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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Gradebook podcast: Turnarounds, taxes, valedictorians and more

Photo illustration.


Photo illustration.

With five weeks left before the Florida legislative session ends, reporter Jeff Solochek and editor Tom Tobin explore a bill aimed at tighter turnarounds for troubled schools, a big disagreement over property taxes and a local mixup that has some people talking about whether we still need to have valedictorians and salutatorians.

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Religious expression in Florida public schools: Which bill will survive?

Times file photo

In the Florida Legislature, the final version of a bill often comes down to who blinks first, or who acts last.

That could be the case for an effort aimed at increasing the ability of students and employees to express their religious views in the public schools.

Rep. Kimberly Daniels, a Jacksonville Democrat, filed her legislation first, and Ocala Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley followed soon after with an identical version. Senate President Joe Negron made the measure a priority, and the Senate sped ahead with adoption. 

The Senate then sent its bill to the House.

The House, by contrast, took its time, scaling back the proposal in the face of constitutional concerns. A much shorter bill made its way to the floor for passage.

Now both bills are before the House, in very different forms. To become law, of course, they'd have to be identical.

On Friday, Daniels moved to eliminate the differences -- by filing an amendment to the Senate bill in which she'd replace it entirely with the House version. If that gets approved, the House would return the bill to the Senate, which could agree, amend the bill again, or simply let it die. …

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Sen. Bill Montford not bothered by debate over his testing bill

Sen. Bill Montford

Times file photo

Sen. Bill Montford

Anger boiled over this week as the Florida Senate Education Committee chose to hear a bill on school testing by Sen. Anitere Flores over a competing measure by Sen. Bill Montford.

Former Senate president Tom Lee, a Brandon Republican who sits on the committee, fumed that the GOP leadership was refusing to hear Montford's comprehensive legislation because he's a Democrat. (Lee is a primary co-sponsor of Montford's bill.)

Instead, Sen. David Simmons, an Altamonte Springs Republican, filed six amendments to the Flores bill to bring it more in line with Montford's proposal.

Lee called the process an "abomination." Montford wasn't nearly as critical.

In an interview late Thursday, Montford said his primary goal remains to bring meaningful reform to Florida's testing system, regardless of whose bill is adopted. He said he had worked closely with Simmons to draft the amendments to Flores' legislation, and he also had conferred with Flores, who did not object to the possible additions.

Since Montford does not sit on Education this session, he said the amending process appeared the best path toward increasing time for teaching and cutting back days spent testing, if his bill won't be heard. …

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Florida education news: Valedictorians, evaluations, computer coding and more

VALEDICTORIANS: A dispute over who's valedictorian at a Pasco County high school rekindles the question of whether the district should move away from the annual honor.

TEACHER EVALUATIONS: The head of the Pinellas County teachers union raises concerns that many teachers might have deserved a "highly effective" rating but not gotten it.

LABOR NEWS: The Florida House passes a "union busting" bill some say is aimed at teachers. • Some Santa Rosa County teachers form a new union, the Pensacola News-Journal reports.

COMPUTER CODING: The debate continues over whether and how Florida should count computer coding as a credit toward high school graduation, WLRN reports.

CHARTER SCHOOLS: Legislation aimed at bringing top-rated charter schools with proven track records to serve students in Florida's persistently poor performing schools moves in the Florida House, the News Service of Florida reports. More from Associated Press, Politico Florida.

CAREER EDUCATION: A new Florida House bill aims to improve state career education and job training programs, Florida Politics reports. …

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Community Foundation of Tampa Bay doles out $128,000 for education programs

The Community Foundation of Tampa Bay has chosen 10 educational programs as recipients of more than $128,000 in grant funding. 

The foundation, which has donated more than $185 million to non-profit organizations since it was founded in 1990, aims to fund programs that support early learning and literacy programs for youth.

"These organizations are filling gaps in education and development for children that are crucial to building a better future for Tampa Bay through increased educational attainment and workforce readiness and participation," said Marlene Spalten, the foundation's president and CEO, in a press release.

The programs are:

- Berkeley Preparatory School, which received $25,000 for its Berkeley Academy, a free program for low-income students to prevent summer learning loss and help students become college-bound.

- The Pinellas Education Foundation was granted $6,000 to bridge the gender achievement gap with young boys at 12 elementary schools. …

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Pinellas teacher union leader takes issue with 'inconsistencies' in teacher evaluation system

There’s ongoing debate about whether student growth scores should be factored into a teacher’s evaluation, but in Pinellas, that only makes up a third of a teacher’s total evaluation score. The largest chunk -- 57 percent -- rides on a principal or assistant principal’s rating after four on-the-job observations.

Those observations could be the difference between a rating of effective or highly effective, which could earn teachers a bigger pay bonus or eligibility for a Best and Brightest scholarship. Or, it could be the tipping point between effective or developing/needs improvement or unsatisfactory, which earns no bonuses.

Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association president Mike Gandolfo noticed how several teachers might have been snubbed last year when their administrator’s observations are compared to their student growth scores.

In a letter addressed to area superintendents, Gandolfo said too few teachers in the 2015-16 school year received a highly effective rating on by their administrators at some schools, “even though teachers achieved student growth scores that would indicate that they should be rated as highly effective.” …

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Three Pasco County schools confront tuberculosis case

The Florida Department of Health received a report of a case of tuberculosis in Pasco County, and is coordinating with the school district to find anyone who had contact with the person for an extended length of time.

Accodding to the district, parents and staff at Deer Park and Cotee River elementary schools, and Marchman Technical College, received letters this week advising them that someone at their school was diagnosed with the disease. The letter advised anyone who had been exposed to the germs and at risk of infection to be tested.

The symptoms include a bad cough that lasts three weeks or longer, chest pain, coughing up blood, weakness or fatigue, loss of appetite, chills and fever. The bacteria spread through the air, and not from actions such as sharing food, using the same toilet or shaking hands.

"When we respond to public health events, we need to follow established protocols," County Health Officer Mike Napier said in a release. "Working with Pasco County Schools and parents in this process is key to successfully protecting everyone's health."

For more information, contact the Department of Health at (352) 521-1450 and press 2 for epidemiology.

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Recess bill keeps moving through Florida Senate

The Florida Senate takes up SB 78 on second reading.

The Florida Channel

The Florida Senate takes up SB 78 on second reading.

The bill Florida's recess moms call "the good one" moved quickly through second reading, where debate on contentious issues often occurs, on the state Senate floor Thursday.

Sponsor Sen. Anitere Flores briefly described the SB 78, which faced no amendments and no questions. Without discussion, the chamber moved the bill to third and final reading next week.

It hasn't gone without note that the problems are not arising in the Senate, which never heard the proposal a year ago as John Legg, the Education chairman at the time, refused to take it up in committee. Neither has it gone unnoticed that the House, which passed the same bill a year ago with only two votes against, is this year the side holding up passage.

Despite having a majority of members as co-sponsors, HB 67 underwent dramatic changes in its final committee stop, essentially removing the requirement for daily recess that proponents wanted. Part of the concern: House Education chairman Rep. Michael Bileca -- one of last year's two "no" votes -- still does not back a legislative mandate for school play time. …

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Pasco County School Board seeks input on attendance, discipline rules

In preparing for the 2017-18 academic year, the Pasco County school district is putting forth its recommended revisions to the student code of conduct, with the biggest changes coming in attendance and discipline rules.

The proposals include a third attempt at refining when students may participate in extras after unexcused or unexplained absences, with specific attention to athletes, who will have to be present the majority of a school day to take part in games or practices that day.

They also call for a dress code change, banning leggings, yoga pants and tights if not covered by a shirt or skirt no more than 4 inches above the knee. And they propose redefining the activities that could lead to expulsion to include continuous disruptive behavior (defined as 14 or more referrals).

The School Board will take public input on the code of conduct at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday during the first of two public hearings. Read the entire proposal for more details.

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Florida education news: After-school programs, property taxes, bonuses and more

AFTER SCHOOL: Tampa Bay area parents and educators see benefit in the after-school programs for low-income children that the Trump administration seeks to cut.

FUNDING: The Florida Senate and House battle over local property tax rates in creating an education budget for 2018. More from the Miami Herald, News Service of Florida, Naples Daily News. • The budget proposals spare money for school district support of military families, Florida Today reports.

ACCOUNTABILITY: The Florida House floats a proposal to overhaul the state's accountability program, including the creation of a new system of charter schools. More from the Associated Press.

PLAY TIME: House Education chairman Rep. Michael Bileca does not support mandating daily recess in Florida's elementary schools.

TEACHER BONUSES: A bill to expand the Best and Brightest award to include more teachers and, for the first time, principals heads to the House floor.

VOUCHERS: The Florida House scales back its plans to expand school choice programs, the News Service of Florida reports.

NIMBY: A Miami-Dade neighborhood opposes a proposed large charter school in their community, the Miami Herald reports. …

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Florida House floats overhaul of state school accountability system

When the Florida House Education Committee meets Thursday, it will take up a proposal that could dramatically change the face of the state's public school system, opening it to more charter schools.

PCB EDC 17-03 aims to ramp up the intervention system for traditional schools that struggle under the state accountability and testing program. It would expand early warning requirements on student performance into elementary grades, and overhaul the responses for schools that cannot overcome the obstacles.

School districts would be directed to declare educational emergencies for schools with grades below C, allowing them to renegotiate contract terms to eliminate programs seen as standing in the way of academic improvement.

For schools facing required turnaround plans, the choice of a district-managed option -- the most popular one currently used -- would be deleted. Districts would have to choose among reassigning students to other schools, closing the campuses and reopening them as charters, or hiring an outside operator. …

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Two Pasco County schools could face new start times -- one earlier, one later

Times file photo

Students at two Pasco County schools could find themselves resetting their alarm clocks by more than an hour next fall under a proposal headed to the School Board on Tuesday.

Rushe Middle School would begin classes at 7:25 a.m. rather than the current 8:40 a.m. Anclote High School would start at 8:45 a.m. instead of 7:30 a.m.

If approved, the changes would place each school on the same operating schedule as the others that share their campus, Sunlake High and Paul R. Smith Middle, respectively. The middle and high school students would ride the same buses, a similar arrangement as already takes place on several other joint campuses including River Ridge and Hudson middle-high schools.

The new Cypress Creek Middle-High School also will operate with one set of buses and the same bell times (7:25 a.m.).

The proposed moves arose for two different reasons, assistant superintendent Betsy Kuhn said.

The district transportation department asked to open Rushe earlier in the day in conjunction with the scheduled debut of a new bus garage in Odessa. With the move of some buses from other garages, Kuhn said, "We needed another school with an earlier start time" to make the routes run smoothly. …

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Florida House, Senate education budgets differ by $538m, with split over taxes

Sen. David Simmons discusses tax rates Wednesday during review of his proposed 2018 education budget.

The Florida Channel

Sen. David Simmons discusses tax rates Wednesday during review of his proposed 2018 education budget.

Florida's education budget is becoming the focus of a confrontation over local property taxes and what constitutes a tax increase.

The state House has taken a strong position that if property owners pay more in taxes, that's a hike, and it shouldn't happen. They cite the state's Truth in Millage rules, which require governments to alert property owners if the proposed tax rates would result in higher payments.

The Senate, by contrast, has taken a different stance.

"This is not a tax increase," Senate PreK-12 Appropriations chairman David Simmons said Wednesday. "It is simply leaving things as they are."

That's why the House proposed prek-12 education budget looks much different than the Senate's version, which Simmons' committee advanced to the full Appropriations Committee on Wednesday with no member comment.

Overall, the House has proposed a $20.424 billion bottom line, compared to the Senate recommendation of $20.963 billion. The House would increase per-student spending by 0.27 percent, to $7,223.71, while the Senate calls for a 2.91 percent rise, to $7,414.26. …

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Florida education news: Recess, open meetings, prom dresses and more

PLAY TIME: A year after its near unanimous approval of a bill mandating daily recess in elementary schools, the Florida House waters down this year's similar bill to no longer require daily recess.

IN THE BUDGET: The Florida House and Senate prepare for a showdown over the future of the Best and Brightest award. • The Florida House and Senate disagree over required local effort on property taxes for public schools, the News Service of Florida reports. • The House would put $200 million into charter schools that target children in persistently low-performing schools, Florida Politics reports.

RISING CONCERNS: Opponents to legislation on computer coding and textbook challenges get louder as the bills gain traction in the Florida Legislature.

OPEN MEETINGS: Hernando County residents raise questions about the School Board's unadvertised meetings inside a gated community.

START TIMES: The Hillsborough County School Board delays debate on proposed changes to school start times.

SCHOOL ZONES: Lawyers file their formal arguments in the rezoning challenge over west Pasco County middle and high schools. …

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USF students shell out $70,000 to bring Oscar-winner Viola Davis to campus

Viola Davis

Times files

Viola Davis

TAMPA -- Six minutes was all it took for University of South Florida staffers to realize they were going to need a bigger building.

They had announced that Academy Award-winner Viola Davis would deliver a free lecture on campus on April 4, during its annual USF Week. As soon as a link for tickets went live, students snapped them up.

Behind the scenes, USF officials conferred. The university has hosted big speakers before, but this demand blew past their expectations.

Each year, students on the University Lecture Series board decide how they want to use student funds to bring speakers to campus, hitting the sweet spot of entertaining and educational.

Viola Davis was the dream speaker on students’ lists this year, even before she won an Oscar for her role in Fences and delivered a rousing acceptance speech.

“The students truly wanted her,” said Monica L. Miranda, who works with the student committee as director of the Center for Student Involvement. “They didn’t want her because she was an Academy Award winner. That was a bonus to them.”

Booking the star of The Help, Doubt and ABC's How to Get Away with Murder cost $70,000, pre-Oscar. …

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