Bid for annual $2.5M DOE project scrutinized, Legislature opens, testing bill moving, and more

DOE bid questioned: Even before the Florida Department of Education asked for bids to help a struggling school district with its academic and financial needs, department officials were in advanced discussions about the job with a company that has close ties to Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran. MGT Consulting, led by former Republican lawmaker Trey Traviesa of Tampa, a longtime colleague of Corcoran’s, was the only pre-approved vendor to submit a bid on a $2.5 million a year contract to provide guidance for the Jefferson County School District, which is emerging from five years of control by the charter school company Somerset Academy Inc. Corcoran said DOE “followed not only the letter but the spirit of the procurement process” and that his “first, last and only priority has been to ensure the students of Jefferson County receive the high-quality education they deserve.” Traviesa said MGT got involved at the request of DOE staff. State Rep. Allison Tant, D-Tallahassee, whose district neighbors Jefferson County, said DOE “clearly had someone in mind” when it issued the specifications for the job, and called for an investigation. The bidding process was derailed when a DOE official and a member of the state Board of Education filed a competing bid, leading to conflict of interest allegations, an investigation and two resignations. Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times.

Legislature, Day 1: Gov. Ron DeSantis used his State of the State speech to call for higher pay and bonuses for teachers, an overhaul of the standardized testing system and a ban on the teaching of critical race theory in schools, among other things, but also touched on national issues and drew a sharp contrast between the actions of Florida and other states during the pandemic, declaring that “We were right, and they were wrong.” Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, also made opening day speeches (Simpson’s, Sprowls’) outlining their priorities. News Service of Florida. Associated Press. USA Today Florida Network. Florida Phoenix. Florida Politics. Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald. Orlando Sentinel. Fresh Take Florida. Capitol News Service. WTVJ. The 74. WPTV. Politico Florida. reimaginED. Politico Florida. DeSantis held up the hard work and success of a St. Petersburg kindergarten teacher as an example of why teacher pay should be increased. Brittany DuQuaine teaches at Lakewood Elementary School in St. Petersburg, which improved its state grade from an F in 2019 to an A in 2021. Tampa Bay Times. Teachers are cautiously optimistic that the legislative session will put more money into education, including pay raises and bonuses. Bay News 9.

Also in the Legislature: A bill that would make adjustments to the end-of-year statewide assessments was approved Tuesday by the Senate Education Committee. S.B. 1048 would establish a progress monitoring process but does not appear to reduce testing for students as Gov. DeSantis has proposed. Miami Herald. Politico Florida. The Senate Education Committee also approved a bill that would give college presidential searches an exemption from public records laws requiring disclosure of information about candidates. Florida Politics. USA Today Florida Network. WFSU. At least 10 proposed bills have been filed that could make modest education choice changes aimed mainly at improving efficiency for schools and families. reimaginED.

Around the state: Broward school board members approve the purchase of handheld metal detectors for schools, Polk’s school board approves a new contract for teachers that boosts starting pay to $45,487, Brevard schools are addressing the shortage of teacher and substitutes by dropping the minimum age for a sub from 21 to 18, Pinellas school board members appoint a veteran member to organize the search for a new superintendent, Volusia district officials are making some changes in the daily routine of middle school students in the fall to try to cut down on violent incidents, and a gun raffle in Lake County to benefit Umatilla High School students has drawn concern. Here are details about those stories and others from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Broward: School board members have officially approved the purchase of handheld metal detectors for every county school. The wands will be used randomly to search for guns and other weapons. WFOR. James S. Rickards Middle School in Fort Lauderdale, which closed last March after a partial roof collapse, is scheduled to reopen Jan. 18. The roof over the media center was under construction when it collapsed due to a water leak. No one was injured. WFOR. The North Broward Preparatory School’s stage production of Catch Me If You Can is one of seven high school acts across the United States chosen to perform on the main stage of the 2022 International Thespian Festival at Indiana University in June. Broadway World. The school district’s first book vending machine has been placed at Mirror Lake Elementary School in Plantation. Students can earn tokens with good behavior, grades and test scores, and use the tokens to get books. Sun Sentinel.

Hillsborough, Tampa Bay area: Hundreds of teachers are calling in sick in the Tampa Bay areas counties of Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco. Hillsborough reported 1,110 out of the classroom Monday, while Pasco was missing 649 and Pinellas 428. “The district is starting to feel the impact and it is a concern as the community positivity rate increases,” said Hillsborough school spokeswoman Tanya Arja. WUSF. Hillsborough Superintendent Addison Davis is among those who have tested positive for COVID-19. Tampa Bay Times. WFLA. WFTS. Protesters outside the school board meeting room Tuesday are continuing to demand an independent investigation into the way the district handled sexual harassments allegations at Blake High School. Tampa Bay Times.

Polk: School board members have approved a contract agreement between the district and the teachers union. Starting teacher pay will be boosted from $45,172 to $45,487, teachers hired before July 1, 2014, get a $210 raise, teachers hired since then get $315, all eligible teachers will get $1,000 bonuses this year and in each of the next two years, supplements for teachers with advanced degrees also are being increased, and health care premiums won’t change. Polk County School District.

Pinellas: Longtime Pinellas County School Board member Carol Cook will take the lead in searching for a new superintendent to replace the retiring Michael Grego. Cook has been a board member since 2000 and has also held leadership positions in the Florida School Boards Association, which often helps districts with superintendent searches. Cook will start the process by leading a discussion at the Jan. 18 board workshop meeting. In other developments, the board agreed to increase the pay for substitute teachers by $40 to $50 a day, to between $120 and $150 a day. Tampa Bay Times.

Lee, Collier: Coronavirus cases and the number of teacher absences are spiking in both the Lee and Collier school districts, officials said this week. Lee’s 95 schools reported 1,000 teacher absences from Jan. 5-7, including 386 on Friday, as well as more than 700 confirmed cases since Jan. 2. Collier officials didn’t provide specific numbers, but said they are seeing more cases and absences. Fort Myers News-Press.

Brevard: School officials are lowing the minimum age for substitute teachers at elementary and middle schools from 21 years old to 18 as a way to address the ongoing shortage. “Recently what we were noticing is that we had college students that are seeking their education degrees or other degrees and they were wanting to help be a substitute, but they weren’t 21 yet,” said district spokeswoman Katherine Allen. Only about 400 of the 1,000 registered subs are regularly taking jobs, and Allen said the district has about 3,000 requests for subs each month. Spectrum News 13. Coronavirus cases in the school district totaled 658 between Friday and Monday, which is a sharp increase but still below the peak of 784 in the Aug. 27 report. Florida Today.

Volusia: School officials will make some changes in the daily routine of middle school students to try to cut down on violent incidents. Starting in the fall, teacher teams will be created and located near each other to cut time students spend in hallways between classes. “An (English-Language Arts), a math, a science and a social studies teacher will all share the same 125 students,” said assistant superintendent Patricia Corr. “It will reduce the ability for some students to get into something they possibly should not.” WKMG.

Lake: A private group on Facebook has sparked a controversy by holding a raffle benefitting Umatilla High School students that will award a gun to the winner. A school spokesperson said it has no role in the fund-raiser that is being staged by the UHS Project Graduation 2022 group. WKMG.

Sarasota: Nora Cietek, a teacher and administrator in Schenectady, N.Y., for 30 years, has announced her candidacy for the District 5 seat on the school board currently held by Jane Goodwin, who is retiring. Cietek has lived in the county since 2018. The primary election is Aug. 23, and the general election is Nov. 8. Charlotte Sun.

St. Lucie: School board members recently agreed with the teachers union to an extension of the COVID-19 leave policy. “We feel that’s important at this time,” said union president David Freeland. “It’s good to know that we have at least some financial stability should we become ill from COVID.” WPBF.

Alachua, Marion, north central Florida: The rise in coronavirus cases is having an impact on north central Florida school districts. Alachua is reporting 392 confirmed cases among students and 89 among staff as of Jan. 7. Marion schools reported 356 students  and 156 employees with the virus between Jan. 1-7. Columbia schools have 51 students and 35 employees with the virus, and Levy schools are reporting 22 student and 21 employee cases. WCJB. Gainesville Sun.

Flagler: School officials reported 97 new coronavirus cases in the district since schools reopened last Wednesday, with 79 of them being students. Since the beginning of the school year, 1,243 students and 150 employees have tested positive. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

Monroe: District officials are now making opt-out forms available for parents who don’t want their children to take part in school sex education classes. “This is part of state legislation, recently approved, under statute 1003.42,” said Christina McPherson, executive director of teaching and learning for the district. Florida Keys Weekly.

More on graduation rates: More reports about the 2021 high school graduation rates for Florida school districts. The state average was 90.1 percent, a tick higher than in 2020. Seniors in both classes benefited from the state waiving end-of-year tests previously required to pass to be eligible to graduate. Pinellas.

Around the nation: Nearly 52 percent of U.S. parents have considered or are considering finding new schools for their children, according to a survey released this week by National School Choice Week. “For an increasing number of U.S. families, school choice is a necessity, as moms and dads search for learning environments where their children can best learn, thrive, succeed, and be happy,” said Shelby Doyle, NSCW vice president of public awareness. reimaginED.

Opinions on schools: With such a firm grip on power, is it any wonder that Gov. DeSantis would eventually seek to inculcate public schools with his own political ideology? Of course not. It’s already happening. Carl Ramey, Gainesville Sun.