Our Kids Are At Risk

Three of Marion County’s top education professionals sat down with Ocala Style for an in-depth interview concerning the state of our schools. We discussed how the budget quagmire was ultimately resolved, what our kids will face in the coming school year, and the long-term problem of the methodology in which Tallahassee pays the bills. How will these larger issues affect your family and your kids? Read on.

We figured the best way to get the in-the-know answers was to gather a hand-picked group of top education officials together and ask them a series of tough questions face to face. Over a 90-minute discussion in the spacious Osceola Middle School media center on a typically rainy summer afternoon, Editor-In-Chief Dean Blinkhorn hosted a unique forum where the camera was clicking and the tape was rolling. Here’s what everyone had to say.

‘Good Things Are Happening In Our Schools’

Dean: Let’s describe how we got involved in education.

Bobby: I’ve been a principal at various schools, a teacher, a coach, and then went into retirement before getting a call from the constituents to come and sit on the school board.

Stephen: I moved to Ocala when I was in the third grade, so I’m a product of the system. My wife was a school teacher and they had an accountant position open. I got hired and have been with the system for the last 30 years.

Kevin: I moved here to go to the University of Florida for my graduate program, but they didn’t want me [laughs], so I moved to Orlando to become a professional musician. Then in ’95, I moved to Miami, got my graduate degree from the University of Miami, and moved back here in ’96 for a couple of months—or so I thought. By the time I left Miami and got to my parents’ house here that same day, I had a job offer from TV-20, worked there for five years, and have been with the school system since 2001.

Jim: The reason I got into education was because of athletics and being the oldest child. I had five brothers, so I was always teaching or coaching them something. I graduated from high school in ’67 and went to the University of Florida on an athletic scholarship.

A lot of people probably don’t know that I worked here for one year at Vanguard High School [in 1972], teaching and coaching, but I left and worked in Osceola and Alachua counties and in a private school for a while before eventually coming back to Ocala. I moved here in 1980 and we’ve been here ever since.

I started off as a football coach at Vanguard High School, ended up moving into administration and doing discipline. Bobby and I actually did summer school together. Then I went to Dunnellon High School and Belleview High School as the principal before being named deputy superintendent. On June 3, 2003, I became superintendent, appointed by [Governor] Jeb Bush. My second term ends in November 2012.

Dean: My wife’s a school teacher out at Sunrise Elementary, one of the people who helped open that school. I was fortunate enough to have worked with Jim at Belleview High School, but when this opportunity with Ocala Style came up 10 years ago, I had to take it. My heart’s still with education, though, so that’s one of the things I like to do with the magazine.

We brought Kevin in with Class Acts years ago, and from time to time, we want to turn the spotlight on education—in a good way. We want to remind our readers that good things are happening in our schools and that even when problems arise, hardworking people are trying to overcome those things.

‘No Place To Run’

Dean: For example, Stephen, your department did a great job financially to be prepared for the budget cuts. When that big wave hit, it could’ve been a lot worse.

Stephen: You’ve got to back up a little bit. We’d already had one round of budget cuts and two rounds of budget cuts the year before, so we were starting out this year probably about $25 million in the hole. Then we were looking at numbers from the revenue estimating conference in January that showed us maybe $45 million dollars down in revenue, so the superintendent and the coalition decided we needed to start looking at things to cut.

Dean: About how many teachers were going to be affected by that initial cut?

Jim: About 300. On paper, we eliminated 522 first- and second-year teachers, but we knew we were going to hire back about 200 of them. Using state figures, we’ve been able to put all of those positions back—we’re actually hiring people right now.

Now, surely we lost some good employees because they were thinking they weren’t going to have a job, but if they were listening to our conversation, they would’ve known we were going to do everything possible to save jobs. We just couldn’t say that we were guaranteeing them a job, so why not give them a warning? That’s why we made those announcements so early.

It wasn’t the [school] board’s decision because I deal with the personnel issues, but they supported what we were doing and I was proud of that. Every one of them came to the meetings and answered a lot of questions afterwards. Bobby did, and it was a big deal.

Bobby: One of the things I find interesting about being in politics right now is that we deal with hope. But Stephen and Jim have to deal in fact, the raw numbers they’re getting from the legislators.

Even if we wouldn’t have gotten stimulus money, we still would’ve had an attrition of people who would normally leave. Our younger teachers didn’t know that. But there was no place to run because everybody in the state was in the same boat.

‘We Can Probably Survive Next Year’

Jim: The problem we have is the amount of money that will go into our fund balance. In other words, we have to use that $8 million to balance the budget. We can probably survive next year, but 2011-12 gets really frightening because nobody appears to be focused on that problem right now. I don’t hear the conversation about what’s going to happen when the federal dollars go away and if the economy stays flat like it is right now.

Stephen: We’re looking at $284 million in state and local funds—with stimulus money—and that’s compared to the calculation for this past year of $276 million, an $8-million increase. But $6.2 million of that is the additional millage that the board can levy if they do a “super majority” vote.

Dean: And the super majority vote is four-one?

Stephen: Right.

Kevin: Just a clarification—these numbers are for the operational side.

Dean: And the capital side deals with new construction?

Kevin: That’s correct.

Jim: People get confused and ask, “Why are you continuing to build when you obviously need to hire teachers?” The reason is simple. Statutorily, until this year, we were not given any flexibility.

Dean: Many people may not have understood why you had to fire those teachers only to rehire them. But if that step hadn’t been taken, the Florida Legislature might not have taken the situation seriously.

Stephen: Absolutely. The superintendent, with impetus from around the state in Brevard and Seminole, started pushing hard with Tallahassee. Of course, that’s why we have one bill out there that’s reducing elected superintendent salary by two percent. They’re slapping us on the hand for some of the things we did.

Dean: Was that targeted at any other elected officials?

Stephen: No, just elected superintendents and school board members.

Dean: So the “Rally In Tally” came with some political cost.

Jim: The message [from Tallahassee] was clear: “You crossed the line when you started having a conversation with the public.” If they had done it statewide with sheriffs and county commissioners right down the line, I don’t think any of us would’ve said a word.

Dean: Knowing that now, would you have changed how you reacted?

Jim: Not at all.

‘This Could Be Worse’

Kevin: At what point do you believe our community got onboard with what was going on with the budget?

Jim: We clearly laid out where the cuts were going to be in the $27 million and I think people went, “Oh, this could be worse.” The only criticism we got was that people wanted to know what we were going to do with administrators. Well, I didn’t know what the final budget was going to be. At MTI [Marion Technical Institute], where we’d renovated those offices and moved people over there, you’ll see empty rooms there now. That whole place was filled up at one time.

I think it happened when parents were able to ask questions and realized that it was going to impact every grade level. When you start cutting art, music, and P.E.—the heart of what a lot of people think is important, and I certainly think they’re important—that’s a big deal.

Kevin: How much of an impact did that have on the eventual outcome?

Bobby: I think when the number came out of 522 teachers being laid off, we were talking about things that would affect the entire school system. It really galvanized everybody.

‘Where The Jobs Are’

Dean: We’re now hearing about a surprising lack of student growth. For anyone who’s lived in Central Florida any length of time, that’s an unusual conversation. What do you think the five- to 10-year projection is?

Stephen: A small increase, maybe a couple hundred each year. Our population is down, but our rate of ascent is really small compared to some other districts like Volusia County that are actually closing schools. That’s not happening here.

Dean: Is anyone talking about Marion County being the growth center that is was, say, 20 years ago?

Stephen: I’ve not heard that conversation.

Bobby: People will go where the jobs are. Until the economy picks up, we’re not going to see a lot of people coming this way. I feel we’ll be the last to recover simply because only when people have money will they think in terms of Florida.

Dean: How about this school year? What don’t we have money for?

Jim: We have enough support to make a motivated child successful in our schools, but what we don’t have in place is for those kids who are at-risk. The truth is that all of our kids are at-risk, almost without exception, whether they’re gifted or low-income.

Also, we don’t have enough in place to help prevent dropouts. In two years, the dropout equation becomes huge in grading high schools. If we don’t prepare for that, then we’re going to get beat up. We need more adults in the schools because many of the kids don’t have a parent at home—they’re working full-time jobs and may not be able to spend enough time with their kid—so we need somebody there.

Lastly, we need resources for tutoring, but we just don’t have those.

‘Education Is Too Important’

Dean: West Port High got a “B” this year, but this has been an area of concern for the district because the grades for high schools have been so mixed.

Jim: The real problem is we get all these political divisions and every state wants to do its own thing. Somebody has to have the courage to move off of No Child Left Behind the way it’s written and come up with a common curriculum. Then you can compare Florida with Georgia, Florida with California, Florida with Alaska.

Bobby: Something that will impact us more than anything else will be the first 10-day count [September 4]. When we look at the number of students we’ve projected versus the number that will be enrolled. Do we keep programs if the students aren’t there? Do
we consolidate?

I think at some point we have to look at other organizations that can help us because we know that we’ll not be able to continue some programs. We have to connect, stop the fighting, and provide an opportunity for kids to be successful.

Kevin: That begs a follow-up question. How much freedom do we, as a district in the state of Florida, have to actually design a program or a curriculum that’s interesting to our students versus a program the state has designed for Miami-Dade?

Jim: Well, the more years you don’t make Adequate Yearly Progress, the more restrictive it is, the more you’re inside a box. Bobby made a valid point about programs. For instance, we really know we need to have a seventh period, which may be nothing more than a credit-generating lab where kids can go if they failed a course to re-take it online after or before school. That’s relatively inexpensive and we’ve got some of those programs in place—just not enough.

What we need is to go back to a full-blown summer school program so that kids can get their seventh credit, and the only way to do that is with additional revenue. There’s just not enough dollars in our budget and that’s the real concern.

I have three children who all went through Marion County public schools and they all got out of college in four years, no problem whatsoever. Stephen’s done the same thing and Bobby’s son is in school right now. They’re all successful.

I’m concerned that even our really bright kids who aren’t motivated are at risk, so we’ve got to find some way to motivate those kids. The only way to do it is with other caring adults. It can’t continue to be, in my opinion, just the school’s system responsibility.

Stephen: The difference between private and public schools is real simple—parents invest their money. As soon as the economy gets tight, those kids come back to us. That’s what’s happening now in a lot of cases.

Bobby: There are so many people who have their hands in this pot called “education,” and they’re stirring it in different ways. Somewhere along the line, as the dollars make us re-think what we do, we need to bring everybody to a table to talk about what we need to do in terms of making a complete education program. The budget will dictate that we do something a little more creative.

Jim: Of course, we don’t have anybody to talk to them because we can’t afford to hire anybody. [Everyone chuckles.]

Stephen: We’ll be going to the school board, hoping it will see to pass a tax levy by super majority vote. Alachua County this past year passed a popular vote for their school district when they looked at revenue shortfalls and the programs that were in jeopardy, but I’m concerned that we can’t even get four out of five people [on the board] to vote for it.

Dean: Like a tale of two counties, it’s amazing how Marion and Alachua differ on many important issues.

Stephen: I realize it’s a university town, so it has a passion. But I still think Marion County should have passion. Education is too important.

Kevin: Additionally, the special half-cent sales tax for school construction sunsets this year.

Jim: The good news is there’s no growth rate.

Stephen: They’ll be maybe one or two schools that we won’t be able to do on the original list of schools with the half-cent sales tax.

Dean: What happened? Six schools were originally on that list and now it may be only four?

Stephen: Between high construction costs at the beginning of the program and low revenues at the end of the program, we’ll be short those two schools. We just didn’t have enough funds.

‘Every Year They Change The Rules’

Dean: Let’s talk about acronyms and school grades. You have AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress), the measure of FCAT, and school district ratings. Often, they conflict with each other. What does it all mean?

Jim: There’s a difference in when they started. The current commissioner is trying to align No Child Left Behind, the federal statute, with the Florida accountability A-plus system, which is FCAT, if you will. That will change our lives in schools forever because every year you don’t make AYP, you get placed in a more restrictive category, ranging from a school improvement plan all the way down to the state taking over.

One of the real problems is that every year they change the rules. They change the scoring or they change what you have to do to get an “A” or “B.” The next two years will see high school grading becoming more difficult.

Kevin: That’s because AYP is now part of the grading picture for high schools, whereas traditionally it’s been elementary.

Jim: All “making AYP” does is hold your place. If you make AYP two years in a row, you go back to the beginning and start counting up again. With AYP, it’s all or nothing.

Dean: So Evergreen Elementary will have some massive changes because of not meeting AYP requirements?

Stephen: They didn’t make it this year either, even though they went up school grade-wise. Once again, we’re back to resources. If you have those resources to put in place at every school, you can prop them up. The problem is you can’t do it with every school.

Dean: Almost like a reverse incentive. When a school starts to fail, that’s when additional state resources come pouring in.

Jim: Sure, let’s look at the middle schools. Osceola—probably the best example—has the highest socio-economic level of any middle school in Marion County, and they do a great job, scoring over 600 points this year on FCAT, well above the 525 mark to make an “A.” They’re going to get rewarded—and their teachers are going to get rewarded with bonus dollars—for achieving a level that’s above everybody else, by maintaining that “A.”

But that “A” may not be the same “A” as Lake Weir Middle School or North Marion Middle School, which probably have, I’m guessing, the lowest socio-economic levels.

But it’s more difficult to do that with low-income kids than it is with high-income kids, who get lots of opportunities. They have a lot more vocabulary spoken to them, more reading materials, and a lot more experiences because their parents travel. So the system rewards the already rich.

I don’t have any problem with being held accountable. I do think, and all superintendents say this, it’s very difficult when you’re rewarding schools that would be successful anyway. They’re going to score at the highest level because they’ve got good teachers—the best teachers tend to go to the best schools.

In elementary school, our two highest-performing schools are our two magnet schools. I think if you looked at that statewide, you’d clearly see the same thing. But the state wants to reward those schools that make an “A.”

Bobby: It’s what we were talking about earlier—if we had a national standard and a way to level the playing field, then it would be fair to assess these things. If you look at Osceola and Eighth Street [Elementary], there will always be a difference between those schools and the ones out there like Reddick-Collier [Elementary] where there’s a different demographic.

We can prop them up, but the minute we stop propping them up, they’ll go back to where they were. If you look at the donations that are coming into this school [Osceola] versus other schools, it makes a difference.

‘We Have To Change The Way We’re Thinking’

Dean: I’m very proud to have served on one of the teacher-of-the-year selection committees for five years now, and I have to say, the classrooms have changed so much in a very short period of time. I got a tour of West Port High and saw the smart boards in use, and it’s just amazing. What do you all see, in terms of technological change, for the future of our schools? Is it a good change?

Kevin: Let’s first clarify that the money put into smart boards is from the capital side. People don’t always understand that.

Jim: This world is nothing like it was when people my age grew up. Anybody who thinks our kids aren’t better educated, in general, than my generation is kidding themselves. They know much more. If kids want to know something today, they simply google it.

Personally, I’d like to see project-based curriculum that will connect more kids because they ask, “Why do I need to know this?” Unfortunately, today’s answer is, “Because it’s on the FCAT.” I don’t like that answer.

There are tons of changes we have to make, and I think you’ll see more gaming-type curriculum, where a kid learns by playing a video game or interacting with some other piece of technology. My grandson is in the second grade and he loves interacting with the computer and doing math.

Bobby: We’re just caught up in all the things that we learned from our parents and our parents before them. It’s just very difficult for me to imagine this place changing without some radical thinking.

We just process kids. First, second, third, fourth, fifth period, and at the end of the day, you got your 300 minutes in, so you know enough. In order for us to keep up, we have to change the way we’re thinking—we have to cross into the community. I know education is a business, but the business model we’re using is busted.

Kevin: But how do you engage the community to change the mindset?

Bobby: My mother made biscuits from scratch—and she fed 11 kids with those biscuits. It’s time for us to look at what we can do with the dollars we have by using some imagination. At one point, we tried this experiment of year-round schools where we maximized our facilities. Well, we’re not ready for that. We still think we got a mule and a plow and a horse.

Dean: When everything was happening with the budget, you wanted to make sure the impact on the classroom was as minimal as possible. There are some great teachers in Marion County doing great things, but I don’t think people can appreciate the work involved unless they see an actual classroom environment.

Stephen: That’s another problem that we face in Marion County. A lot of our residents, especially our senior citizens, aren’t connected to our school system. Their grandchildren are someplace else, and they have no connection here. That hurts us tremendously.

Jim: They need to know that lots of people, from principals and teachers to everybody else, have an investment in the community. In my case, I have a daughter who is an instructor in this school system. My brother has children who are teachers and work non-instructional positions. We’re committed to Marion County.

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