Florida schools roundup: Opt-out ruling, Legislature, scholarships and more

Opt-out ruling overturned: An appeals court overturns a ruling that some state school districts improperly retained third-graders who had opted out of the Florida Standards Assessment language arts test. The appeals court concluded that lawsuits against the state over the retention policy should have been heard in local courts instead of a circuit court in Tallahassee. In August, the Leon County judge ruled largely in favor of 14 parents from several districts who refused to let their children take the tests, then sued districts that held back those students. “The test can only achieve that laudable purpose (assessing reading skills to determine promotions) if the student meaningfully takes part in the test by attempting to answer all of its questions to the best of the student’s ability,” the appeals judges wrote in their opinion. “Anything less is a disservice to the student — and the public.” Orlando Sentinel. Tampa Bay Times. News Service of FloridaWUSF. Associated Press.

State of the state: In his State of the State address to open the 2017 legislative session, Gov. Rick Scott urges lawmakers to approve his increase in education funding for K-12 schools and colleges and universities while also cutting taxes. Sunshine State News. Florida Politics. Associated Press. The transcript of the speech. News Service of Florida.

Leaders’ priorities: Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, expands his priorities for the Legislature’s session to include the bill that protects students’ religious expression in schools. “I think it’s very important that students of any faith or no faith” have a right to free speech, Negron said in his speech on the opening day of the 60-day legislative session. Miami Herald. Negron also says charter schools should get a fair share of state funding for construction and maintenance. Politico Florida. House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, says his top budget priority for the legislative session is to put an end to the state’s so-called “failure factories,” or underperforming public schools. While Corcoran has not detailed how he’d do that, he’s hinted that adding charter schools is part of the solution. Politico Florida.

Scholarships expansion: A Florida House education subcommittee approves a bill that expands scholarship programs for low-income and disabled students. The amount available for disabled students under the Gardiner and McKay scholarships would jump from $73 million to $200 million, and the number of disabilities covered would be expanded. The bill also increases the per-pupil amount for low-income students who qualify for the tax credit scholarship program. Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, helps administer the Gardiner and tax credit scholarship programs. Orlando Sentinel. redefinED.

Online courses: A Florida House preK-12 subcommittee approves a bill that would allow all Florida students to be eligible to take online courses from the Florida Virtual School, its district franchises and private competitors. redefinED.

Teacher retention: Nearly two-thirds of the 7,121 teachers who started working in Florida schools during the 2011-2012 school year are still teaching or working in schools, according to a report from the Florida Department of Education. About 57 percent still worked in the same school district in 2015-16, and 33 percent were still at the same school. Gradebook.

Immigrant support: The Broward County School Board approves a resolution that makes the district’s schools off-limits to federal officials enforcing immigration laws. Sun-Sentinel. WLRN. Miami Herald. Polk County school officials are told questions to students about their immigration status are off-limits. U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, complained to the district on behalf of an Auburndale High School student who was “interrogated about her status and the status of her parents in front of her classmates.” Lakeland Ledger.

Transgender policy: Advocates urge the Sarasota County School Board to develop a district-wide policy on transgender rights in school bathrooms and locker rooms. “Accommodating transgender students on a case-by-case basis is ineffective, confusing and damaging to our gender nonconforming students,” said Gina Duncan, director of transgender equality at Equality Florida. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Charter schools: The Lake County School District is forming partnerships with several charter schools as a way to ease overcrowding. The board has adopted a “pay-as-you-go” approach to building new schools, and enrollment growth could outpace the district’s ability to pay for new construction. “The partnership between private and charter schools definitely benefits the district from the standpoint of capacity,” says school board member Bill Mathias. redefinED.

Gifted programs: Some Duval County parents are criticizing the school district’s decision to change elementary school gifted services next year. A pilot program at six elementary schools has gifted students taking core classes through the gifted program. Parents like the hub program, which pulls students from their regular classes one day a week for the gifted program. The school board also voted to approve contract renewals with several charter schools. Florida Times-Union.

Teacher housing plan: The Lee County School Board votes to move ahead with a plan for a public-private partnership to build affordable apartments and homes for teachers at three district-owned properties. Officials think the project will help 765 single teachers who make about $40,000 a year, and improve the district’s teacher retention rate. Fort Myers News-Press.

Hispanic outreach job: The Hillsborough County School District is creating a job for an assistant department manager for Hispanic outreach. Superintendent Jeff Eakins says he created the job so Spanish-speaking parents and community leaders will know “who to reach out to.” Tampa Bay Times.

Programs moving: Leon County school officials confirm that the Adult and Community Education program and PACE Secondary School for students with disabilities will move as proposed. The ACE program will move to the Lively Tech campus, and the PACE program will move into the space vacated by ACE. Tallahassee Democrat.

Rising school cost: Lee County School Board members express disappointment that the new Bonita Springs High School is $14.9 million over budget, before construction has even begun. Design changes, a labor shortage and a surge in the price of building materials have driven up costs. School officials outlined a plan to reduce capacity and conserve in some construction areas to knock down the overrun to about $520,000. “I’ll be quite honest with you, this one is on me,” said Reggie Snell, the director of Facility Development and Programming Services for the district. “I underestimated what that cost was going to be.” Fort Myers News-Press.

Achievement gap: About 100 people pledge to the Alachua County School Board that they will help close the district’s racial and socioeconomic achievement gap, and they ask the board to help by hiring a superintendent who has experience solving disparity problems. Gainesville Sun.

Rezoning approved: The Hillsborough County School Board approves a rezoning proposal that moves several hundred students from A-rated elementary, middle and high schools to ones with mediocre school grades. The students are expected to move into the new zone when the neighborhood undergoes a planned, upscale redevelopment. Tampa Bay Times. The Citrus County School Board approves a rezoning plan for four schools to ease overcrowding. Citrus County Chronicle.

Merger protested: The proposed merger of two Hillsborough County schools as a cost-cutting move draws criticism from some parents. School officials want to combine Cahoon Elementary and Van Buren Middle, and kill the animal science magnet program at Cahoon. Gradebook.

School referendum: The Charlotte County School Board votes to place a school property tax referendum on the November 2018 ballot. If approved, the tax would raise about $15 million a year for the district’s schools. Charlotte Sun.

Changing school day: The Santa Rosa County School District is delaying implementation of a seven-period day for students. School officials had hoped to start the new schedule in the fall, but the results of an online survey convinced them they weren’t ready. Pensacola News Journal. The Bay County School Board is considering a proposal to lengthen the high school day by 15 minutes. Schools would start at 8:15 instead of 8:30, and each of the seven periods would be 47 minutes instead of the current 45. Panama City News Herald.

District buying land: The Pasco County School Board agrees to spend $750,000 for 76 acres of land in the central part of the county, where it plans to build a high school. Gradebook.

Contract negotiations: On Friday, two months after a contract impasse was declared, the Polk County School District and its unions meet with a mediator to try to break the deadlock. If they can’t, the issues go to a special magistrate. The primary issue is pay. Lakeland Ledger.

District seeks input: Indian River County school officials will hold a series of public meetings to gather community input to help shape the district’s five-year strategic plan. TCPalm.

Employee honored: Lisa La Monica, a Miami-Dade County School District counselor and longtime advocate for LGBTQ students, is the winner of Equality Florida’s Voice for Equality Award. Miami’s Community Newspapers.

Notable deaths: Nate Perkins, a first-year third-grade teacher at James Stephens International Academy in Fort Myers who dreamed of someday opening a school in his old neighborhood, dies in a car crash. He was 23. Fort Myers News-Press.

Complaint against principal: A criminal complaint of theft is filed against former Pasadena Fundamental Elementary School principal Daniel Brennan. Bernnan resigned in February after he could not account for more than $5,000 given to him by the school Parent Teacher Association. The president of the countywide PTA council filed the complaint. Gradebook.

Administrator demoted: A Nolan Middle School administrator is demoted after sending text messages that encouraged a 15-year-old former student at the school to hurt the student whom she believed broke her 8-year-old son’s arm while the boys were playing. Wende Pendleton-Wicks was a dean, but she will become a classroom teacher. Bradenton Herald.

School evacuated: Heavy smoke from a brush fire forces the precautionary evacuation of Lely Elementary School students to Calusa Park Elementary School. Naples Daily News.

School illnesses: More than 100 Freedom Shores Elementary School students have been ill with nausea and vomiting in the past three or four days. Officials say absences at the Boynton Beach school are about three times what they are ordinarily. Health officials are looking for a cause. Palm Beach Post. Sun-Sentinel.

Plea on sex charge: A 31-year-old man who was accused of marrying a 13-year-old Lee County middle school student several years ago accepts a plea deal that puts him on sex offender probation for 12 years. Fort Myers News-Press.

Substitute arrested: A 75-year-old substitute teacher is arrested and accused of striking a female student three times on the arm at Oakleaf Junior High School in Clay County. James Smith is charged with battery. WJAX.

Bus driver accused: A Polk County school bus driver is accused of telling a 7-year-old boy that he would go to hell because he supported his mother’s same-sex relationship. The school district is reviewing the incident. WFLA.

Pitch count study: A University of Florida researcher is studying the effects of the total number of pitches thrown by high school pitchers. Dr. Jason Zaremski says knowing exactly how many pitches high school players are throwing, both in warmups and during a game, will help prevent injuries. Gainesville Sun.

Opinions on schools: When religious zealots start meddling with science education, it tends to be more about academic disregard than academic freedom. Frank Cerabino, Palm Beach Post. There is much more at stake in Tallahassee this spring than the future of Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida. All the corporate welfare and tourism ads in the world will not cover up the state’s failure to invest in bigger priorities such as health care and public education. Tampa Bay Times.

Student enrichment: Tallahassee Lincoln High School junior Dylan Swart gets a perfect score on the ACT exam, something that fewer than one-tenth of 1 percent of students achieve. Tallahassee Democrat. Vasundara Govindarajan, a 13-year-old student at Archimedean Middle Conservatory, wins the Miami Herald Spelling Bee for the second year in a row. Next, she competes at the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., May 28-June 4. Miami Herald. Five-year-old Edith Fuller is headed to the Scripps National Spelling Bee after winning the Tulsa, Okla., area regional spelling bee. She is home-schooled. Associated Press. The Arthur I. Meyer Jewish Academy in Palm Beach Gardens is using a special composter machine to turn food scraps into usable water. Students take part by sorting their food. Palm Beach Post. One hundred and sixty Leon County high school seniors are finalists for the Best & Brightest Awards sponsored by the school district and several businesses. Tallahassee Democrat.