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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Florida public school employees deserve Whistleblower protections, lawmakers suggest

Two Democratic Florida lawmakers filed similar bills (HB 1305 / SB 1236) Friday to offer specific protections to school district employees who reveal fraud, illegal activity or other actions that have a negative effect on student or school performance.

Rep. Kim Daniels of Jacksonville and Sen. Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg would ensure that any instructional or administration personnel who are fired, demoted, suspended, threatened, harassed or otherwise discriminated against by their employers because of their statements have recourse under the state Whistleblower Act.

The measure would offer job security for a broad range of disclosures, including: 

- Improper use of school district practices or procedures deemed to be school-related fraud,
- A suspected violation of law or rule,
- The dishonest reporting or misrepresentation of the employee’s services, or
- An activity or incident that has had a negative effect on the education of students or a school’s performance.

Also filed Friday was a Senate companion bill (SB 1210)  to a House measure aimed at making it easier to challenge school instructional materials. …

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Gradebook podcast: Federal funding, school rezoning and red sauce

State Rep. Bob Cortes introduces HM 7027 during the Education Committee's meeting Feb. 21.

[Florida House of Representatives]

State Rep. Bob Cortes introduces HM 7027 during the Education Committee's meeting Feb. 21.

This week, Jeff Solochek and editor Tom Tobin take a look at the Florida House measure urging Congress to dramatically change the way the federal government doles out funds to the state for low-income and special education students. They also discuss a Pasco County parent lawsuit that could change the way Florida school districts redraw school attendance zones.

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Florida education news: Transgender students, school boundaries, food trucks and more

GENDER ISSUES: Tampa Bay area school district officials say the Trump administration's latest rule on treatment of transgender students won't change their actions protecting students. The same holds true in south Florida, the Sun-Sentinel reports. Central Florida, too, the Orlando Sentinel reports.

REZONING: Challenges to the Pasco County School Board's recently adopted attendance boundaries head to a hearing next week, where parents hope to get the revisions overturned. • The Nassau County School Board reassigns hundreds of students to ease crowding, Action News Jax reports.

HIGHER ED: A proposal to revamp Florida's college and university system heads to the state Senate floor.

NO STRINGS: The Florida House calls upon Congress to remove restrictions attached to federal education and health care funding, reports.

TESTING: The opt-out movement gains little support in St. Johns County, the St. Augustine Record reports.

SCHOOL SPIRIT: One Leon County middle school cheerleader continues to perform even after her teammates quit, the Tallahassee Democrat reports. …

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Pinellas School Board to vote on $10.5 million project for technical high school

The Pinellas County school district needs its School Board to approve a $10.5 million project for the district's first technical high school at Tuesday's board meeting.

Without it, Career Academies of Seminole, where hundreds of students currently commute to every day for two periods of technical classes, can't transition into Career Academies of Seminole Technical High School. Officials originally planned for an August 2017 debut but are now setting their sights on the 2018-19 school year.

"The selection of architects and construction plans and things like that didn't go as quickly as we hoped," said Mark Hunt, the district's executive director of career, technical and adult education. "We'd rather delay it rather than open it."

Of the $10.5 million total project cost, about $7 million will come from the bond market to pay for a new two-story building to house traditional high school classes as well as a cafeteria, kitchen and office space.

The rest will come out of the district's capital outlay fund to pay for infrastructure such as parking lots, bus ramps and renovations to existing buildings. …

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Florida lawmaker seeks to make it easier to challenge school instructional materials

Every few years, a Florida lawmaker fixes on the topic of school materials that might offend, and how to root those out.

Three years ago, Sen. Alan Hays proposed removing the state from the book selection process, so local leaders could better control the books read in area classrooms.

This time it's Rep. Byron Donalds' turn. Donalds, a Naples Republican, has filed a measure [HB 989] that would more tightly define the criteria for acceptable classroom instructional materials, and make it easier for the general public to access and challenge the items. A Collier parent group challenged four school library books in 2015.

The bill would require school boards to ensure all instructional materials meet these guidelines:

a. Be research-based and proven to be effective in supporting student learning;
b. Provide a noninflammatory, objective, and balanced viewpoint on issues;
c. Be appropriate to the students' ages and varying levels of learning;
d. Be accurate and factual;
e. Be of acceptable technical quality; and
f. Be free of pornography or content otherwise prohibited 120 pursuant to s. 847.012(3).

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USF leads nation in producing prestigious Fulbright Scholars

USF's Fulbright Scholars for the 2016-2017 year put it ahead of other top research institutions.

Times files

USF's Fulbright Scholars for the 2016-2017 year put it ahead of other top research institutions.

With 12 faculty members named as Fulbright Scholars in the 2016-2017 year, the University of South Florida led the nation in producing winners of the prestigious awards.

USF’s number is double last year’s, putting it in the top spot among research institutions nationwide, according to data released this week by the U.S. Department of State and Institute of International Education, and highlighted in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Behind USF are Ohio State and Penn State with 10 scholars, the University of Michigan with nine and the University of Southern California with eight. See the full list here.

Faculty who get the competitive award travel and conduct research abroad, then incorporate their experiences into their curriculum and domestic research. To USF, that just brings the phrase ‘global citizens’ to life. …

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Hearing dates shuffled for Pasco County school rezoning complaints

Meetings on Pasco County school rezoning proposals drew large and often upset crowds from the outset in fall 2016.

Times file photo

Meetings on Pasco County school rezoning proposals drew large and often upset crowds from the outset in fall 2016.

East Pasco County parents fighting their school district's vote to redraw area attendance zones will have to wait a little longer to make their formal case.

A similar case stemming from a west Pasco rezoning will get heard first. And because all involved anticipate the testimony will take longer than the one day set aside for a Division of Administrative Hearings session, the east side arguments will be delayed at least a week.

In a Wednesday status conference, lawyers for the two the sides agreed that a Division of Administrative Hearings judge should hear each presentation in its entirety, rather than take up one set of facts on Monday and another on Tuesday, most likely without concluding either.

As a result, the west Pasco case, which was filed first and was scheduled for Monday, will continue into Tuesday, when the east Pasco case had been set. The east side case will be rescheduled for either March 6-7, March 15-16 or March 20-21, School Board attorney Dennis Alfonso said. It will depend on when all parties are available.

"There was a recognition there was too much to handle in one day," Alfonso explained Thursday, before heading into a round of depositions on the case. …

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Florida education news: Machetes, tuition, laptops and more

RENOVATIONS: The Pinellas County School Board pledges nearly $9 million to the renovation of Lakewood High School.

SCHOOL SAFETY: A Lakewood High School student is arrested after authorities discover a 28-inch machete in his trombone case at school.

COLLEGE COSTS: The children of Florida farm workers could gain access to 50 fully paid college tuition scholarships under a proposal in the Florida Senate.

TESTING: Bay County education leaders raise questions about the viability of testing legislation proposed in Tallahassee, the Panama City News Herald reports. • Manatee County schools see increased participation in Advanced Placement courses, the Bradenton Herald reports.

SCHOOL CHOICE: A Florida House member files a bill to expand the state's voucher-like programs, the News Service of Florida reports.

FUNDING: Gulf County voters will decide whether to extend their local property tax that supports school operations, the Port St. Joe Star reports.

STUDENT DISCIPLINE: An Alachua County teacher relies on the insights of disciplined students to figure out how to improve classroom interactions, the Gainesville Sun reports. …

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House Speaker Richard Corcoran on tax increase for schools: 'Hell no'

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, has two simple words for Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Senate on taxes and spending: "Hell, no."

Corcoran says he won't compromise on the question of whether the Legislature should write a budget that includes nearly $500 million more in local property taxes from Florida homeowners to hit Scott's target of a K-12 spending increase, under a program known as required local effort. Scott and Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, don't consider that a tax increase because the property tax rate would stay the same. The extra money would come from rising property values paid by homeowners and businesses.

Corcoran pointed out in an interview that on the same issue last year, Scott and senators both took the opposite position and took credit for a tax cut by rolling back the required local effort millage rate so that the amount of tax revenue collected for schools did not increase (state tax revenue made up the difference, and if that's the case again this year, Scott can kiss his proposed package of $618 million goodbye). …

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Pasco County school workers' contract talks head to special hearing

Teachers and bus drivers decked out in red filled the Pasco County School Board meeting Tuesday, urging the board to offer better pay raises in advance of scheduled special magistrate hearings on stalled contract talks.

The session on school-related employee contracts is scheduled for Feb, 28, with the one on teacher contracts set for March 7. Money remains a major sticking point.

Speaking to the board, the workers made that point abundantly clear.

"In the last 15 years, my pay hasn't changed by more than $3,000. That is a hardship," teacher Janet Tolson told the board. "I am approaching retirement. I am approximately 20 percent behind the surrounding counties."

The district has given raises in the past three years. Still, Tolson noted, state data reveals that Pasco is 20th in average teacher tenure, yet 54th in average teacher pay. The district's instructional salary schedule shows that a first-year educator makes $38,120 annually, while a twelfth-year teacher makes $41,110 -- less than $3,000 more.

Bus drivers said the situation is worse for them and other non-instructional staff. Bus drivers make just over $15 an hour, and generally do not work 8-hour days.  …

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Florida lawmakers seek reduction of federal Title I, IDEA rules

State Rep. Bob Cortes discusses a bill to urge Congress to convert Title I funding into block grants Tuesday.

The Florida Channel

State Rep. Bob Cortes discusses a bill to urge Congress to convert Title I funding into block grants Tuesday.

For its first bill of the 2017 session, the Florida House Education Committee decided to focus on fighting federal regulations rather than on testing, recess or other matters that have dominated discussion throughout the state.

"We're going to boldly go where no man has gone before," vice chairman Rep. Bob Cortes said, riffing on the fact that the committee bill number 1701 matched the registry number of the USS Enterprise from Star Trek.

Cortes observed that the measure, a memorial urging the U.S. Congress to convert Title I and IDEA funds into block grants, would hold no force of law. It would, however, show the strong sense of Florida lawmakers that the federal government has too much influence over the way the state and school districts spend the money aimed at helping low income and special needs students.

The $772 million Florida receives in federal money, compared to its $20 billion overall education budget, "is really not justifying the level of scrutiny we're seeing," Cortes said. …

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USF President Genshaft honored for advancement of women in higher education

USF System President Judy Genshaft

Times files

USF System President Judy Genshaft

For her long-term efforts to advance women in higher education, President Judy Genshaft of the University of South Florida System has won a prestigious recognition from the American Council on Education.

The annual Donna Shavlik Award, named for a long-serving ACE director, honors those who make helping women in higher education a priority, through leadership, career development, mentoring and campus climate.

“Judy Genshaft has worked tirelessly and effectively to develop the next generation of women leaders,” ACE President Molly Corbett Broad said in a news release. “She is an inspiring role model and frequent mentor through her own achievements and her sustained commitment to creating paths to success for so many others.”

Genshaft will receive the award in March at ACE’s 99th annual meeting. As the major coordinating body for American higher education institutions, the group represents nearly 1,800 college and university presidents and associations and works to influence public policy.

ACE highlighted USF’s rapid growth under Genshaft’s leadership since 2000, particularly its burgeoning reputation for academics, research and innovation. …

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Florida education news: School zones, recess, alternative programs and more

SCHOOL ZONES: The Hillsborough County School Board discusses the need to reexamine all school attendance boundaries and make adjustments to rebalance enrollment. • The Palm Beach County School Board prepares to vote on attendance zone changes, the Palm Beach Post reports.

OUT OF STATE: Hernando County School Board member Susan Duval attends most board meetings remotely as she tends to her ill daughter in Connecticut.

RECESS: A bill to mandate 20 minutes of daily elementary school recess clears its first Florida Senate committee, where it couldn't even get heard a year ago, the Miami Herald reports. More from the St. Augustine Record.

ALTERNATIVE SCHOOLS: Some Florida schools use alternative programs as dumping zones for students unlikely to perform well in accountability measures, USA Today/ProPublica reports.

TESTING: Florida ranks fourth nationally in the percentage of high school students taking and passing at least one Advanced Placement course, the Orlando Sentinel reports. …

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Pasco County School Board to look into midyear principal transfers

Some Pasco County parents continued Tuesday to complain about the unexpected, quick removal of principals from their schools this week.

"Our school has gone from meh to excellent in the past four years," parent Lynn Moses said of Seven Springs Middle School. "I'm terribly disappointed that we've been told the borders of our school would be changing and ... we're losing our very fine principal."

School Board members heard the concerns, and suggested the district take a closer look at its rules governing midyear principal transfers. They acknowledged they cannot simply overturn an employee move, barring good cause.

Still, board member Steve Luikart lamented that the district has told teachers they can't change jobs without having a qualified replacement secured, "yet we as district transfer folks from the administrative ranks whenever we want to."

A retired assistant principal, Luikart added that a school leader significantly impacts the campus morale and culture, and removing one so close to testing season might have adverse effects. He asked for staff to study how other school districts deal with principal transfers, for possible ideas to improve Pasco's procedures. …

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Pasco County school district ponders student early release days

Concerns that teachers aren't getting enough time to prepare for tougher academic standards and new instructional shifts have prompted Pasco County school district leaders to explore adding regular early release or late start days to the academic calendar.

Still in preliminary stages of review, the idea would go into effect in 2018-19 if district leaders find the potential benefits outweigh the detriments. They'll be surveying principals, teachers and parents, as well as studying districts such as Hillsborough and Manatee that already have early release days in effect.

Assistant superintendent Vanessa Hilton told School Board members that the staff is considering the idea in order to provide common professional development time for teachers, and to reduce the cost of substitutes to get that training done.

"The reason why we would even bother to study this is, we've received lots of inquiries from our schools," Hilton said.

Several issues would need to be resolved before the district could make this move, she noted, including how it would affect student transportation, teacher contracts and other matters. She asked the board for its general support before moving forward. …

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