PBC schools will excuse absences during eclipse; some schools will delay dismissal

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Palm Beach County’s public schools will allow students to view Monday’s solar eclipse with special protective glasses, but the viewing time will be limited to three minutes and students must get parents to sign a permission slip beforehand.

The schools will consider any absences and early departures Monday to be excused absences, giving parents additional cover to keep kids at home for the rare event, district officials announced Wednesday.

Parents who do decide to pick up their kids early are asked to do so before noon, although the school district this week advised principals that “if parents come after this time, we cannot prevent them from picking up their students.”

Students who attend school Monday may experience delays during dismissal, as schools are being instructed to reduce the amount of time that students are outdoors while waiting for parents or buses to arrive.

Alternatively, some middle schools are planning to hold students for an extra 15 minutes at the end of the day, until 4:20 p.m., to ensure that the eclipse’s peak is nearly finished by the time they leave campus.

RELATED: In reversal, PBC schools will let some kids watch Aug. 21 eclipse

The directives from school district leaders are an attempt to minimize the risk of any children damaging their eyes by staring too long at the eclipse, which will last from about 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday.

“Even during the eclipse when the sun is 99 percent covered, the remaining part of the sun is still bright enough to damage your eyes,” school district leaders cautioned in a memo to principals.

The school district is also encouraging parents to explain to their children the risks of staring at the eclipse without protective glasses.

The directive comes as the school district grapples with how to best allow teachers to use the eclipse as a teaching opportunity while ensuring students’ safety.

Solar Eclipse 2017: Our complete coverage

Last week the school district decided initially to require all students to remain indoors during the eclipse and prohibit outdoor viewing.

But administrators relented after protests from some schools that had already purchased protective glasses and had planned outdoor viewing sessions.

Schools can now bring students outside, but only in principal-authorized viewing events with glasses purchased directly by the school and approved by the American Astronomical Society. Students cannot bring their own glasses from home to use.

RELATED: What Florida will see during historic Aug. 21 eclipse

Under the new guidelines issued this week, the school viewing events can only last three minutes, even with safety glasses.

The guidelines are causing some schools to reassess their plans for the eclipse.

At Christa McAuliffe Middle School west of Boynton Beach, the school spent $800 purchasing glasses for all students and staff members and had planned a half-hour viewing event.

That event will still go on, but educators will shorten it to just a few minutes to abide by the guidelines. During the rest of the day, science teachers have planned a series of educational events indoors.

“We’re excited,” said Principal Jeffrey Silverman. “We’ll time it and we’ll make sure everyone does the three minutes.”

When dismissal time comes, the school is planning to keep students indoors until parents arrive.

That will slow down the process, he said, but it will ensure less risk of students staring at the eclipse without protection.

“Normally when the bell rings at 4 the kids just come out front and wait,” Silverman said. “To avoid having them out there for a half-hour, we’re thinking we’ll just have them wait in the cafeteria.”

At Jupiter Middle School, science teachers purchased 100 sets of protective glasses and will give all students a chance to step outside in groups of 15 for a three-minute viewing.

“We’re making it work and I’m really excited,” said Principal Lisa Hastey. “The temptation was really to say, ‘No, we’re not going to do anything.’ But we’re doing it because we want the kids to be inspired.”

Her school is one of several middle schools that hope to avoid safety concerns during dismissal by holding the students for an extra 15 minutes at the end of the day, until 4:20 p.m. Students will also be removed from a building on campus Monday afternoon where they would have to walk outside to access a bathroom.

“That keeps everybody safe,” Hastey said.

As classes begin, 10 tips for young teachers from a veteran PBC educator

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Mike Dowling

Mike Dowling, a sixth-grade social studies teacher at Emerald Cove Middle School in Wellington, began his 26th year in the classroom this week. Seven years ago he wrote 10 “Be’s” for young teachers.

This week he posted the list on his Facebook page, and we are re-publishing it with his permission.

Ten “Be’s” for New Teachers

By Mike Dowling

1. Be honest.

Don’t pretend you are something you are not. If you’re new, don’t pretend to be a veteran. You may be new, but many of your parents are coming through with their second, third, or fourth child. They have a grapevine and if you pretend to be something you are not, soon the word will go out that you are untrustworthy.

Your success will depend on an open and honest relationship with your parents. There may come a time when you will have to have difficult conversations with parents. You will need to have established an open and trusting relationship to work in the best interest of the child.

2. Be yourself.

We’re embarking on a long ride, and while you may be able to fool the parents, you don’t stand a chance of fooling the kids. Don’t let this freak you out, but there will be a bunch of eyes watching your every move and a bunch of ears listening to your every word.

It has been my experience that they will forgive you for the many mistakes you will make — or at least the many mistakes I have made and will continue to make — so long as they can trust you.

3. Be responsible.

Treasure every child as the individual that he or she is. Ignore the pressure to focus on testing. Remember “in loco parentis” not as a legal term, but as a philosophy.

I’m a bald-headed, bearded middle-aged man, but for a few hours every day, I’m also a second mom. Engage everyone, especially those students who want to hide. Keep a running total in your head (it’s easier than it sounds) to make sure everybody gets called on. Make sure E-V-E-R-Y child is highlighted.

Find something in every child that makes you glad he or she is with you. (I promise you it isn’t hard) Respect the responsibility you have.

4. Be open-minded.

You are not the parent. You will see many different types of parenting; some you will be inspired by, others will horrify you. You are a very important part of a child’s life, but only for a short period in the child’s life.

Respect the fact that, while your role is very important, it is only temporary.

5. Be alert.

If you see something wrong, you are obliged to act. In the state of Florida, it our job to report—not to investigate—any suspicion of abuse. In my career, I’ve had to call the Department of Children and Family Services four times. Each time my hands shook and my throat went dry because I was not positive of what I observed.

The calls are anonymous, but parents may be able to guess who made the call. Tough! Your responsibility is to the child. Nobody says the parents have to like you, and the law is clear in saying you must report any suspicions.

6. Be proactive.

Call every parent the first week. Exchange contact information, and if you are a veteran teacher, set your expectations. The parent does not expect you to know their child the first week, so you can establish a friendly rapport before there are any discipline issues. You may also get first-hand information about any concerns long before the official paperwork makes it to your desk.

The 504 plan, the IEP, or the EP tells you the minimum you must do, but an open relationship with the parent can help to maximize every child’s potential.

7. Be visible.

Stand outside your door at the beginning of class — even when the principal isn’t around. I’ve always told my students that they are entering my home, and I owe them the respect of greeting them by name.

“Keep telling me your name until I know it — don’t let me get away with ‘buddy’ or some other generic name. Make sure I know you as the special person you are.”

If that sounds corny, get over it.

8. Be diligent.

Keep records of every phone call or parent contact. It doesn’t matter if you keep it in a notebook, or scraps of paper or in your grade book. Ninety-nine percent of parents will be on your side and willing to forgive your mistakes, but always be prepared to demonstrate to your principal that you have done your job.

9. Be transparent.

Don’t make empty threats because the kids and the parents will soon learn to ignore them.

10. Be brave.

Even after twenty-five rounds, I’ll have a twinge in my stomach as that first group comes in. Don’t worry too much because they’re a lot more afraid of you than you are of them.

Teaching is an unbelievably challenging job. Don’t bother going to the doctor, it is natural that you’ll need a lot more sleep the first few days or weeks. Your mind and your body will have been engaged all day. But remember, this is what you signed up for, and I can tell you from experience that becoming a teacher is the best decision I have ever made in my life.

The first few days are a bear, but it won’t take long for you to find out if this is the job and the life for you. If it is, I guarantee you’ll have a blast.

I have.

Few problems reported as classes begin for Palm Beach County public schools

Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa meets with students at Washington Elementary School in Riviera Beach (Lannis Waters/The Palm Beach Post)

Palm Beach County’s public schools reported a a smooth start to the new school year Monday morning, saying that glitches were few and far between as an estimated 193,000 students arrived for classes countywide.

“So far opening has been uneventful, which is the best news that I can provide,” Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa said at a news conference this morning.

Isolated bus problems did emerge at several schools, with some parents complaining that their children’s buses did not show up at their scheduled time. Avossa said some buses also arrived at their scheduled stops too early.

“Today was the first day,” Avossa said during a question-and-answer session on Facebook Monday afternoon. “It usually takes us 10 days to work out any kinks.”

Still, Avossa said that more than 90 percent of the county’s school buses delivered students to school on time, a marked improvement from widespread transportation problems two years ago.

The school district’s more than 180 campuses also were reported to be in working order, even as officials press ahead with millions of dollars in repairs and upgrades being financed by an increase in the county’s sales tax.

One notable exception was at Boca Raton Middle School, where the school’s air-conditioning system broke down over the weekend.

Administrators rushed to bring in a truck-sized backup system, which they said was managing to keep the school cool when classes started this morning.

Belvedere Elementary in West Palm Beach had air-conditioning challenges this morning as well, with administrators discovering this morning that the system was blowing warm air.

Officials say the system had been fixed within a couple of hours and was blowing cold again by 10 a.m.

All told, an estimated 193,500 students were expected to show up for school today, including in the county’s roughly 50 charter schools.

Three charter schools closed this summer, including Riviera Beach Maritime Academy, which chose not to reopen after Riviera Beach city officials declined to renew its lease on a city-owned campus. Last year, the school enrolled about 140 students, records show.

After working this summer to find a way to keep the school open, the charter school’s leaders alerted the school district last week that it would not be reopening, said Jim Pegg, director of the school district’s charter school office.

Also closed this year are Learning Path Academy in West Palm Beach and the Belle Glade Excel charter school, Pegg said.

Meanwhile, a new charter school has opened: BridgePrep Academy of Palm Beach, which opened near West Atlantic Avenue west of Delray Beach. The K-8 school is opening this year with students from kindergarten to sixth grade, its principal said.

Avossa started his day at Washington Elementary in Riviera Beach, a school that saw its grade go from an F to a B when the state reported them in late June. The school is also one of 20 schools this fall to debut a new full-time program for gifted students.

From there, Avossa headed southwest to Grassy Waters Elementary, which is using a biomedical magnet to rebuild enrollment and draw students back from charter schools.

For the first time in years, the school is closing in on filling all of its more than 900 seats, Principal Jennifer Galindo said Monday. But just as exciting on the first day, the school’s retired cafeteria director returned for one more opening day to officially hand off the … serving spoon to the new guy in charge.

“I just had to come in,” Joanne Zotos said.

In suburban Boynton Beach, Hidden Oaks Elementary welcomed its first ever sixth-graders – more than 70 in all. The school is walking the path to becoming the district’s first neighborhood school to go K-8 over the next three years, adding one grade per year.

“This is the model we want to go to,” Deputy Superintendent David Christiansen said during his morning walk-through. Hidden Oaks also had lost students over the years to charter schools, and Monday morning some of them had returned.

Enrollment in sixth grade this year came by choice – parents had to sign up their children. In the future, the school’s traditional boundaries are expected to keep them at Hidden Oaks unless they choose to go somewhere else.

The two other district schools that span kindergarten to eighth grade, do so as specialty schools such as North Palm Beach’s Conservatory School for arts.

 

PBC school board joins suit over charter-friendly education law

Gov. Rick Scott during a visit to Galaxy Elementary School in 2015. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

Palm Beach County School Board members voted Wednesday to join at least six other Florida school boards in a lawsuit over charter school-friendly legislation passed this spring and signed by Gov. Rick Scott in June.

Without discussion or debate, board members unanimously authorized joining a growing group of school boards planning to sue the state on the grounds that parts of a controversial education bill, House Bill 7069, violate Florida’s constitution.

Board members okayed paying up to $25,000 in legal fees to participate in the planned lawsuit. They would still have to sign off before officially joining any litigation.

More than a dozen county school boards across the state are mulling whether to join the lawsuit. School Board General Counsel JulieAnn Rico said six others are officially on board: Broward, Miami-Dade, Saint Lucie, Volusia, Lee and Bay counties. Miami-Dade’s school board also voted Wednesday to join the planned legal action.

>> RELATED: Gov. Scott just signed HB 7069. Here’s what it does

House Bill 7069, a sweeping 274-page education overhaul, forces school districts to share construction money with charter schools and creates financial incentives for new charters to open and compete with low-performing public schools.

In Palm Beach County, the provision requiring school boards to share  property tax revenue dedicated to construction and maintenance will cost the school district an estimated $10 million next year alone, or about 2 percent of the district’s roughly $400 million capital budget.

That figure is expected to rise as the number of charter schools grows.

Educators argued that the law illegally restricts school boards’ sovereignty and improperly gives charters a portion of property tax proceeds. They allege the bill also violates a requirement that legislative bills focus on a single subject.

Charter school advocates have condemned the plans for legal action, saying that charters are entitled to a portion of the school board’s contruction money since they educate public school students as well.

Though board members approved the lawsuit without discussion, in recent weeks board members and Superintendent Robert Avossa have made clear their intent to fight the law tooth-and-nail in court.

Last month School Board member Marcia Andrews called House Bill 7069 “a monster that needs to be really, really answered to by all school districts.”

“We must do something,” she said at the time. “It’s really important when we look at this bill.”

Avossa said last month that the new law could have large impacts on the school district’s ability to build and maintain schools.

“This transfer of public funds to private entities is very worrisome,” he said. “I don’t want folks to look back and say ‘Why didn’t they fight tooth and nail?’”

 

This A-rated school is Palm Beach County’s most unhappy campus

Jerry Thomas Elementary School in Jupiter. (Andres Leiva / The Palm Beach Post)

This school’s troubles show why high test scores aren’t everything.

It’s a high-achieving school, with an A grade from the state and an address in a prosperous zip code.

But if any school demonstrates the adage that test scores aren’t everything, it’s this Jupiter campus.

Despite its high marks, Jerry Thomas Elementary last year had the unhappiest teachers and staff in Palm Beach County, according to a Palm Beach Post analysis of anonymous employee survey results.

That puts it at the very bottom of the 165 schools in The Post’s teacher-satisfaction database.

Teachers and staff gave Jerry Thomas low marks for school climate, leadership and for setting high expectations. Their responses to some questions about the campus were truly eye-popping.

Asked whether teachers generally respect their school administrators, just 18 percent of those surveyed agreed.

Asked whether there is a great deal of trust among teachers and school administrators, only 21 percent agreed.

How happy are teachers at your school? See for yourself

See the mood at a Palm Beach County public school on The Palm Beach Post’s teacher survey database.

At Jerry Thomas, teachers’ low opinion of their own school is particularly striking considering how well it fares academically.

In 18 years, the school’s grade has never been lower than a B, and it has had an A rating for 14 of the past 16 years, including this past year.

So what’s going on?

Despite the school’s high performance, this year the school’s teachers were pitted in a long-brewing conflict with Principal Michael Rieckenberg and Assistant Principal Shernett Alexander.

An official familiar with the happenings at the school told The Post that many teachers clashed with Alexander and faulted Rieckenberg for failing to resolve the conflict.

“This past school year it went from worse to frickin’ horrible,” said the official, who requested anonymity in order to speak frankly about the school’s issues. “That questionnaire is reflective of what was happening.”

‘He didn’t lean in and try to solve the problem’

Former Principal Michael Rieckenberg (Source: Palm Beach County School District)

After more than a year of complaints, the issue finally got the attention of school district administrators. Rieckenberg ended up resigning and Alexander was transferred to a position in the school district’s central office, a district spokeswoman said.

Rieckenberg, who took charge of the school in August 2015, appears to have deactivated the personal email address and phone number that he registered with the school district. Multiple efforts to reach him were unsuccessful. Alexander did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment.

In an interview, Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa acknowledged the school’s longstanding tensions and said the survey results helped to underscore the problem.

The source of tension, initially, was “the AP (assistant principal) and her style,” Avossa said. But, he said, teachers eventually blamed Rieckenberg for not doing enough to resolve the issue.

“He didn’t lean in and try to solve the problem and get her to back off,” Avossa said. “It did start off with her, but it did ultimately hurt the whole administrative team.”

To calm the tensions, the school district has tapped Jeff Eassa, the principal of Woodlands Middle School, to step in and address the problem.

In an interview, Eassa said he couldn’t speak to what happened in the past school year, but he vowed to try to stabilize things when the new school year begins.

“I’ve seen the results and I’m aware of the results, and I’m crafting a very specific plan to have improved results for next year,” he said.

This is Palm Beach County’s happiest public school

Students, parents, and teachers entering Eldridge Gale Elementary in 2014. (Bill Ingram / Palm Beach Post)

Teachers at this Wellington school love their principal, love their students and love the school’s direction.

Since it opened in 2005, Elbridge Gale Elementary School has been a powerhouse of high student achievement and high spirits.

A campus of just under 1,000 students, it has earned an A grade from the state every year except for one (in 2013). Its teachers routinely win countywide awards for teaching excellence.

And surveys show its teachers overwhelmingly love teaching there.

When the Palm Beach County School District surveyed teachers and staff at more than 160 schools this year, Elbridge Gale came out at the top of the heap in staff satisfaction, a Palm Beach Post analysis shows.

Fifty-five percent of the school’s 112 teachers and employees completed the surveys, and a whopping 100 percent of the survey-takers gave the school high marks for leadership, high expectations and student conduct.

How happy are teachers at your school? See for yourself

You can compare staff satisfaction rates at each of Palm Beach County’s public schools.

Wellington is known for its high-rated public schools, so it’s little surprise that one of its school would top the county’s list in teacher surveys.

But Gail Pasterczyk, Elbridge Gale’s principal, says her school has an additional advantage: As the school’s founding principal, she has had control over all of the school’s hiring decisions since it opened its doors.

Principal Gail Pasterczyk

“That’s part of my secret,” she said. “I’ve been able to hire my entire staff. And I’ve been known to have high standards.”

When it’s time to hire a new teacher, Pasterczyk doesn’t interview candidates by herself. Instead, an entire team takes part in the interview. So if it’s a fourth-grade teaching position that needs to be filled, all the fourth-grade teachers participate.

The entire school is “departmentalized,” meaning at every grade level teachers specialize in either math, reading or science and social studies.

Among her staff, Pasterczyk aims for “a family atmosphere.” She says every teacher has her cell phone number and is encouraged to call with concerns. She’s been known to take teacher to medical appointments.

“I say come to the source, come to me,” she said. “I always want a happy staff.”

‘They’d have to pay me a half-million dollars to leave’

Students are greeted by Elbridge Gale Elementary’s gator mascot in 2014. (Bill Ingram / Palm Beach Post)

In order to teach at the school, one teacher drives each day from Coral Springs. Others make the trek from Jupiter.

The school’s teaching staff has routinely won recognitions for excellence. In 2009 and 2010, two of the county’s 25 Dwyer Award finalists were Elbridge Gale teachers.

In 2011, a third-grade teacher was selected as Palm Beach County’s teacher of the year. In 2014, one of the school’s teachers won the Dwyer award for elementary education.

Pasterczyk understands how fortunate she’s been to steer the school for so long.

In her previous post, she was assigned to turn around Indian Pines Elementary west of Lantana, which was a D school at the time.

She said that with great effort the school rose to an A grade. But that often meant tough conversations and hard decisions.

“That’s certainly a different kind of challenge,” she said. “When you are hired to be a change agent, you often don’t make a lot of friends.”

By opening Elbridge Gale, she’s been able to implement her vision from the get-go.

“They’d have to pay me a half-million dollars to leave this school,” she said. “I just couldn’t leave.”

A record number of PBC elementary schools are on Florida’s “Low 300” list

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A record number of Palm Beach County schools have fallen onto the state’s list of the 300 elementary schools with the lowest reading scores in Florida, meaning more than $2 million in extra costs for the county’s public schools as educators extend the school day on more campuses.

The number of county public schools on Florida’s “Low 300” list jumped from 20 last year to 29 this year even though reading scores improved overall countywide. The schools on this year’s list include 27 school district-operated schools and two charter schools.

The spike is forcing the school district to shift money away from planned raises for teachers and other employees, administrators say. By law, the 300 schools with the lowest reading scores statewide are required to extend the school day to provide extra reading time, which requires extra stipends for teachers.

The district estimates the extended days will cost $2.5 million more than last year because the number of affected schools grew.

Last year a school district study found that in the program’s first three years, extended-day schools in most cases showed little or no significant progress, raising questions about the effectiveness of the extra reading time.

>> RELATED: Extra classes doing little to help Palm Beach County’s weakest readers

With the number of Low 300 schools falling in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, Palm Beach County now has more schools on the Low 300 list than any other Florida county besides Hillsborough.

Overall, reading scores improved in the county’s schools last year. But those improvements were not across the board.

Many elementary schools saw their students’ performance worsen significantly, including 16 schools that fell onto this year’s Low 300 list after not being on it last year.

Eight district-operated schools on last year’s Low 300 list improved slightly but not enough to move off the list this year.

Three district-operated schools that had been on last year’s list performed worse despite the extended school day: Barton Elementary, Rolling Green Elementary, and Belle Glade Elementary.

And in a sign of rising achievement across the state, one school that wasn’t on last year’s list – Westgate Elementary – fell onto the list this year even though its reading performance improved slightly.

By far, the two lowest-performing county schools on the list were both charter schools: Belle Glade Excel Charter School, where test scores showed just 6 percent of students were reading on grade level, and Learning Path Academy, where just 11 percent of students scored on grade level.

Deputy Superintendent David Christiansen said it was difficult to point to a single cause for the spike in schools on the state’s list but said that the county has long struggled with raising reading achievement for elementary students.

“That is something that we are concerned about,” he said. “The third grade (language arts exam) has been our soft spot, but we are doing well in math and science.”

He pointed out that the state’s Low 300 list – now in its fourth year – is based solely on reading scores, and the county’s elementary students have seen stronger growth in math and science. When those scores are considered, he said, the county does much better relative to other Florida school districts.

Indeed, one school on the Low 300 list, Lake Park Elementary, earned a B grade from the state this year.

>> RELATED: High costs, few benefits to longer days at struggling PBC schools

The state creates its Low 300 list by adding together the percentage of students earning a proficient score on the state language arts exam and the percentage of students making significant gains on the exam, then ranking each elementary school based on that figure. The lowest 300 schools statewide end up on the state list.

The Legislature implemented the extended-day rule in 2012 in an attempt to guarantee that students in schools with the biggest reading challenges would receive more reading instruction.

Initially set up for the 100 lowest-performing elementary schools, it was expanded for the 2014-15 school year to the bottom 300 schools.

The program has been criticized by some educators as costly and ineffective.

It requires nearly all students at the affected schools to stay in school for an extra hour, even most students already reading on grade level. Educators say that makes it more difficult for them to target the weakest readers.

The program also does nothing for struggling readers at schools that don’t happen to fall onto the list.

In the program’s first few years, the county extended the school day by a full hour at Low 300 schools.

But in a cost-saving move administrators decided last year extend the school day by a half-hour instead. The half-hour extensions will continue this year.

 

Palm Beach County schools on the “Low 300” list

WEST RIVIERA ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

BARTON ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

K. E. CUNNINGHAM/CANAL POINT ELEMENTARY

SOUTH GRADE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

HIGHLAND ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

ROLLING GREEN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

PLEASANT CITY ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

PALM SPRINGS ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

PAHOKEE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

GOVE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

BELLE GLADE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

LINCOLN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

ROOSEVELT ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

PIONEER PARK ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

NORTHMORE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

BENOIST FARMS ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

GALAXY ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

PINE GROVE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

LAKE PARK ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

ROSENWALD ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

DR. MARY MCLEOD BETHUNE ELEMENTARY

STARLIGHT COVE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

HOPE-CENTENNIAL ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

PALMETTO ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

WEST GATE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

BELVEDERE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

GROVE PARK ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

BELLE GLADE EXCEL CHARTER SCHOOL

LEARNING PATH ACADEMY

 

PBC school board moves to bar officials from asking students not to speak at meetings

Lake Worth High School freshman Miguel Cardenas says administrators pulled him from class to ask him not to speak at a county school board meeting last month. He spoke anyway. “You don’t let anything stop you, especially fear,” he said later.

Palm Beach County School Board members gave preliminary approval Wednesday to a rule that bars school district employees from discouraging students, teachers, parents or other members of the public from speaking at school board meetings.

Board members voted unanimously to give a preliminary go-ahead to the prohibition, which was triggered by a Palm Beach Post article about two school district administrators’ efforts to discourage a group of parents and students from speaking at a board meeting in January about a controversy at Lake Worth High School.

>>RELATED: Pulled from class: How PBC public schools discourage public dissent

The new rule would prohibit school district employees from contacting people who have signed up to speak at board meetings “for the purpose of dissuading, interfering or discouraging the speaker from addressing the board.” The rule faces a second vote before becoming official.

Attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union had asked the board to prohibit all contact between school district officials and people who sign up to speak at school board meetings.

That request was seconded Wednesday by the president of the county teachers union, Justin Katz, a former American government teacher, who said even quizzing people about why they want to speak out can be perceived as intimidation.

>>RELATED: After Post report, PBC schools may be barred from pressuring students not to speak

“It scares me when the government calls someone seeking to exert their First Amendment rights,” he said.

But School Board General Counsel JulieAnn Rico pointed out that banning contact between administrators and people who express concerns about problems in the school could create a host of unintended consequences and make it difficult to address easily resolved problems.

“It’s important for the district to be able to make those contacts,” she said.

Rico said her office will design a script that administrators can read when contacting people who have signed up to speak at board meetings.

 

 

After Post report, PBC schools may be barred from pressuring students not to speak

Lake Worth High School freshman Miguel Cardenas says administrators pulled him from class to ask him not to speak at a county school board meeting in January. He spoke anyway. “You don’t let anything stop you, especially fear,” he said later.

Palm Beach County public school officials would not be allowed to discourage students, teachers, parents or other members of the public from speaking at school board meetings under a new policy to be considered Wednesday.

The proposal comes five months after The Palm Beach Post reported that two school district administrators pressured students and a parent to cancel plans to speak out at a board meeting about a controversy at Lake Worth High School.

The Post’s article drew the attention of attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union, who quietly pressed school district officials to do more to shield students from potential intimidation by administrators.

The new rule, which school board members will take a preliminary vote on Wednesday, prohibits school district employees from contacting people who have signed up to speak at board meetings “for the purpose of dissuading, interfering or discouraging the speaker from addressing the board.”

UPDATE: Board members gave preliminary approval to the new policy Wednesday.

The proposal also declares that the school board “recognizes the right of Palm Beach County School students, as with all members of the public, to speak at board meetings.”

“Students,” it reads, “shall be permitted and welcome to speak at board meetings.”

>>RELATED: Pulled from class: How PBC public schools discourage public dissent

There’s a loophole, though: Officials would still be allowed to quiz students and others about why they signed up to speak at board meetings, so long as the intent is to try to “resolve any district issue, including the subject matter of the speaker’s intended remarks.”

That loophole made it into the proposal over objections from the ACLU, whose attorneys say that it still would allow administrators to intimidate students without explicitly discouraging them from speaking.

“We want to encourage kids to talk and we don’t want them intimidated,” said Andrew Chansen, a Boca Raton attorney who does legal work for the ACLU. “It’s a public forum, and we just want them to be able to express their views, whatever they may be.”

An excerpt from the proposed policy.

ACLU attorneys became involved in the case after The Post published an article in February describing the school district’s treatment of Miguel Cardenas, a 15-year-old freshman at Lake Worth High School.

Cardenas had signed up to speak at a January school board meeting about the school district’s decision to remove an assistant principal, Terence Hart, from the school.

Regional Superintendent Frank Rodriguez

On the day he was scheduled to speak, Cardenas was pulled from his English class and sent into a private meeting with two school district administrators.

The two administrators – Frank Rodriguez, a regional superintendent, and Geoff McKee, an assistant regional superintendent – quizzed Cardenas in the principal’s office about why he had requested to speak.

Cardenas said that they then pressured him not to speak to the school board, telling him that he could trust them to fix the problems on campus and that, if he spoke out, it would only hurt the school.

“They tried to give me other options,” he told The Post in February. “They said I would give the school a bad reputation.”

Rodriguez denied pressuring Cardenas to cancel his speaking plans, saying that he merely wanted to learn what Cardenas’ concerns were.

But two parents reported similar interactions with Rodriguez and McKee before the same board meeting, saying that the administrators had pressured either them or their children to cancel their speaking plans as well.

“They were very pleasant and not threatening in any way but did ask me to let them handle this internally and not speak at the meeting,” said Kristina Carmichael, the mother of a Lake Worth High School student.

Records released Tuesday by the school district show that ACLU attorneys began requesting records and policies regarding the public-comment process at school board meetings this spring.

An excerpt from the proposed policy

School board attorneys invited Chansen, in his capacity as an ACLU attorney, to give feedback about potential amendments to the school board’s policies regarding public comments at board meetings. Generally, any member of the public is allowed to speak for three minutes at the regular board meetings each month.

In May, Chansen requested that the school board prohibit school district employees from contacting people who have signed up to speak at board meetings.

“With the kids, we just didn’t want them to contact them at all,” Chansen said Tuesday. “I think a phone call itself is intimidating. They’re going to wonder if that means an F.”

School board attorneys rejected that request. In a statement to The Post, School Board General Counsel JulieAnn Rico said that barring school employees from contact with particularly students would improperly constrain the teachers and administrators.

“The district has to be in a position to contact and communicate with students in the normal course of business,” Rico said. “While we are a public body and certainly recognize the need for public access at public meetings, we are first and foremost here for the students and must not be constrained in our interactions with students, parents and employees in fear of inadvertently violating a policy.”

The new policy faces an initial vote from school board members Wednesday. It would need to be approved a second time to become official.

Under the new rule, district administrators could still have pulled Cardenas from his classroom and questioned him in an attempt to “resolve” his reasons for speaking.

They would not have been allowed to discourage him from speaking. But so long as they never apply explicit pressure, nothing in the policy appears to stop an administrator from grilling a student about his or her speaking plans, Chansen said.

“Our position is that they should not intimidate any speaker and there’s no reason that they should talk to them beforehand,” he said. “They should have better things to do than chill people up there talking. I don’t know what the reason is to call people up, especially kids.”

 

 

PBC school board calls for suing state over charter-friendly law HB 7069

Gov. Rick Scott signed House Bill 7069 into law last month. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

The Palm Beach County School Board gave unanimous support Wednesday to a proposal to sue the state over charter school-friendly legislation signed by Gov. Rick Scott last month, authorizing its attorneys to study the best strategy for a legal challenge.

Board members stopped short of agreeing to file a lawsuit but directed their legal staff to consult with an private law firm and begin researching the best way to proceed with court action over House Bill 7069, a sweeping bill that includes a requirement that county school districts share property tax revenue with charter schools.

>> RELATED: Avossa calls for suing the state over charter-friendly law HB 7069

The school boards in Broward and St. Lucie counties have already voted to proceed with lawsuits, and more than a dozen other school boards have been conferring about ways to challenge the new law, officials said.

Palm Beach County School Board members (from left) Frank Barbieri, Marcia Andrews and Debra Robinson (Palm Beach Post file photo)

Board members Wednesday seemed conflicted about whether to participate with other school boards in a joint lawsuit or sue on their own, but they left no doubt about their intentions to challenge House Bill 7069 in court.

JulieAnn Rico, the school board’s general counsel, told board members that she had already selected a prominent private attorney to research a potential lawsuit and, if needed, move forward with legal action: Jon Mills of Boies Schiller Flexner.

Mills is a former speaker of the Florida House and former dean of the University of Florida’s law school.

>> RELATED: Gov. Scott just signed HB 7069. Here’s what it does

Rico reminded the board of the difficulties of challenging the constitutionality of state actions in court, obliquely referencing the school board’s recent string of legal defeats over its efforts to bar two new charter schools from opening and to impose new restrictions on charters throughout the county.

“This board has already had the experience of taking on a constitutional challenge and its complexities,” she said.

Of the potential lawsuit over House Bill 7069, Rico added: “We know that it’s complex, it’s important and it’s a really big deal.”

>> RELATED: Charter school advocate: With lawsuit talk, Avossa aims to “wage war” on charters

House Bill 7069, a sweeping 274-page education overhaul, makes a host of changes to Florida’s public-school landscape, including eliminating a state math exam, requiring most public elementary schools to offer daily recess and providing more money for teacher bonuses and for a school-voucher program for students with disabilities.

Teachers unions and school district leaders were enraged by provisions that they say give charter schools a greater competitive advantage over traditional schools: measures that force school districts to share construction money with charter schools and that create financial incentives for new charters to open and compete with low-performing public schools.

Board members seemed unfazed my the prospect of a legal challenge.

“These are issues that we think should be controlled by local school districts, not the state,” School Board Chairman Chuck Shaw said.

Board member Marcia Andrews called House Bill 7069 “a monster that needs to be really, really answered to by all school districts.”

“We must do something,” she said. “It’s really important when we look at this bill.”

School Board member Frank Barbieri said that, instead of a joint lawsuit, it may make more sense for each county school board to sue separately, a tactic that could make it more difficult for the state to defend itself in court.

“If we are going to sue, which we certainly should, we should make it as difficult and painful for the state legislature as they have made it for us to operate this school district, the highest performing large urban school district in Florida,” Barbieri said.

In Palm Beach County, a provision requiring school boards to share with charters property tax revenue dedicated to construction and maintenance will cost the school district an estimated $10 million next year alone, or about 2 percent of the district’s roughly $400 million capital budget.

That figure is expected to rise as the number of charter schools grows.

This month, Broward County’s school board voted to spend $25,000 to begin putting together a plan to take legal action against the state.

Broward officials argue that the law illegally restricts the school district’s sovereignty and improperly gives charters a portion of property tax proceeds They allege the bill also violates a requirement that legislative bills focus on a single subject.

Not everyone in the room was in agreement with the calls for a legal battle.

Lynn Norman-Teck, executive director of the Florida Charter School Alliance, told board members that it was unfair to deny charter schools a share of the property taxes that school boards collect for construction and maintenance.

Charter school parents pay property taxes along with parents whose children attend traditional public schools, she pointed out.

“We believe that education funding should follow the child,” she said. “All students deserve to be in a safe facility that can meet their educational needs.”