School board discusses nine legislative priorities
The school board discussed nine legislative priorities during its Oct. 6 workshop, with the reminder that all planning needs to be done in pencil because things continue to change on a daily basis.
The School District of Lee County drafted legislative priorities for fiscal year 2021 include accountability; safety and security; budget and finance; teacher certification and retention; early childhood; career and technical education; facilities, transportation and comprehensive health.
Carole Green, with Capitol Strategies, told the board that there are rumors about staggering of committee weeks in Tallahassee this year due to social distancing being a big thing in the wake of COVID-19.
“This is a boots on the ground locally to be able to deal with most of these issues,” she said, adding that there needs to be appointments made now with the delegation.
On the other hand, Green said they know that committee weeks will begin in December and that the legislative session starts on March 2. She said there will be committee meetings in both January and February.
“The effects of COVID will loom over every budget and policy decision and debate that happens during this session,” she said. “It’s going to take a place in every debate. I’m already hearing from leadership, and reading between the lines, that they are expecting big budget cuts this year.”
Green said there has been discussion that it will take three to four years for everything to go back to where it was pre-COVID-19 in terms of funding.
“The only thing they can do is make those cuts now out of necessity, frankly,” she said. “Obviously we all know that this has had a massive financial hit to our state because of our tax structure in this state. The snowbirds are gone … tourism is a gift to our state. We are going to have to pay attention to what is happening from our financial fiscal standpoint.”
This priority is two-fold, with the first focusing on continuing state assessments to gauge progress monitoring for students, while holding districts harmless of suspending school grades, as well as holding teachers harmless by deferring VAM and holding students harmless by eliminating the end of course exam, which counts for 30 percent of the students final course grade. The district is asking for a one-year time period.
The second portion of the priority is to implement a “one-year moratorium on the new Benchmarks for Excellent Student Thinking Standards” as a way for district personnel and teachers with the opportunity to really focus on supporting the current student needs.
Green told the board that she believes this is a statewide issue, one that the district should jump on and reach out to other districts.
Superintendent Dr. Greg Adkins said with reopening schools their primary focus is on safety and security of students as the district is becoming accustomed to the new way of educating students. He said they have fragile learners, many of which they are seeing in remote environments right now.
Adkins said if they have a fall out on grading, he believes it will put a lot of pressure on school leaders and teachers at a time when they are focused on doing what is best for students.
Board Member Chris Patricca said she believes accountability is the most important item on their platform.
Board Member Gwyn Gittens agreed with Adkins in that safety and security is the most important thing right now. She said when she looks at exams the first thing she thinks about is the achievement gap and how much wider it will grow.
This priority is seeking out an increase in the Safe Schools Allocation to fund the complete cost of a School Resource Officer at each school in the district, as well as charter schools. The goal is to have at least one SRO per 1,000 students.
In addition, the district wants to establish statewide student data privacy laws, as well as a certification program, which would apply to all vendors who provide software and services to educational entities in Florida. Regulations include restrictions on commercial use of student data, data handling and data protection requirements.
Chief Information Officer Trey Davis said they would like to see the language that is more explicit in terms of student privacy laws of protection.
The last part of the priority is to advocate for cybersecurity threat mitigation services to be funded by the federal E-Rate program.
Adkins said they have never had a cybersecurity priority on their platform before. He said when they have the opportunity to buy large amounts of technology, it is at a tremendous reduced rate. But, Adkins said, when it comes to security measures that support the technology they cannot purchase it at the same reduced rate.
“We have to grow in our methods and procedures and support of the protection for that technology,” Adkins said. “As we move forward in this new world where technology is used, we have to always think about security.”
Green said they do know some of the legislators view cybersecurity as a hot button item.
This priority includes updating the calculation for the Required Local Effort millage rate, as well as changing the language in a Florida statue to allow districts to use existing capital outlay, surtax revenue and impact fees, rather than Certificates of Participation.
Adkins said legislation was passed that puts requirements on referendum dollars to use a financial vehicle so the district can use its funds the way they see fit.
“The district has to take on debt and pay interest even though it is for a short period of time,” he said. “We would like to see that taken out of there, so we don’t have to pay unnecessary interest to use our local dollars as we see fit to build schools for our kids.”
As far as the Required Local Effort millage, they know their budget is going to take a hit during these very difficult times.
“If you look back over a decade or more, the millage rate has steadily decreased during that period of time. If it was just held to where it had been the previous year, we would have captured the increased property value and received increase revenue,” Adkins said.
He explained that with a tax cut, the school districts are not able to capture the additional revenue. The RLE is set by the state.
Chief Financial Officer Dr. Ami Desamours said that the Required Local Effort was a .08 decrease from last year, which would have been an additional .08 in revenue at the local level had it remained the same.
Green said she believes they have to focus on local delegates, so they have a better understanding of the real dollar impact it has on students of Lee County. She said it’s about having the local guys understand what is happening in “our backyard.”
“Yes this is an impact and this is big heavy lift, but with that being said, for not having it there is a disservice to the students and families,” Green said.
Board Member Cathleen O’Daniel Morgan said the conversation usually extends to is it a tax increase, or not.
“We haven’t talked about it in a quantitative way that resonates with people. Four years from now the picture may be very different. I feel very strongly about this one,” she said.
Green said they have a young delegation that they need to start educating now, while bringing them on as their representatives.
“We have to start at day one with them, before they go to Tallahassee and everything changes,” she said. “This year is a little different (with) a little more time and hand holding on education on our part. In doing that we will hopefully set a foundation that will last a long time.”
TEACHER CERTIFICATION, RETENTION
This priority focused on allowing districts to obtain local authority on teacher evaluations and pay for performance. In addition, it also focuses on modifying the General Knowledge exam, which is a requirement to allow for Professional Performance Points. The districts proposal is that a new teacher, who receives a rating of highly effective or effective during their first three years, will earn three to five Professional Performance Points, which would count toward their score on the General Knowledge Exam.
“If you have a teacher that has worked 20 years and they are making similar to someone who just started, is that really Pay for Performance,” Gittens asked.
She also focused on the Professional Performance Points and how many teachers come within one to two points of passing the General Knowledge Exam.
“They are working towards getting their certification,” Gittens said, adding that they should give the teacher some points if they are highly effective or effective. “They have shown they can run a classroom as highly effective or effective.”
Adkins said for many, the exam in which they are compared to is not relevant.
“We can design a better plan that would be more motivational and we would really award our teachers for their performance,” he said.
In addition, he touched upon Professional Performance Points. If teachers are demonstrating highly effective in the classroom, but cannot pass an exam, Adkins would again argue that it is not relevant to what they do.
“For us to lose teachers because they are not able to get a few points on an exam not relevant to what they do is ludicrous in my mind. If a teacher performance demonstrates they are effective, that should count towards their certification,” Adkins said. “Local control and flexibility helps us reward our teachers in a way that we can retain better by keeping those decisions locally.”
Greene said Teacher Certification & Retention was a topic that got a lot of discussion last year.
There are five areas the district covers under Early Childhood, which includes expanding access to and increasing quality of childcare provider offerings; implementing a pilot program to allow students deemed not ready for kindergarten to participate in summer VPK; offer state certified pre-kindergarten teachers the same treatments and benefits and award opportunities as K-12 teachers; fully integrate early learning programs under the Florida Department of Education and eliminating the impact that pre-kindergarten classrooms have on Florida Inventory of School Houses.
Morgan said there is a huge problem in terms of prekindergarten readiness in Lee County for curriculum, accountability and expectation. She said they need to make certain children who are not ready for kindergarten are given an opportunity to catch up.
“If you enter kindergarten and you are not ready you will drop off the minute you can because you will always be behind,” Morgan said.
She said pre-kindergarten teachers are at the beginning of the education stream, so they need to get the same treatment.
Adkins agreed in saying that a superintendent told him five years ago that if he really wants to change Lee Country protectory, he needs to start by pumping up Pre-K programs.
“Our kids simply are not as prepared as they should be,” he said. “The degree of preparedness in Lee County is lower than the majority in the state.”
Board Chair Mary Fischer said the lack of readiness of kindergarten is deeper than getting to the program. She said they need to educate the legislative body of the risk factors of low socioeconomic status.
“What happens from birth to 3 is extremely important,” she said. “Some families are not stable in houses. They are not getting adequate exposure to language development. Parents working and struggling may not have language and education themselves. Even when we get kids into kindergarten when not ready, they make amazing strides when in a secure environment and get consistent support (and receiving) teaching and exposure to things they did not get before.”
Chief Operations Officer Dr. Ken Savage explained how FISH works. He said currently James Stevens, at FISH capacity, prohibits the right to build.
“If we are able to shift those classrooms from general use to Pre-K use, it allows the ability to take away one usage and go to an area that we still have a need,” he said, adding by taking out two buildings for K-12, that school no longer has the capacity that it used to have.
Adkins said they are meeting a need that exist there. He said if they reduce the overall FISH capacity, then it gives them more flexibility of their needs.
“Particularly in some of our middle subzones, here is a tremendous need for student stations and we are reducing that and addressing that need of capacity by busing students into the other two zones,” Adkins said. “While we really need to build in E2, the state can say you have capacity over in E1 and you should be busing students over there. It creates a mobility problem.”
When building new facilities and determining where to build those facilities they need approval from the Department of Education, he added.
Savage said when you are drawing the lines and boundaries considering the capacity of the buildings, schools are being properly filled.
There was also discussion about Early Childhood Programs, childcare programs and daycare programs. When there is high quality childcare environments, the district said it will prepare the student for VPK and headstart programs. It was also discussed that there is no state certification for childcare, but if the district partners with childcare in the community they could provide materials and other information to help bring them alongside the district in making the same strides.
“The more that we are as a district able to bring together collaborative partners to meet the standards we need them to meet, it benefits the community,” Adkins said. “Our footprint in Pre-K and childcare for 2,3 and 4 year olds is much smaller than truly exists out there in the community.”
Morgan said the teacher turnover is so significant for early childhood learning that they can not have the impacts they expect.
“If people can go to a higher paying job, why early childhood?” she asked. “Early childhood certification is very difficult and it’s a low paying job, although a high demand job”
She asked how can they fill the gaps between the federal level and what needs to be done at the local level, as well as what can the state do to pull it all together.
Green said there was a tremendous amount of effort placed on early childhood last year.
“It died in the 11th hour because the Senate and House couldn’t come to an agreement on the language,” she said. “This is not going away. COVID is going to have a tremendous impact on this. However, the people that were driving the train, if you will, for the bill, are both going to be there. The House bill was a far superior bill, but couldn’t get it across the finish line because the two chambers couldn’t come to an agreement.”
CAREER, TECHNICAL EDUCATION
This priority highlights providing funding for the recruitment and retention of CTE instructors for high-demand programs, which is based on labor market alignment.
Adkins said maybe they should consider development of a statewide adjunct instructor program, so they can work to pay the wage that is more in alignment with the instructor.
“Professors are in a different amount of dollars due to demand in the field. We think if we really explore this a little further, an adjunct outside of our conventional compensation system that we have with the teachers association, we can fill some of the demand for the vacancies out there and the need out there,” Adkins said. “It’s very difficult to be bold and innovative if you cannot attract the people to fill those positions. Our children need exposure to these highly trained individuals. We would like to maybe look at a pilot here to do an adjunct type f model that would pay more in conjunction with those that are in high demand.”
This priority focuses on convening a work group, or task force to review and update the size and space and occupant design criteria of SREF. It also touches upon the industry standards for construction costs increasing 6.5 percent the past three years. The district would like to see some flexibility on total cost per student station school construction requirements.
Adkins said the school requirements for educational facilities are out of date and not kept up to pace. He said to help bring those up to the times, a group of experts coming together to make recommendations will help in creating that change.
As far as construction cost, Adkins said in his personal opinion the cost per square footage is already too low.
“They set this cap and if we are going to build one of our prototype high schools, it is going to exceed that cap right out of the gate,” he said. “This is just basically, we need to increase the cost per student station to keep up with the times.”
This legislative priority focuses on rewriting two Florida statues to clearly “delineate that school buses operated by county school boards are not subject to the requirement of obtaining personal injury protection insurance and that there has been no waiver of sovereign immunity for claims for reimbursement of paid PIP benefits by automobile insurance companies.”
Brian Williams, Chief Legal Counsel, said the Florida statue exempts school districts in carrying personal injury protection benefits. He said legislators need to go back and fix this.
This priority was one dear to many school board members as it would develop a model program to address mental emotional health education, suicide prevention, substance use and abuse prevention, dating violence and abusive behavior, human trafficking, teenage pregnancy, injury prevention and safety, internet safety, personal health, community health, consumer health, family life, nutrition and prevention and control of disease.
Fischer said it’s about motivating students to maintain and improve social, emotional and physical health.
“We have been talking about this for years. The timing is right for us to kick it up a notch and continue to ask. We are not funded, but we do have at least a semester of health education in middle school at this time,” she said.
The three-tiered proposal lays out different costs per student to implement the model, as well as what grade level would benefit.
For example, the third tier, which many board members were in favor for again this year, focuses on eighth grade to have a minimum of one semester. It would have a price tag of $893,000 due to hiring new teachers, as well as the certification test fee and the approximate cost per student.
It was shared that there have been 29 additional names of staff members, teachers and administrators that have added the certification endorsement, which shows there is motivation out there when a position becomes available.
Green said again it comes down to managing their expectations.
“I personally believe this issue is extremely important. Last year, even though it was a different type of year, I didn’t have anyone that put this down, or pushed it away. Most everyone I talked to on a one-on-one basis was very supportive of this issue. The money is going to be the problem. If you ask for anything right now with a big ticket number to it, it immediately slides off the table,” she said.
After the discussion concluded, Green said all the priorities are of importance and should be worked on into a final document.
There was discussion of inviting delegates to participate in a Lee Home Connect classroom to get a better feel for what takes place from both a student and teachers perspective.
“In a blue sky world, that would be great,” Green said, adding that she needs to think through the logistics. “I like the idea, but I also understand the logistics and reality of the tight time frame.”