Storm-Weary Fla. Schools to Seek Policy Waivers

September 24, 2004 7 min read
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Battered by the worst hurricane season in recent memory, Florida school districts are asking the state to ease its rules on testing, class sizes, and instructional time.

Residents evacuated the Florida Panhandle last week to avoid the third hurricane in five weeks to hit the state, where some schools have been closed almost as many days as they’ve been open this school year.

“You’ll have, I think, every community college, university, and K-12 school closed at least one day for hurricanes, which is pretty extraordinary,” said Florida Commissioner of Education John Winn, who oversees the precollegiate and higher education systems. “The day after Labor Day, we had three school districts in the entire state open, out of 67.”

Gov. Jeb Bush signed a series of executive orders, beginning Aug. 20, allowing flexibility on the required 180-day school schedule, teacher contracts, immunization documentation, and other state laws.

As districts hit by hurricanes Charley and Frances reopened their doors, schools in 18 counties were closed for at least two days last week as Hurricane Ivan made landfall Sept. 16 in neighboring Alabama and caused flooding and wind damage in the Panhandle. Many schools in Alabama also were closed.

Tropical Storm Jeanne was expected to threaten Florida by early this week.

Most school districts in the state have lost only a few days of class time. But some systems have been closed for a total of nearly three full weeks of classes, and the state likely will excuse many of those days, Mr. Winn said.

Each affected district will file an individual plan requesting waivers from the state, he said. The state board of education will hear the cases.

The state legislature also may hold one or more special sessions in the coming weeks to address emergency needs, including school issues, the commissioner added.

Regulatory Relief

The biggest regulatory concerns for school leaders in Florida had to do with testing and school accountability.

David Mosrie, the executive director of the Florida Association of School District Superintendents, met with dozens of county superintendents last week in Tampa. He suggested that the state delay the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test, or fcat, this year and give some districts a pass on school accountability requirements.

The FCAT, scheduled to be administered early next year, “should be delayed statewide,” Mr. Mosrie said. “Teachers and students are not necessarily focused on academic issues right now. You’ve got children that don’t know where they’re going to go home to tonight.”

Florida’s accountability program requires schools to show a 17 percent increase on language arts scores this year and a 14 percent rise in mathematics scores to meet the demand for adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Mr. Mosrie said. “To think we’re going to make a 17 percent increase is unrealistic,” he said.

Abandoning the fcat is “off the table, but that’s not what we’re asking anyway,” he said. Testing delays and relaxed accountability requirements are needed for many districts, he argued.

Charlotte County would welcome the elimination of accountability rules this year and a delay in testing, said David E. Gayler, the superintendent of the 18,300-student district, based in Port Charlotte on Florida’s west coast.

Mr. Gayler’s district was among the hardest-hit in Florida and has missed 13 days of classes since school began in early August. Six of its 20 schools were destroyed.

“At least a two-week delay would be reasonable for us” on the fcat, he said. “We would suggest, too, that any of the accountability measures for the current year” be waived for the district.

The Florida Education Association, the state teachers’ union, also wants state officials to allow schools more time to heal.

“We would like to see some flexibility on when the test is given and when the [school] grades are given,” said Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the merged affiliate of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. “We’re concerned with the high-stakes nature of testing—that some of these kids are already behind the eight ball.”

But Mr. Winn, the state commissioner, said Florida’s school accountability requirements would likely stay the same. “We’re certainly opposed to the very, very, very few people who suggested that we not give the fcat this year,” he added. Districts already have three weeks to offer the tests, which should be enough, he said.

Districts also must reduce class sizes by an average of two students this year, as required by state law, Mr. Winn said. Any problems in doing so should be handled during an appeals process later in the school year, the commissioner said.

Mr. Mosrie of the superintendents’ group warned, however, that districts could lose class-size-reduction money from the state if they do not show that average class sizes have been reduced by early next year. “That’s something that needs to be dealt with,” he said.

Districts also likely will need additional state aid to help repair school buildings when insurance and federal disaster funds fall short of the costs, Mr. Mosrie said.

One of Gov. Bush’s executive orders allows districts some flexibility on teacher contracts. Districts have not tried to revise contracts because of the storms’ impact so far, but the state union is watching for any problems, said Mr. Pudlow of the fea.

Gov. Bush’s order allows districts to waive collective bargaining agreements in dealing with the hurricanes’ impact, and districts must notify the teachers’ union in writing of any changes.

“We are concerned, because particularly the collective bargaining aspect of it seems overly broad,” Mr. Pudlow said of the governor’s orders. “We just hope that the spirit of cooperation” continues at the local level, he said.

Stops and Starts

Volusia County leaders were discussing a plan last week that would require teachers to spend an extra hour at work on 29 early-release days specified in their contract, said Nancy Wait, the district’s spokeswoman. The district also might extend the length of school days slightly to make up for lost time, she said, adding that the teachers’ union may have to approve the changes.

Across the state, the series of storms destroyed or damaged dozens of schools, forcing students to miss classes just as the year began and school administrators to spend their time picking up the pieces.

“We’ve restarted school three times this year. We have yet to make a full week of school,” said Mr. Gayler, the Charlotte County superintendent.

Hurricane Charley, the first of the spate of hurricanes to hit Florida, devastated the town of Punta Gorda and neighboring Charlotte Harbor. The Charlotte County district has seen a decline in enrollment of 800 or more students whose families left the area after they lost homes, businesses, or both, Mr. Gayler said.

The district is asking the state to keep its funding constant for a year or longer to prevent a loss of revenue from the sudden drop in enrollment that would wreak havoc with its budget, he said.

Six Charlotte County schools are closed for the year and may have to be torn down, Mr. Gayler said. The district hopes to replace some of the classroom space with campuses of portable classrooms in the coming months. Several schools are on double sessions.

Volusia County’s 64,000 students also have missed 13 school days in the opening weeks of the school year, which began for many Florida districts in mid-August. The school board in the district, which includes Daytona Beach on the Atlantic coast, planned to meet on Sept. 17 to approve waiver requests that will be sent to the state, Ms. Wait said.

A majority of the county’s 71 public schools lost power after Hurricane Charley swept across the state on Aug. 13, Ms. Wait said. Then, on Sept. 5, Hurricane Frances pounded the county with 12 hours of wind and rain, flooding coastal and low-lying areas and damaging school roofs, she said.

“We actually had to use little canoes to get out to the portables” at one school, she said. She added that 25 schools were used as emergency shelters managed by school administrators.

The 34,000-student Lake County schools had to close for a day last week because fuel didn’t arrive for school buses, said Mr. Mosrie of the superintendents’ association.

The Indian River County schools, on the state’s east coast, served 75,000 meals to people staying in five schools that were used as shelters, starting Sept. 2 and continuing for the next 10 days, said Frank Mullins, the 17,000-student district’s director of food and nutrition services.

Commissioner Winn said he was heartened to see so many educators and emergency workers helping schools and families after the storms. “It has really overshadowed the devastation,” he said.

Editorial Interns Courtney K. Wade and Tal Barak contributed to this report.

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