Make us your home page


Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Four Hillsborough schools will get chillers with money that was earmarked for air conditioners at Lee Elementary

Hurricane Irma toppled a large tree in front of Westshore Elementary School. This image and others are being assembled as the Hillsborough County School District prepares its claim to FEMA.


Hurricane Irma toppled a large tree in front of Westshore Elementary School. This image and others are being assembled as the Hillsborough County School District prepares its claim to FEMA.

First: This is what Hurricane Irma did to schools in Hillsborough County. This slide show, shared at a meeting Wednesday of the School Board's facilities committee, does not, of course, include the fire that consumed Lee Elementary on Sept. 12.

And yes, the district considers the Lee fire an Irma casualty, as it began shortly after power was restored to the surrounding Tampa Heights neighborhood.

About the second most dramatic event was a tree that came through the roof and into a school district office building in east Hillsborough.

All of this, and more, will be reported to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the pictures in the slide show will be included in the evidence.

In fact, the claim will include a variety of expenses, including the time and materials that were used to get Lockhart Elementary School ready to take in Lee's 329 students and 49 employees. The portable classrooms that will be added to Lockhart's campus for that purpose? Also included in the FEMA claim -- as well as the cost of adding an extra daily bus run.

There are no estimates yet of how much the storm cost or how soon the money will arrive. …

Full Story

Manatee County School Board won't join HB 7069 lawsuit

Manatee County School Board member John Colon


Manatee County School Board member John Colon

While the Pinellas County School Board was voting unanimously Tuesday to join the constitutional challenge of HB 7069, its neighbor to the south was taking a decidedly different stance.

The Manatee County School Board narrowly defeated a proposal to give $6,000 to the yet-to-be-filed suit, calling it a waste of time and money.

"I don't think it is a good idea to spend taxpayer dollars on a frivolous lawsuit. And I do think it is frivolous," said vice chairman John Colon, a former State Board of Education member appointed by Gov. Rick Scott. "I don't think it is going to change anything."

Colon told his colleagues that he had spoken with lawmakers from both parties, including Sarasota Republican Rep. Joe Gruters and Pinellas Democrat Rep. Wengay Newton, and each had offered to file legislation to improve the measure if the district has specifics it wants to present. …

Full Story

Pasco County school district to hire consultant to help with FEMA claim

Custodians wiped down the walls at all Pasco County schools that served as shelters as part of the storm cleanup. All staff that worked during Irma got paid time and a half.

Jeffrey S. Solochek | Times

Custodians wiped down the walls at all Pasco County schools that served as shelters as part of the storm cleanup. All staff that worked during Irma got paid time and a half.

During Hurricane Irma, the Pasco County school district opened 22 schools to more than 22,500 residents and 2,000 pets. District staff worked the shelters, fed the evacuees, transported home those who needed a ride, then cleaned up afterward.

The employees who volunteered to work during the storm earned 1.5 times their regular salaries for their effort, which residents and officials alike roundly praised.

These were not Red Cross activities or expenses. The district put forth all the money, with an email reminder from assistant superintendent Betsy Kuhn to keep receipts, time cards and all other documentation for eventual reimbursement from FEMA.

Now, chief finance officer Olga Swinson told the School Board, the district has 30 days to initiate a claim, and 60 days to file it. Staff will be working hard, Swinson said, but also have their regular load to handle.

To help, she asked the board to approve hiring a consultant at a fee of up to $10,000 to oversee the filing, which superintendent Kurt Browning said would be "incredibly complex and documented."

"We want to maximize our reimbursement," Browning said, refusing to guess how much money the district spent, or the cost of damages. …

Full Story

Permanent pay raises key for future success, Pasco school officials argue

Pasco County superintendent Kurt Browning

Pasco County superintendent Kurt Browning

With the Florida Legislature's committee meetings less than a month away, Pasco County school district leaders set forth the priorities they'll be pushing during the 2018 session.

Improved pay for teachers and staff was high on the list.

"I think we ought to be increasing teachers' salaries, and I think we need to do that with the state's help," superintendent Kurt Browning told the School Board on Tuesday.

He noted that lawmakers focused in 2017 on providing bonuses for teachers with strong performance evaluations. But he and others suggested such one-time payments are not enough — even if lawmakers said they would provide the bonuses over several years. 

"The key is recurring," School Board vice chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong said. "Bonuses, you just can't count on them from year to year. ... It's not fair."

The board adopted a budget on Tuesday that Browning said included "an amount" for raises, but did not detail how much or what percentage those raises might be. We have requested the specifics and will update this post when they become available.

Still, Browning said, the onus cannot be completely on district decisions to cut spending in other areas to pay for staffing. …

Full Story

Florida education news: Irma makeup days, HB 7069, charter schools and more

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart

The Florida Channel

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart

MAKEUP DAYS: Florida education commissioner Pam Stewart waives two of the required 180 days of instruction to help districts complete the academic year after missing several for Hurricane Irma. District leaders say they are reviewing their calendars to determine how to make up the rest of the time. They could add days back to the calendar, or adjust the daily schedule to add minutes. Some districts, such as Escambia and Santa Rosa, won't have to make changes at all, the Pensacola News-Journal reports. More from the Gainesville Sun, Fort Myers News-Press, Orlando Sentinel • Some Monroe County schools will remain closed for the foreseeable future, the Miami Herald reports. More from the Keynoter. • One Palm Beach County school cancels classes midday as power fails, the Palm Beach Post reports.

HB 7069: The Pinellas County School Board joins about a dozen other school boards in a planned lawsuit challenging Florida's new education law that requires them to share tax revenue with charter schools, among other controversial provisions. Board members agree to drop out of the suit if lawmakers change the law to address their concerns. …

Full Story

Education commissioner Pam Stewart offers Florida schools two days for Irma

Florida school districts that closed before, during and after Hurricane Irma received some slight relief Tuesday from the state Department of Education.

Commissioner Pam Stewart advised superintendents that she would waive two days from the state requirement that districts hold 180 days of classes.

Read her full letter for more details.

Most districts, however, used several more days than two. Pasco schools took off six, while Hernando, Pinellas and Hillsborough took seven.

Some districts in South Florida missed even more.

If they can’t work out their schedules with the two-day waiver, Stewart wrote, the districts would have to make a formal request to her department by Oct. 16. And they’d have to meet some stringent requirements, as set forth in state rule.

To gain additional approved time off, she explained, the districts would first have to make up the time by using all but three teacher planning days over the course of the school year. They also would have to lose any school holidays that aren’t authorized national or state holidays.

Around the Tampa Bay area, that could mean the shortening of the Thanksgiving break, which has become a week for most districts. …

Full Story

Heart Association recognizes Jeff Eakins

Hillsborough County Public Schools Superintendent Jeff Eakins was named the national Administrator of the Year, by the American Heart Association on Tuesday.

The organization recognized Eakins and the Hillsborough district for including student health in the strategic plan, and approving hands-only CPR in 2015 as a graduation requirement.

According to the district, the award also reflects;

96,768 students and families received Heart Healthy messages that include lifesaving information on heart attack and stroke warning signs

$327,123 was raised for the fight against heart attack and stroke, a 15% increase over the prior year.

6,576 elementary students took the Heart Healthy Challenge: exercising for 60 minutes a day and choosing Heart Healthy foods and drinks


Full Story

Florida Supreme Court tosses Palm Beach case on charter school approvals

With a simple two-sentence memo, the Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld the state Board of Education's power to overturn school board denials of charter school applications.

The court declined to accept juridsiction over the Palm Beach County School Board's case, which challenged the state's authority, and instead left intact the January ruling of the Fourth District Court of Appeal that affirmed the state's role.

In that January decision, the appellate court found the charter school application appeals law to be constitutional, contrary to the Palm Beach district's arguments. The School Board had denied an applicant, explaining that it did not offer innovative techniques and it already had one failing school in the district.

The applicant asked the state to overturn the school board's decision, and the State Board did so. The district contended that the state overstepped its bounds by acting in a realm constitutionally assigned to school boards. …

Full Story

USF boasts a diverse, record-breaking class of new students

Student Nick Russin talks to incoming students during a tour of the Marshall Student Center on USF’s Tampa campus.


Student Nick Russin talks to incoming students during a tour of the Marshall Student Center on USF’s Tampa campus.

TAMPA – Another year, another record-breaking freshman class for the University of South Florida.

Its incoming students boast the strongest academics and most diversity in school history, officials said Tuesday.

It's also the biggest group of students the USF System has ever seen, numbering more than 50,000 enrollments between the main campus in Tampa and regional institutions USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee.

In Tampa, the average high school GPA for incoming students has risen to 4.12 (last year, first-time-in-college students averaged 4.08). More than 50 percent of incoming students graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school class. 

Paul Dosal, vice president for student affairs and student success, said in a statement that USF has relied on careful planning of its enrollments.

“As an institution, we value diversity and promote a teaching and learning environment that reflects the state, national, and global markets in which our students will one day compete,” he said. …

Full Story

A reorganization in Hillsborough will place safety under operations

Staff at the Hillsborough County School District's safety office will work in the operations department, subject to a vote at this afternoon's School Board meeting.

Significant? Maybe, maybe not.

An argument can be made that safety, which is now a separate department and is listed on the website under Human Resources, serves as a check on the work of other departments.

But that structure also can create a disconnect. It became difficult, for example, to keep track of hazardous walking situations at bus stops, and that's one reason why a lot of courtesy bus stops existed long after conditions no longer justified them.

Superintendent Jeff Eakins said Monday that he thinks it makes more sense to house the safety office under the operations department, which is headed up by Chief Operations Officer Chris Farkas.

"So much of our operations depend on codes and other kinds of stability requirements," Eakins said. "It needs to be a solution-driven space, and safety needs to be a voice at the table."

The move, part of a larger reorganization that will also save the district an estimated $26,000, comes as officials wait to learn the cause of a fire on Sept. 12 that ravaged Lee Elementary School. …

Full Story

How are Florida school boards able to hold budget hearings tonight?

Several Florida school boards, including Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties, have set their final budget public hearings and votes for after 5 p.m. Tuesday.

They had been scheduled to act on Sept. 12. Hurricane Irma interfered.

The quick turnaround did not allow school districts to provide what generally might be considered adequate public notice. How can that happen?

In this case, Gov. Rick Scott anticipated the probable need to alter the plans, and made provisions for it in his Sept. 4 executive order regarding Irma. Scott granted the Department of Revenue executive director the authority to waive the timing requirements of state law with regard to the setting of non ad valorem tax rates.

The waiver, issued Sept. 8, allowed districts to complete their budgets after the emergency passed. It included some lesser notification requirements, and called for the government entities to hold the hearings at a time and place that ensures public access, "to the extent practicable."

It expires after 30 days.

Full Story

Florida education news: Free lunch, school routines, spending cuts and more

Scott Keeler | Times

FREE LUNCH: Hurricane Irma caused many families to go without income for a week. Many also lost power, and along with it the food in their refrigerators and freezers. Making matters worse, replacing it isn't so easy, as grocery stores have limited supplies. Hoping to ease the burden, the state has asked for and received permission for 48 counties including those in the Tampa Bay region to provide free meals to all students through October 20. If families will continue to need assistance after that date, they will have to apply.

BACK TO SCHOOL: Returning to routine was a key as children across the state headed back to classes after more than a week away because of Irma. Some stories from Lee Elementary in Hillsborough and Odessa Elementary in Pasco. • The state Department of Education has revised its fall testing schedule after the storm. • More from the Sun-Sentinel, Associated Press, Naples Daily News, Daytona Beach News-Journal 

BUDGETS: The Hillsborough County School Board prepares to make spending cuts to end its reliance on reserves, at a time when it doesn't know how much hurricane-related costs will total. …

Full Story

USF St. Petersburg leader responds to criticism of hurricane decisions

Former USFSP regional chancellor Sophia Wisniewska in 2013


Former USFSP regional chancellor Sophia Wisniewska in 2013

ST. PETERSBURG — The former leader of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, who resigned Monday amid internal criticism of her handling of Hurricane Irma, is defending her decisions during the storm.

"I strongly reject any question of my leadership during Irma and my leadership during my tenure at USFSP," former regional chancellor Sophia Wisniewska wrote in a text message to a Tampa Bay Times reporter Monday night. "Certainly, I did nothing to warrant firing for cause. However, I do realize that President Genshaft has the right to choose another Chancellor, and she did."

Wisniewska rejected the university's characterization of her decision-making, referring to "a very significant difference of opinion on how events unfolded."

READ: Sophia Wisniewska's letter to USF in response to dismissal 

She said she leaves USFSP proud of her ties to the community, as well as her work developing new programs, fundraising, boosting rankings and beautifying the waterfront campus.

"I resigned this evening without hard feelings and with optimism for the future," she wrote. "My only regret is that I was unable to achieve all of our goals for USFSP."

Full Story

More chances to weigh in on bell times

In all the excitement surrounding Hurricane Irma, the Hillsborough County School District was derailed in some of its efforts to get public input about next year's arrival and dismissal times.

As a result, two more public meetings have been scheduled; Thursday, September 21, 6:00-7:30 p.m., at the Riverview High School cafeteria, 11311 Boyette Rd.; and Tuesday, September 26, 6:00-7:30 p.m., Jefferson High School media center, 4401 Cypress St., Tampa.

The deadline to complete a survey that was sent to parents and employees has been extended through Sunday, Oct. 1. Nearly 30,000 people have offered their opinions already.

The district says it's changing the schedules because under last year's system, 12,000 students were late to school every day.

The School Board plans to vote on next year's schedule on Oct. 17.

Full Story

Time to get 'back to routine' as much as possible in Florida schools

Teacher Scott Ortolano writes a brief welcome back message to his students, who missed six class days because of Hurricane Irma.

Jeffrey S. Solochek

Teacher Scott Ortolano writes a brief welcome back message to his students, who missed six class days because of Hurricane Irma.

Principal Teresa Love greeted her Odessa Elementary staff back to work Monday with a smile and a cheerful "good morning," so everyone could get right into the business of the day.

Students would soon return after six class days away, and Love wanted to get her Pasco County school -- which days earlier had housed 950 Hurricane Irma evacuees and their 125 pets -- back to learning as soon as possible.

"All the teachers are going to have that initial few moments of time where they allow the kids to talk about things," she said, referring to the storm that threatened the region. "We've all had that time. The kids need that time as well. But not that much time. ... It's time to get back to routine."

If there was a single word that dominated discussion Monday, it was "routine." Teachers used it a dozen times if they used it once, noting how children thrive better when things go according to plan.

It became fifth grade teacher Scott Ortolano's watchword as he made his last minute lesson preparations with colleague Jennifer James. They discussed how to review the information about decimals their students had learned before the break, and how to transition into new materials. …

Full Story