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School Board joins lawsuit

Hernando County board members are challenging the state over a charter schools commission.

By TOM MARSHALL
Published October 20, 2006


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BROOKSVILLE - It's litigation season on the Hernando County School Board.

On Tuesday night, board members voted to join a lawsuit against the state and its Department of Education over a new charter school commission they think could encroach upon the district's authority.

The suit, by the Florida School Boards Association, challenges the right of the new Florida Schools of Excellence Commission to independently authorize charter schools.

And Hernando board members said they were keenly interested in the possibility of joining another lawsuit over STAR, the state's new incentive pay program for teachers.

"It's criminal," said board member Sandra Nicholson, referring to the state's plan to withhold lottery funds from schools that do not comply with the new mandate. "I would definitely join a lawsuit to fight it."

District officials said the state has told Hernando it must throw out its existing performance pay plan, and design a new one that uses teacher evaluations and student scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test to rank teachers.

The district must do that by Dec. 31, and implement the evaluation plan during the second half of the year, to qualify for about $1.2-million in state funds to reward the top 25 percent of teachers in the district, said recruitment and retention coordinator Laurie Pellito.

If the district misses those deadlines it must still devise a state-approved plan to reward those teachers, but will have to pay for it out of district funds, she said.

"We are doing this because we cannot find a way not to do it," Pellito added. "We're just trying to meet the requirement."

Last year, eight teachers out of about 1,400 qualified for a 5 percent bonus, based on the results of a portfolio assessment of their work, said Heather Martin, executive director of business services. The program was devised to comply with a 2002 state mandate.

But board members said it wasn't fair, and might not be possible, to devise a brand-new teacher evaluation system and implement it in midyear. Any plan would also have to be accepted by the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association or imposed under its protest.

Board attorney J. Paul Carland said a lawsuit filed by the Florida Education Association teachers' union could buy the district some breathing room, if a court agrees to an injunction.

The union's lawsuit argues that the Department of Education violated state laws by not crafting sufficient administrative rules to carry out the STAR mandate, which was approved last spring by the Legislature.

The board agreed to develop a plan to comply with the STAR program by Nov. 14, while it considers joining the suit.

The board last month approved a resolution asking the state Board of Education to give it exclusive authority to approve public charter schools within the district's boundaries.

Under a law passed last spring by the Legislature, the new Florida Schools of Excellence Commission can independently authorize and oversee charter schools in districts that haven't retained that exclusive authority.

And it's up to the state Board of Education to decide whether districts have earned that right, based upon their track record of supporting charter schools.

That's illegal, reckons Florida School Boards Association director Wayne Blanton, since the Florida Constitution already gives local school boards control over all public schools within their districts.

Hernando is the 13th school board to join the association's suit against the state and the Department of Education over the provisions, Blanton said Wednesday.

By a 5-0 vote, the board contributed the "initial sum" of $2,500 toward the FSBA suit.

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or 352 848-1431.

[Last modified October 20, 2006, 06:27:05]


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