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14 posts from January 8, 2014

January 08, 2014

Is PARCC still in the picture? Gaetz says no.

A subplot at Wednesday’s meeting of the Senate Education Committee involved the next generation of standardized tests.

As Florida schools transition to the Common Core State Standards (or some version of the national benchmarks tailored to Florida), the state education department must develop new standardized tests.

Four testing companies and one non-profit have submitted proposals in hopes of winning the contract: Pearson, ACT, CTB/McGraw-Hill, McCann Associates, and the American Institutes for Research.

The list does not include the Partnership for Assessment of College and Career Readiness, or PARCC, the multi-state consortium originally designated as Florida’s top choice.

PARCC did not participate in the competitive bidding process because it receives federal Race to the Top funds, which cannot be used for procuring state contracts, a spokeswoman told The Herald/Times last week. 

But PARCC did submit 51 pages of general information about its exams, and still hopes to be considered.

Is PARCC still in the running?

State Education Commissioner Pam Stewart's response to that question Wednesday wasn't clear.

“PARCC did not apply,” Stewart told the Senate Education Committee. “I would suggest to you, it will depend on the five applications. It cannot be considered as part of the [competitive bidding process].”

Does that mean PARCC could be considered separately from the competitive bidding process. Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat and CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, pressed for an answer, but Stewart said she could not provide details.

One person at the meeting was cool on PARCC: Senate President Don Gaetz.

Last summer, when Florida was still committed to PARCC, Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford urged Gov. Rick Scott to consider other options –- a recommendation the governor ultimately followed.

After Wednesday’s meeting, Gaetz said he was “pleased to hear the commissioner say today that even though PARCC has submitted a non-response response to the [bid solicitation], that notwithstanding that fact, that they were not under consideration.”

“I don’t have anything against the folks at PARCC,” Gaetz said. “I probably couldn’t identify any of them in a lineup. I don’t know who they are. All I know is that the proposal that was in front of the state of Florida a year ago was a proposal that I thought, and Speaker Weatherford thought, had some serious flaws. We wanted Florida out of PARCC and now we are.”

If it came down to a floor vote, the Senate President said, he would vote against the PARCC exams.

Some educators contend PARCC is the best choice for Florida because it would allow Florida to compare itself to other states. (More than a dozen states are field testing the PARCC exams this spring, the spokeswoman said.) But Gatez said he was not worried about Florida developing its own test.

“I had a conversation with the [U.S] Secretary of Education Arne Duncan about that topic a few months ago and for what it’s worth, Secretary Duncan didn’t seem overly concerned that Florida would be unable to be evaluated against the performance of other states," he said. “And that was a specific question that he and I talked about when Speaker Weatherford and I wrote a letter saying here are the problems with PARCC and we think Florida ought to get out of it. Arne Duncan and I talked about whether or not that would mean that Florida would have a hard time in valuable and reliable comparisons, he didn’t think so, and I don’t think so."

As CONNECT problems linger and pressure mounts, DEO hires new contractor


In a surprise move, Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity announced Wednesday that it is hiring another company to assist with the floundering $63-million unemployment benefits website.

That makes two private contractors who are currently working to fix the many issues with the website. At least for now, anyway, the project’s original contractor, Deloitte Consulting, is still on the job.

In a Wednesday posting on the DEO’s website, executive director Jesse Panuccio announced that a second company, the French multinational corporation Capgemini, was going to be hired this week. With 130,000 employees in 44 countries, it’s headquartered in Paris and specializes in information technologies.

“To make sure we are effectively serving claimants, DEO requested information from additional vendors, and we have received one response from Capgemini, an industry expert who has successfully implemented systems in other states,” Panuccio said in a brief statement. “They will examine our system and consult on its effectiveness moving forward.”

As for Deloitte, a company that is getting fined  $15,000 a day for not meeting the state’s requirements for the project, Panuccio was hardly encouraging.

“While we remain hopeful that Deloitte will deliver the system Florida was promised, this will further our ability to deliver the fully functional system claimants need and continue to enable us to hold Deloitte accountable,” he wrote.

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Too many 'medically fragile' children still in nursing homes, attorney tells Senate committee

In light of a Justice Department lawsuit against Florida over the care of disabled children, a Senate committee gathered experts for a status report on the system on Wednesday.

The federal suit, filed in July, stated that Florida health care agencies acted with “deliberate indifference to the suffering” of frail and disabled children by placing them in nursing homes designed to care for elders.

The lawsuit follows months of reporting on the children’s plight by The Miami Herald.

"Our goal is to ensure that children are not in nursing homes for six months, a year, two years, five years," Matthew Dietz, the lead counsel on the class-action suit joined by the federal government, told the Senate's Children Families and Elder Affairs Committee. 

The legislative committee heard testimony from a cross-section of experts on the issue, from advocates to administrators, primarily Elizabeth Dudek, secretary of the Agency for Health Care Administration, and State Surgeon General Dr. John Armstrong.

 “Based on your expertise and your knowledge of the current situation what three things would you need from us to improve the system, whether it be more staff, whether it be a different protocol?” Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, and the committee's vice chairman, asked Armstrong. “What do you need from us to enable you to have a world-class system or to make the needed improvements that you know intuitively based on your experience needs to be done.”

 “We’re looking for solutions here,” added committee chairman Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood.

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Scott brushes off Castor, defends DEO, and laments flood insurance

Gov. Rick Scott visited Brandon Honda on East Adamo Drive on Wednesday to talk about his plan to cut auto registration fees by $401 million

He's planning to cut a total of $500 million in next year's budget, but he told reporters that he doesn't quite know where he'll find that additional $100 million. 

"My budget comes out at the end of the month," Scott said. "We'll have it done in the next few weeks."

Scott gave reporters some spirited answers to their subsequent questions, including an icy retort to U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor. When asked by Creative Loafing's Mitch Perry about what he thought about Castor calling Florida's new $63-million website a "disaster" and a "debacle", Scott said Castor should be focused on her job in Washington.

"Well, first thing I think is that I think Kathy Castor should focus on some of the federal issues that they have," Scott said. "Let’s think about some of them. They raised the flood insurance on so many of our Florida families, we’ve got the 300,000 families who were told they were going to lose their insurance at the end of last year, so maybe she could focus on some of those issues."


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Latest budget-buster for Florida prisons: kosher meals

Florida's chronically debt-ridden prison system faces a new challenge as inmates of all religious faiths are lining up by the thousands to demand kosher meals.

U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz in Miami last month ordered the nation's third-largest prison system to offer kosher meals by July 1 to all inmates who request them. To begin to comply with the order, the Department of Corrections is offering kosher meals in pilot programs at two large prisons, Union Correctional in Raiford and the South Florida Reception Center in Miami.

Struggling to reduce a $58 million deficit, Corrections Secretary Mike Crews told a Senate panel Wednesday that the ruling is a big problem. The state pays $1.52 a day to provide three meals to its inmates (Do the math: that's 50 cents a meal). The alternative, two kosher meals, costs at least $4 a day, plus microwave ovens, boxes and other expenses.

After Seitz's order, prison officials anticipated 300 inmates to want kosher meals but 4,417 of them are on a list to get them, because they taste better than run-of-the-mill prison food that includes staples such as a "meat supplement" known as PVT.

"You're talking about a lot of money," Crews told the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. "I don't think we have any choice but to at least start to move to comply with the judge's order."

In consultation with Gov. Rick Scott's office, Crews said, the state will appeal Seitz's kosher-meals decision. Attorney General Pam Bondi represents the state in the appeal.

Crews made his comments as he cruised through a confirmation hearing  (he was not confirmed by the 2013 Legislature). Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, praised Crews for his no-nonsense response to trouble, such as the case of the two inmates who escaped from prisons using forged documents.

"You didn't try to pass the buck," Dean told Crews. "You never tried to shuck and jive and pass it on to somebody else."

 -- Steve Bousquet

Florida Democrats' push for minimum wage increase makes Gov. Scott 'cringe'


Increasing Florida's minimum wage would not only help families rise out of poverty but boost the overall economy, Democratic lawmakers said today.

It is unlikely their proposal to boost the minimum hourly wage about 27 percent will get much traction in the Republican-controlled Legislature, especially over objections from the business community. But Florida Democrats are aligning with a progressive cause that has become a national conversation.

Noting that today is the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's declaration of a "war on poverty," Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, said raising the minimum wage was imperative to "closing what has been a growing income inequality gap."

The proposals -- Senate Bill 456 and House Bill 385 -- would increase Florida's minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for all workers. Congressional Democrats, with the backing of President Barack Obama, are pushing for the federal minimum wage to be increased to the same amount.

The minimum wage in Florida is currently $7.93 an hour and $4.91 for employees who are tipped. That includes a 14-cent increase that went into affect on Jan. 1, the result of a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2004 that required automatic cost-of-living adjustments.

Count Gov. Rick Scott among those who are dubious about the Democrats' proposal.

"When I hear a politician say that we have to raise the minimum wage so working families can make ends meet, I cringe, because I know that statement is a lie," Scott said via email. "Even if we did raise the minimum wage, working families will still not be able to make ends meet on those jobs. We need good jobs that lead to good careers for our families and that's what I am focused on."

Rep. Cynthia Stafford, D-Miami, is sponsoring the legislation in the House. She said raising the minimum wage would help not only families but businesses, too. "When people are making more, they will spend more," she said.

Employers have argued that raising the minimum wage increases costs and creates unnecessary burdens. The Florida Chamber of Commerce is against the proposal, saying that the focus should be on ensuring workers are skilled enough to earn promotions and higher wages.

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Tougher residency requirements looming for lawmakers

The top legal minds in the Florida Legislature took a stab Wednesday at answering the existential question of “What is home?”

General counsels for the House and Senate released a five-page memo that outlines how lawmakers can meet residency requirements in the future.

See memo here.

The opinion comes a day before Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, hold a news conference announcing their bills creating new residency requirements for candidates and public officers.

It’s an issue that comes up periodically during political campaigns when a candidate runs for a district they don’t actually live in. (It happens more than you think). That’s ok, according to Florida law, as long as they move into the correct district by Election Day.

In the past year, however, Latvala has pounced on the residency issue to spotlight the living situation of Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach. He contends she doesn’t live in her senate district. She says she does, and her voter registration backs her up.

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Atwater served as character reference for one member of search committee

Wendy LinkOne member of the Florida Atlantic University presidential search committee who will decide whether Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater becomes a finalist used Atwater as a reference when she was appointed to the Florida Board of Governors in 2011.

Wendy Sartory Link, an attorney at the West Palm Beach law firm of Ackerman, Link & Sartory, listed Atwater as one of three references when she was appointed to the Board of Governors for the university system by Gov. Rick Scott. Her law firm has also won more than $7.5 million in contracts with the state-run insurance carrier, Citizens Property Insurance, whose management Atwater oversees.

Link will be among the 15 members of the FAU search committee who will interview the 10 remaining applicants for president of the university on Thursday and Friday. The group will narrow the list to three finalists and the ultimate selection will be made by the university’s board of trustees at its meeting on Jan. 17.

The university has hired a search firm for $90,000, plus an estimated $9,000 in expenses, to conduct a nationwide search to fill the vacancy left when former president Mary Jane Saunders resigned. After receiving 61 applications, the presidential search committee narrowed the list to 10 which included eight academics as well as Atwater and former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, both Republicans.

Neither Atwater nor Link would comment on whether she can judge Atwater objectively given her reliance on him in her application. A spokesman for FAU compared the relationship between Atwater and Link to two families "sending their kids to the same day care."

"We do not believe that a search committee member (or, for that matter, a Trustee) should recuse himself or herself from considering a presidential candidate simply because he or she might know that candidate personally,’’ said FAU spokesman Joshua Glanzer. Story here.

Margolis celebrates 40 years of public service

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It's hard to believe, but 40 years have passed since state Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Miami Beach, first became a state lawmaker.

Margolis, 79, hasn't held state office the entire time. She spent eight years on the Miami-Dade Commission, and made unsuccessful bids to become a member of Congress and Miami-Dade property appraiser.

She made history when she became the first woman to hold the Florida Senate presidency in 1990.

Senate President Don Gaetz celebrated the occasion Wednesday by presenting Margolis with 40 roses during the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee meeting.

Said Gaetz: "This is the beginning of the next 40 years."

We caught up with Margolis in between meetings Wednesday to get her take.

Herald/Times: What inspired you to get involved in politics?

Margolis: The Equal Rights Amendment. The gentleman who was the incumbent [in the Florida House of Representatives] at the time voted against the Equal Rights Amendment and I was just horrified that anybody could do that. So I decided to run against him.

Herald/Times: What was it like to be the first female Senate President?

Margolis: It was amazing. The galleries were packed with every woman who worked here in the Senate. It was incredible. When they swore me in, they were crying… The women, one after another, were getting up and nominating me, saying, ‘Good ol’ boys, step aside.’ It was really strange. It was really something.

Herald/Times: Of what accomplishment are you most proud?

Margolis: I did the constitutional amendment that brought government into the sunshine in 1992.

Herald/Times: You’ve left Tallahassee a few times to pursue other offices. What is it about Tallahassee that keeps drawing you back?

Margolis: I was chairman of the [Miami-Dade] County Commission for six years. It was awful. There was strong mayor at the time, Alex Penelas, and so the chairman just presided, kept order. I could set the calendar and things like that. It was a good experience, but I never want to go back… [Tallahassee] is a good place. I know the staffs of most of the committees very well. It’s an easy place for me to do well.

Herald/Times: Any plans to retire?

Margolis: I have three more years... I’ll think about it then. I have a [retirement] account open, but I don’t know if I really want to pursue it. 

Committee votes to increase secrecy of university presidential searches, fundraising


Applicants for top positions at Florida's colleges and universities would remain confidential unless they are named finalists, under a proposal moving in the House. The Higher Education and Workforce Subcommittee approved House Bill 135 as well as a separate Sunshine Law exemption that would allow university fundraising arms to meet in secret to discuss potential donors and strategy.

Colleges and universities in Florida have long complained that the state's broad public meeting laws stifle search processes, scaring off potential candidates who don't want to be identified as applying for new jobs they might not get. HB 135 would allow searches for presidents, provosts and deans to remain secret in the initial phases; only the names of applicants who become finalists would be shared with the public. Under current law, every applicant is made public the minute they throw a hat in the ring.

Panel vice chairman Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, advocated in favor of both bills. He said House Bill 135, which requires a 21-day waiting period before college and university boards vote to approve their choice for top positions, could actually improve transparency during the process.

"This bill actually I think interjects some sunshine in the process where there is none. What we currently have in practice is we'll have a vacancy and it will be posted for 30 days and on day 30, the afternoon of day 30 is when all the real applications come in from all the heavy weight candidates."

Rodrigues pointed out that univesities tend to move quickly to chose finalists and make a final selection once the application deadline ends. That doesn't give stakeholders enough time to vet the candidates and discuss their strengths and weaknesses, he said.

For example, Florida A&M University named six finalists for the open presidency position on Friday and its Board of Trustees plans to make it selection Thursday, a six-day turnaround. Florida Atlantic University, which is also looking for a new president, selected 10 finalists Monday and hopes to make its choice on Jan. 17. 

If HB 135 were in effect now, we might not have ever known that former State Sen. Al Lawson Jr. applied at FAMU since he wasn't among the finalists. Rep. Michelle Rewinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, was the sole opposing voice to the proposal.

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