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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

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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Lawyers make final arguments in west Pasco school rezoning case

Parents and school district officials attend the first of four advisory committee meetings to discuss west Pasco middle and high school attendance zones in fall 2016.

Times file photo

Parents and school district officials attend the first of four advisory committee meetings to discuss west Pasco middle and high school attendance zones in fall 2016.

Many words were spoken during two days of testimony as west Pasco County parents challenged the School Board's rezoning of their neighborhood middle and high schools in late February.

But lawyers for the sides left much of their legal argument for another day, deciding instead to focus on testimony while debating whether the board followed Florida's rulemaking laws in setting new attendance boundaries.

On Tuesday, their legal briefs  -- 27 pages each -- were formally filed with the Division of Administrative Hearings. After all the time spent by parents declaring the harm caused to their families and explaining how they were not well informed of the proceedings, and the district countering the claims, the positions boiled down to a few key points.

In the plaintiffs' recommended final order, lawyer Robert Stines reiterated his key point that the district had engaged in rulemaking, as evidenced in the language of some of its own documents and depositions, and did not follow all the necessary steps outlined in law, from notification to explanation of the rule. …

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New principal appointed to Trinity Elementary in Pasco County

Former Connerton Elementary School principal Aimee Boltze has been named to take over Trinity Elementary on April 5.

Boltze, currently an assistant principal at Watergrass Elementary, replaces Cortney Gantt, who transferred to Seven Springs Middle School in early March. The appointment fills the final principal vacancy in Pasco County after a round robin of position swaps sparked by an unexpected death and a promotion.

Boltze was credited with improving Connerton's climate and performance after the contentious leadership of Anna Falcone, who resigned under pressure in 2013. In the midst of personal problems, Boltze agreed to take an assistant principal job in summer 2016, with the understanding she might return to heading a school once her issues were resolved.

Her promotion goes to the School Board for consideration on April 4.

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Hillsborough School Board delays discussion on school start times

Times file photo

Parents and employees of the Hillsborough County public schools might have to wait another month for a decision about next year's school hours.

District leaders had hoped to have a "bell schedule," as the arrival and dismissal times are called, ready for a board discussion and vote on Tuesday, April 4. But they now want to take more time to explore their options.

The board's next scheduled business meeting is May 2.

"We are still gathering input from our stakeholder group meetings, which include students, parents and teachers," said spokeswoman Tanya Arja.

One option, widely circulated on social media, would have traditional elementary schools start at 8:30 a.m. instead of the current start time of 8 o'clock. Middle school would start at 9:30 a.m. instead of 9 a.m. High schools, which now typically start at 7:33 a.m., would begin at 7:15 a.m. But that's just one scenario, district officials said.

The reason for the changes, which would take effect when school resumes on Aug. 10, are twofold.

First: The current system gets some buses to school chronically late. The district also is trying to economize by getting maximum efficiency out of its fleet of roughly 1,000 buses. …

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Concern mounts over textbook, coding bills as they gain steam in Florida Legislature

AP photo illustration

Two bills that hadn't moved in past sessions of the Florida Legislature gained momentum this week as key committees recommended their approval with little lawmaker dissent.

The advancement of measures on textbook challenges (HB 989 / SB 1210) and computer coding (HB 265 / SB 104) prompted critics to move into high gear in explaining their concerns with the language in each.

Complaints that the computer coding bills would allow high school students to replace foreign language credits with coding course appeared to be tamped down as House PreK-12 Quality chairman Rep. Jake Raburn assured speakers that the foreign language swap had been removed in a committee substitute.

That did little to assuage advocates for improved math and science instruction, such as Florida State physics professor Paul Cottle, who fired back on his blog that "Florida Legislators trying to boost high school computer science enrollment by sacrificing other important disciplines are missing the whole point." …

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Gradebook podcast: Getting a real look inside schools, not the 'dog and pony version'

In this 2012 photo, Candy Olson, then a Hillsborough County School Board member, takes part in a music class at Mitchell Elementary. Board members aren't always welcome for school visits in some Florida counties. A bill supported by the Florida Coalition of School Board Members aims to change that.


In this 2012 photo, Candy Olson, then a Hillsborough County School Board member, takes part in a music class at Mitchell Elementary. Board members aren't always welcome for school visits in some Florida counties. A bill supported by the Florida Coalition of School Board Members aims to change that.

Reporter Jeff Solochek speaks with Shawn Frost, president of the Florida Coalition of School Board Members, about a bill that would allow board members to visit schools. Right now, in some instances, elected school board members are barred from such visits, which Frost says can prevent them from seeing what's really going on in schools.

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Florida Senate PreK-12 Appopriations chair proposes increases in prekindergarten, per-student funding

Florida's prekindergarten through high school public education system could see increases in funding under the budget proposal unveiled Tuesday in the PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee.

Chairman Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, said the spending plan would bring the state's voluntary prekindergarten program to its highest level of funding since its creation 15 years ago. It also would bump up per-student K-12 funding 2.91 percent, a higher percentage than in three of the past five years, Simmons said.

He and staff built the budget without change to the required local effort on taxes, which would mean local property owners could see the amount they pay in taxes rise if their values went up. Leaders in the Florida House have said they would not support any tax increases, but also have indicated they wanted to put more money into prekindergarten through high school funding.

The House has recommended cuts in higher education funding, which might be where some of the added money comes from. The House PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee is to present its budget proposal later in the day.

Some of the highlights of Simmons' recommendations include: …

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Pasco County school impact fee advisory committee seeks input

Care about whether the Pasco County Commission increases school impact fees? The county's 10-person impact fee advisory committee will take public comment at 3 p.m. Wednesday.

The committee, comprised of five commission appointees and five School Board appointees, will hold its first meeting Wednesday to begin considering the board's request for a near doubling of the charge made on new home construction.

The board made its recommendation after noting it cannot afford to build schools quickly enough to meet the needs of the county's fast-growing population.

School district officials have expressed their hope for quick action by the advisory committee, with a goal of getting the commission to act on the fee proposal by fall. …

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Florida education news: Testing, textbooks, coding and more

TESTING: The Florida Senate Education Committee delays consideration of testing reform legislation amid disputes over process, the Times/Herald reports. Entering the meeting, some leaders were prepared to merge two competing bills into one. More from the News Service of Florida, Tallahassee Democrat.

TEXTBOOKS: Bills to make it easier for parents and other residents to challenge Florida schools' instructional materials move through both chambers of the Legislature.

COMPUTER CODING: State lawmakers press ahead with a bill promoting computer coding legislation, but no longer allowing it as a substitute for foreign languages.

HIGHER ED: The Florida House proposes cutting the state university and college budget by $164 million, the News Service of Florida reports.

CHARTER SCHOOLS: Struggling Manatee Charter School nears an agreement with the Manatee County school district to remain in operation, the Bradenton Herald reports. • A bill in the Florida House would direct more capital funding to charter schools, Redefined reports. …

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House, Senate advance bills making it easier to challenge school books, materials

A Pasco County parent reviews a novel that some parents objected to as inappropriate for middle school children in 2016.

Times file photo

A Pasco County parent reviews a novel that some parents objected to as inappropriate for middle school children in 2016.

In the face of parent and community complaints about the content of some school books and materials, Florida lawmakers on Monday moved ahead legislation to make it easier to see what schools are using and challenge the items.

HB 989 and SB 1210 aim to build upon an effort three years ago to give local school districts more control over the materials used in their schools. Amended amid concerns of initially going too far, the bills would give parents and community residents more access to the books inside the schools, and require districts to establish processes for parents and residents to object to items in use.

House sponsor Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, told the House PreK-12 Quality Committee he wanted simply to create an open, transparent process to ensure children get the most objective and least objectionable materials available. Seeing as the state spends $200 million annually on books and other materials, he said, it makes sense to put more local oversight in place.

He stressed that the Legislature should not be setting all the guidelines for what is picked. "That isn't a job for the Legislature," said Donalds, whose wife sits on the Collier County School Board. …

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Florida Senate Education Committee postpones consideration of testing bill

Times file photo

With several potentially contentious amendments filed and less than 30 minutes remaining for its meeting, the Florida Senate Education Committee narrowly decided Monday to postpone consideration of SB 926, which is poised to become the primary vehicle this session to alter the state's testing system.

Several members of the committee back Sen. Bill Montford's SB 964, while the panel was slated to hear SB 926 by newly named member Sen. Anitere Flores.

Just as the meeting ensued, Sen. David Simmons late-filed six amendments to the Flores bill, aimed at making it look more like Montford's measure. They included:

- Ending the mandate on using value-added measures associated with test results to determine teacher evaluations

- Eliminating several high school end-of-course exams

- Allowing districts to use paper-pencil tests rather than electronic ones

- Studying national alternatives to state high school language arts and math tests 

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon and a co-sponsor of SB 964, called for the Flores bill to be temporarily postponed just as it came up for discussion. The committee voted 5-4 in favor, and moved on to a workshop on charter schools. …

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This time, no delays expected for Pasco County report cards

At the end of the first semester, Pasco County schools delayed delivery of student report cards, and then missed that second deadline, too.

The issue boiled down to problems with a new data system, and incorrect calculations. Officials pledged at the ultimate release of the report cards that the scenario would not repeat itself.

On Monday, the district made clear it had every expectation of sending home the next round on time.

"Quarter 3 report cards are scheduled to be distributed to students on Monday, April 3rd," the district tweeted. "We do not anticipate any delays."

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Eyes turn to Florida Senate Education Committee for testing debate

Sen. David Simmons

Sen. David Simmons

Social media heated up over the weekend as Florida parents and activists seeking changes to the state's high-stakes testing and accountability system tried to raise attention to Monday's Senate Education Committee session.

The committee, which meets at 1:30 p.m. (watch on The Florida Channel), is to feature debate and a vote on this year's primary testing legislation. It looks to be Sen. Anitere Flores' SB 926, nicknamed the "Fewer, Better Tests" bill to the chagrin of critics who note it does little to eliminate or improve state exams. 

They prefer Sen. Bill Montford's SB 964, which has been endorsed by a bipartisan slate of senators including several who sit on the committee. They've adopted #StopSB926 as their social media tag, and have contacted reporters along with lawmakers to make their views known.

And because the bill is scheduled to go only to one more committee -- Rules -- after this stop, the stakes are feeling high.

Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs and chairman of PreK-12 Appropriations, said senators have discussed the measures between meetings to see where they can arrive at consensus in bringing SB 926 closer to what others want.  …

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Florida education news: School visits, testing, teacher contracts and more

SCHOOL VISITS: Sen. Anitere Flores seeks to give Florida school board members access to schools in their districts without interference.

TESTING: Sen. Flores brings her "Fewer, Better Tests" bill to the Education Committee while a more expansive bill by Sen. Bill Montford waits, the Tallahassee Democrat reports. Sen. Montford remains optimistic his ideas will be heard at some point in the process. Testing legislation is among nine key bills that could affect Florida education, Florida Today reports.

LABOR NEWS: A local Florida Education Association group seeks to represent Santa Rosa County teachers, the Santa Rosa Press Gazette reports. • The Manatee County School Board is scheduled to resolve contract impasse with its teachers, the Bradenton Herald reports.

CHARTER SCHOOLS: A Manatee County charter school fights to remain open, the Bradenton Herald reports.

RECESS: A bill to mandate daily recess in all Florida elementary schools faces revisions in the state House, the Miami Herald reports.

TEACHER BONUSES: Volusia County teachers remain discouraged by the state's Best and Brightest award program, the Daytona Beach News-Journal reports. …

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ICYMI: Florida education news in review, week of March 19, 2017

Times file photo

It was another active week for Florida education news, with controversial measures moving through the Legislature and new revelations about achievement and access gaps for minority children. A federal judge allowed immigrant families to pursue their lawsuit alleging Collier County schools denied their children an education, and the Jefferson County School Board approved a contract to have all its schools run by a charter operator.

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

Florida Senate takes 'stand for liberty' in passing religious freedom bill for schools over Democratic concerns, Kristen M. Clark
"Florida's public schools would have to let students lead religious prayers during the school day and at school-sanctioned events under a controversial proposal that the state Senate approved Thursday." …

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