutions.

Hoping to generate some "incentive" to act, the group split the difference.

It recommended the County Commission raise the impact fee by $2,300, on average, as soon as possible. It then proposed an automatic increase of another $1,850, on average, when the School Board votes to place a new sales tax referendum before voters -- regardless of whether the referendum passes.

"We as a committee need to make it emphatically clear in our recommendation that, while we are considering an increase in impact fees, these other sources are critically important," said committee member Scott Sheridan, of the Wiregrass Ranch development.

If the sales tax passes, the fee would shrink to reflect a credit for the amount the tax would generate. A 0.25 percent sales tax could generate another $176 million over a decade, according to school district projections. …

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Pasco County school district, employees reach contract deal

The United School Employees of Pasco declared impasse in contract talks in after a bargaining session in November 2016.

Times file photo

The United School Employees of Pasco declared impasse in contract talks in after a bargaining session in November 2016.

A nearly yearlong contract dispute between the Pasco County school district and its employee union ended amicably Wednesday, with the sides reaching agreement on the key points that separated them.

"We've been able to sign language to bring an end to impasse," district employee relations director Kathy Scalise said just after 1:30 p.m.

The United School Employees of Pasco declared negotiations with the county's largest employer had reached a point of no return in November. The sides have talked sporadically since, and recently sat through hearings before special magistrates who recommended resolutions.

Over the past week, they worked to secure a deal that did not require the School Board to impose any terms.

During four hours of talks Wednesday, the sides agreed to 3 percent raises for teachers and school-related personnel -- slightly more than the 2.65 percent the district originally offered in the spring, and slightly less than the 3.35 percent the United School Employees of Pasco requested.

District officials had insisted they had no more money to provide, while union leaders argued more money could be found in reserves and carry-forward accounts. …

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Pasco County school district to seek more funds for magnet programs

Pasco County's magnet schools have had more applicants than available seats since opening.

Times file photo

Pasco County's magnet schools have had more applicants than available seats since opening.

Hoping to expand academic options for children, the Pasco County school district recently turned to magnet schools as a new set of choices.

First came Sanders Memorial Elementary, followed by Centennial and Bayonet Point middle schools.

Each focused on STEM curriculum, but struggled in some ways to fully define themselves as different from the district's traditional campuses. Superintendent Kurt Browning has acknowledged in interviews that the district didn't fully comprehend the scope of the added demands required to make magnets stand apart.

One of the key needs was money. Sanders had some benefits because it opened as a brand new school, and could be developed with specialty classroom designs. Bayonet Point shared similar assets, having been renovated.

But the district had limited resources to put into programs and training — about $100,000 per middle school last year. And so now it's looking to improve upon that start as officials move to expand the model even further. …

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