Florida schools roundup: Tax hikes, active shooter drills, i-Ready and more

Tax hikes for schools: Property tax rates for most Palm Beach County government agencies have remained steady in the past few years, but the tax rate for schools has dropped 20 percent since 2011. In just the past three years, the tax rate has dropped from $7.51 per $1,000 of taxable value to $6.57, which translates to $181 million less in taxes collected for the school district. The decline, which has been dictated by the Legislature, is a prime reason why the district is asking voters in November to approve a special property tax increase that could raise $150 million a year for four years. Palm Beach Post. If Alachua County voters approve a half-cent increase in the sales tax, the school district could receive an extra $22 million a year to upgrade facilities and close the racial achievement gap, which is one of the largest in Florida. Gainesville Sun. Nearly 1,800 items appear on a list of school upgrade projects that will get taken care of if Hillsborough County voters approve a half-cent increase in the sales tax Nov. 6. The tax is forecast to raise $1.31 billion over 10 years, and a school spokesman says nearly half is being set aside to repair air-conditioning systems. Tampa Bay Times.

Active-shooter drills: The state now requires schools to provide training to students on how they should respond to an intruder. But how do you properly explain an active-shooter situation to a kindergarten student? Pinellas County teachers are about to undergo training on ways to present age-appropriate safety information to students. Material will be broken into two groups: for pre-kindergarten through 5th-grade students, and for 6th-12th. It was compiled by the National Association of School Psychologists, the National Association of School Resource Officers and Safe and Sound Schools, and parents whose children died in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut. Tampa Bay Times.

Concerns about i-Ready: The use of the online test preparation software program i-Ready has proliferated in Florida, with 57 of the state’s 67 districts now using it as a teaching and diagnostic tool. But many parents are critical, saying districts should be hiring reading specialists instead of having children stare at a computer screen for hours at a time. Researchers say there isn’t enough data to make an educated assessment of the value of the program. “To be quite frank, there is not enough detail in there to scrutinize it as a researcher,” says Albert Ritzhaupt, an associate professor of education technology at the University of Florida and the editor of the Journal of Research on Technology in Education. “All I am seeing are glorified numbers, but I don’t have the context behind the numbers for it to make sense.” Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Baker Act decisions: School authorities say there’s sometimes a thin line between standard school discipline and using the Baker Act to have students hospitalized if it’s determined they pose a threat to themselves or others. The use of the Baker Act for Florida children doubled between the fiscal years 2010-2011 and 2015-2016, and in 2016-2017, the Department of Children and Families reported 199,944 Baker Act evaluations of children under 18, with 32,763 hospitalizations. St. Augustine Record.

Teacher shortages: Even though Manatee County voters approved an increase in property taxes to help increase pay to teachers and other school employees, the district is still struggling to fill openings for teachers, paraprofessionals and support staff. Last week, the district reported 159 job openings: 64 for teachers, 55 for paraprofessionals and 40 for support staff. Last year at this time, the district had 77 teaching jobs open. School officials say it’s a reflection of the nationwide shortage of teachers, a failure to advertise many positions and ongoing problems with their business software. Bradenton Herald.

Police under investigation: The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is now investigating whether law enforcement officers committed crimes while responding to the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. Several deputies, including school resource officer Scot Peterson, took cover that day instead of entering the building to confront the shooter. Experts question whether police can be held criminally liable for not acting swiftly and more forcefully. Sun-Sentinel.

New scholarships near: The state is close to launching its two latest K-12 scholarship programs. The Hope Scholarship will be available to students who are victims of bullying or physical violence at school. Under the program, students can transfer to another public school with paid transportation or apply for a grant of about $7,000 to move to a private school. The other is the Reading Scholarship, which is available for 3rd- and 4th-graders who score below Level 3 on the state’s language arts exam. It offers $500 to help pay for tutoring and instructional materials. Both scholarships are being administered by Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog. Gradebook.

Record high referrals: About 270 Collier County students were sent to alternative schools during the 2017-2018 school year because of discipline problems, according to the school district. That’s up from 169 the year before. Most were sent between February and May, after 17 died in the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on Feb. 14. In that time period, the district also investigated 150 school threats, six times more than the year before. Naples Daily News.

Turnaround schools: Parents of Oakcrest Elementary School students in Marion County say if the school doesn’t get a C this year, they prefer hiring an outside operator to take over, which is one of three options that state gives districts with persistently low-performing schools. Fifty-four percent like the outside operator option, while 33 percent favor turning Oakcrest into a charter school and just 13 percent want to close it. Ocala Star-Banner. After Palm Terrace Elementary School in Daytona received its third straight D grade from the state, students had the option of transferring to another school. But only 46 of the nearly 700 students chose that option. School officials have overhauled the discipline process, improved the school’s infrastructrure and asked for help from community businesses to improve that grade. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

No school merger: Volusia County school officials assure parents and staff at Read-Pattillo Elementary School that the school will not be merged with Chisholm Elementary. Eventually, the district hopes to build a new school to replace Read-Pattillo, but there is no timetable for that to happen. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

School hardening project: Panama City Beach’s Arnold High School, built 18 years ago at a time when high schools were designed to have the open feel of college campuses, is presenting challenges to designers who are trying to harden the school to improve security. “The last thing we want to do is go and put a big fence right across the front of it and go, ‘Alright nobody can come here anymore.’ That’s what we’ve tried to avoid,” says Lee Walters, director of facilities for Bay County School District. Panama City News Herald.

Teacher mentoring benefits: New teachers who receive ongoing support from mentors are better at engaging students and using assessments, and their students score higher on math tests, according to a study of the New Teacher Center’s mentorship program. The independent study by SRI Education looked at K-8 results in Miami-Dade and Polk counties, and three other U.S. school districts. Education Week.

Notable deaths: Wendell McCraw, athletic director and coach at St. Augustine High School from 1969 to 2001, has died. St. Augustine Record.

Superintendent Q&A: Mark Rendell, superintendent of the Indian River County School District, talks about the district budget, teacher training, health insurance, Florida Virtual School and more in a Q&A. Vero Communique.

Personnel moves: Two Pasco County principals are assigned to new jobs as district officials try to shore up low staff morale at Pasco Middle School. Danielle “Dee Dee” Johnson will take over as principal at Pasco Middle from Jeff Wolff, who had been principal since 2015. The move came shortly after Superintendent Kurt Browning held a meeting with Pasco Middle staff to listen to their concerns. Wolff is now the assistant principal at Zephyrhills High School. Gradebook.

School pool stays open: A proposal to close the swimming pool at Martin County High School is voted down by the school board. Dozens of former school swimmers protested the closure, which would have saved the district about $154,000 a year. Board members are looking for ways to cut costs in case a proposed sales tax increase is rejected by voters in November. TCPalm.

Teachers disciplined: The state permanently revokes the teaching certificate of the former music director at Stanton College Preparatory High School in Jacksonville. Brian Damron resigned from the school in November 2016 after being accused of making sexual advances to a student and acting inappropriately on several other occasions. Florida Times-Union. A Santa Rosa County teacher’s license has been suspended for a year by the state after he took prescription pills from another teacher’s purse and car during the 2016-2017 school year. Jamie Duncan is a former physical education teacher at Chumuckla Elementary School. Northwest Florida Daily News. A Miami-Dade teacher who left two students unattended in Times Square for more than two hours while he and three other students went to a Broadway show has his teaching license suspended by the state for six months. At the time, December 2016, Eric Jeraci was a teacher at Krop Senior High School. Miami New Times.

Ex-teacher arrested: A former Clay County teacher is arrested and accused of distributing child pornography over the Internet. Christopher Shawn Potter, 49, was a teacher at Clay High School during the 2016-2017 school year. Florida Times-Union.

School employee fired: An employee at the Foundations Christian Montessori Academy in Sarasota, which enrolls children from early childhood to 8th grade, is fired after being accused of battery on a child. The Department of Children and Families and the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office are investigating. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Student arrested: A 15-year-old student at Evans High School in Orlando is arrested with a gun on campus, according to the Orange County Sheriff’s Office. Deputies say it was loaded and stolen. WKMG. Orlando Sentinel.

Opinions on schools: We don’t believe performance audits of the Lee and Collier school districts, carried out based on an inequitable decision by the Legislature, will help voters decide whether to approve or reject a local option sales tax. Naples Daily News. Martin County school officials are begging for more tax dollars, but are they willing to sacrifice anything they currently spend money on? Gil Smart, TCPalm. The death of Kamaree Lyons during an open gym at Sebastian River High School last Saturday was tragic, but let’s hope Indian River County School District bureaucrats don’t trump up some “liability” reason why it shouldn’t continue. Laurence Reisman, TCPalm. Families want charter schools because, for one reason or another, the traditional school they’re zoned for doesn’t meet their needs. Instead of trying to crush the little guy, school board and district leaders should stop perpetuating a sibling rivalry and stop picking a side. Lane Wright, Sunshine State News. Schools have chosen how they want to provide security ordered by a partly funded state mandate. If money is available to help fund programs schools have chosen to enact, it should go to local districts instead of being held in the state budget to fund the school guardian program that so far has gained little support. Citrus County Chronicle.

Student enrichment: Two Immokalee High School students will attend a Special Olympics conference in Azerbaijan this week. Tajha Illerant, 18, and Juana Gaspar, 17, will speak about inclusion at the Global Youth Leadership Forum in Baku. Naples Daily News. Wednesday is the state’s fourth annual “Dad, take your child to school day” in which dads are encouraged to get more involved in their child’s education. Orlando Sentinel. Students at Wilkinson Elementary School in Sarasota get 30 microscopes, courtesy of the Thinking Center’s Amy Falk Weinberger as part of the Starfish Initiative created by Temple Emanu-El. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Officers from the Sarasota County School District police force provide tips to parents on how manage their children’s use of social media. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Port Orange Elementary School is the only Volusia County school, and one of just 22 in Florida, recognized as one of “America’s Healthiest Schools” by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. Port Orange Observer.