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Fla. Dispute Seen as Threat To Reform Law Resolved

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A dispute within a Florida school district that state education officials worried could jeopardize their new education-reform effort has been resolved.

A compromise between the Lake County school board and an elementary school advisory panel set up under the new law was reached early this month, shortly before the parties were scheduled to appear in court.

The conflict centered on whether the board or the advisory council had ultimate authority over the school since the reform measure took effect.

Passed in 1991, the state's "accountability'' law grants individual schools significant policymaking and operating discretion. In return, school officials must involve parents, teachers, and community members in school matters and demonstrate to the state that their policies are leading to improved student performance. (See Education Week, March 17, 1993.)

As required by the law, the advisory council of the Seminole Springs Elementary School, made up chiefly of parents and teachers, submitted a school-improvement plan to the school board. The plan included the creation of a preschool program and the replacement of standardized tests with portfolios for 1st and 2nd graders.

The school board voted against those two elements of the plan. In response, the advisory council filed suit, contending that the board had only the power to accept or reject, but not to amend, the plan.

Shared Power at Issue

The compromise calls for replacing 1st-grade tests with portfolios and permitting the advisory group to work with outside social agencies to set up off-campus preschool programs.

"We were glad to see the willingness of the school advisory council to finally agree to work with the board,'' said Pat Hart, the president of the board.

At the same time, however, Ms. Hart argued that her side would have prevailed in court because the Florida constitution establishes school board authority.

Cheryl Mullen, a parent and advisory-council leader, said the group dropped the suit after losing the support of teacher members who had feared for their jobs.

State education officials were anxious that a court decision upholding the Lake County board's authority might unleash a rush of efforts by other school boards in the state that are unwilling to share their power in a decentralized education system.

Schools are expected to begin implementing the advisory councils' improvement plans this fall.

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