Saturday, May 16, 2015

What to expect at the next School Board meeting

The next School Board meeting is a Workshop on Tuesday, May 19. Unlike a regular Board meeting, no votes may be taken at a workshop; its purpose is Board discussion of materials presented by District staff.

You can view the agenda on the District's website here.

The meeting will begin with public comments, which, unlike at regular Board meetings, must relate to one of the items on the Workshop agenda. Then the Board will hear staff presentations on three topics:

All three topics should draw interesting public comments. The Assessment presentation, which is in response to Board member Erika Donalds’ request several weeks ago for raw scores so she could do her own analysis of student performance, could draw speakers both in support of and opposed to district-wide end-of-course exams. See my May 8 post “End-of-Course Testing Next Likely Controversy.”

What: School Board Workshop
When: Tuesday, May 19, 2015 - 5:30 P
Where: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Administrative Center, 5775 Osceola Trail, Naples 34109
Watch live: here or Cable 99

Public Comment Policy and Speaker Registration Form: here

And save the date! Plan to attend the June 9 School Board meeting, at which the Board’s self-evaluation and its evaluation of Superintendent Patton will be on the agenda.

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Friday, May 15, 2015

An astute and concerned reader

My May 11 post, “An informed electorate is our best defence,” elicited some great reader responses, most of which were conveyed to me privately. In this post, I want to share with you one that was made anonymously through the Sparker’s Soapbox website. The writer appears to be someone who is following the School Board closely and has given the situation a great deal of thought.

(S)he began with this comment that illustrates the chilling effect a few litigious community members and public-records-requesters are having on the public’s freedom of speech:
I’ll take advantage of this opportunity to make an anonymous post, because the reformers’ threats of lawsuits and other tactics make it difficult to speak freely. Thank you for offering a safe space to speak.
(S)he then offered this assessment of the strategy of the two junior School Board members and their supporters, and where she fears it will lead:
A strategy revealed: first undermine confidence, then replace with something new (but not necessarily better)

Collier County education reformers are an odd mix of libertarians (who support home-rule and gun rights, but oppose censorship), conservative parents (who want to take control of instructional materials to protect children from immoral works), ultra-conservatives (“real” conservatives who have “freed themselves” from the Republican Party), and parent fans of the new board members.

This appears to be their strategy:
  1. Replace the superintendent with someone who will let the board control operations.
  2. Replace two of the three senior board members with reformers in 2016. Presumably, that’s why the parent-attorneys and their elected officials are targeting Mrs. Curatolo for lawsuits. [See here and here.] Which reformer will try to replace her - one of the parent-attorneys who orchestrated the lawsuits, or a homeschooling mother who wants to enforce high standards of purity in the classroom? [Don’t miss this YouTube video starring that mother, titled “The Brainwashing and Indoctrination of Our Children.”]
  3. Opt out of testing and dump federal standards, so no one will know how well Florida students are doing.
  4. Censor all instructional materials. However, do not use the “C” word, please. Reformers prefer "textbook review.” Remove all references to what reformers call “victims rights,” such as Japanese internment camps or Chinese coolie laborers. Finally, delete references to communism, socialism, climate change, overpopulation, because if no one uses these words, these things disappear.

These reformers have not articulated a detailed plan for the public education. Based on campaign promises, we can expect more public funds to be diverted to charter schools, which will adopt the Hillsdale College Charter School model, like Mason Classical Academy (where [School Board member] Lichter and [School Board member] Donalds’ husband are on the board). This model emphasizes fact memorization over critical thinking, ancient classics over modern classics. If that doesn’t sound bad, consider that Collier County’s advanced studies courses (Advanced Placement, Cambridge AICE, dual enrollment) all require students to think critically.

Low standards and double standards do not make for an attractive reform package. Reformers use public funding to advance their ideological agenda through charter schools, then whine that the administration is “stealing” from them. They hail themselves as civil rights heroes for breaking laws they happen not to like, but sue the district – or threaten to sue it - when they perceive the staff or other board members haven’t followed state laws to the letter. Reformers insist on detailed budget analyses for every purchase the district proposes, but neglect to apply the same due diligence to their proposals.

They accuse the district of using funds inefficiently, yet waste district resources probing for information to use against anyone who opposes them. They want to strengthen the whistleblower policy, hire an internal auditor and another attorney, presumably to gather more ammunition. They request district test scores that would require many staff-days to provide. These resources should be used to improve our schools.

The reformers’ constituents model the behavior of their elected officials. The parent-attorney who sued the district to change the civility policy so the board chair could be attacked complained because other public commenters took advantage of the new policy to criticize him, instead of focusing on the issue.

These antics are difficult to watch, but important to recognize, because they put the district at risk of another state accreditation agency warning.

The writer is referring to the fact the Collier County School District almost lost its accreditation in 2007 because it had a dysfunctional School Board.

Why is losing accreditation a concern? According to the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce at the time, in an article titled “School Accreditation: What It Means for Collier County:”

To be blunt, graduation from a school system that loses accreditation means the students’ high school diplomas are – in a word – worthless. And if those kinds of penalties aren’t enough, history has shown an entire community can be thrown into chaos by the loss of its schools’ accreditation. Students jam adjoining counties’ schools, entire families relocate to other parts of the country, property values plummet, federal and state financial support dries up."

My anonymous reader concluded her/his comments with a call to action. (S)he wrote:

The superintendent and senior school board members are doing their best to protect school personnel and resources, but they need our help. Tune into the school board meetings and write an email, or a letter to the editor, or give a public comment to support our public school staff. We are one school board seat away from taking experienced educators out of decision-making roles, and replacing them with members of this coalition. [emphasis added]

Fellow citizens, if you want a system that prepares young people to memorize facts and follow orders, and if you want a school system that’s run by taxpayers, elect more reformers. If you want a school system that teaches young people to think for themselves, prepares them for the best colleges and universities, and allows schools to be run by professional educators, re-elect the senior board members, or find new ones just like them.

I share the concerns so well-expressed by this anonymous writer. And I echo her/his call to action.

We must each do all we can to raise awareness of what’s going on right here in our community. There is so much at stake.

Please help by staying informed yourself, and urging your friends to subscribe to Sparker’s Soapbox.

Please share this post with your friends. You and they can subscribe to Sparker’s Soapbox by email at, “like” me on Facebook at or follow me on Twitter @SparkersSoapbox.

Monday, May 11, 2015

An informed electorate is our best defence

I write this blog to share what I learn about issues and events that are influenced or decided by our elected officials. Ultimately, I write to encourage informed voting.

Lately I've focused my writing on the Collier County School Board, because the more I learn about what’s happening there, the more concerned I become.

I try to write objectively and then, at the end of each post, share my views and ask readers to take a specific action.

Today I’m taking a different tack. Rather than write about something I read recently, I'm asking you to read it yourself. It's a message Florida Citizens Alliance recently emailed to its followers. Click here. What’s your reaction? How would you describe it to a friend?

I’d also like you to look at Parents ROCK’s Facebook page, which has over 580 followers. Click here.

In my opinion, these two right-wing, Tea Party-related groups sensationalize local educational issues. They raise important questions, but it would be dangerous to blindly accept or trust what they selectively present as fact. There’s always more to the story than what they claim.

They are consistently critical of our District's Superintendent and senior School Board members. They oppose state standards for what children should learn. They want a bigger role for parents in deciding curriculum and reviewing textbooks and other assigned reading materials. They disagree with state law about testing, so they want to ignore it.

Here's an excerpt from an item posted on May 7 on the Facebook page of the husband of one of the new School Board members:

Stay tuned for more information on the two fresh candidates who will challenge the status quo and stem the tide of liberalism that has flooded our public schools.  Until then, let Mrs. Lichter and Mrs. Donalds know you support them by showing up at school board meetings, speaking out, writing letters to the editor, and telling your friends and colleagues that "enough is enough." We will not stand idly by as our public schools are devastated by power hungry educrats who care more about public perception than educating our children. 

There is no doubt that they want to take control of our School Board in next year’s elections.

Most people you and I know are unaware of these groups and their agendas. If they have children in school, or are working one or two jobs to make ends meet, they may be too busy with day-to-day life to focus on School Board matters. Or for other reasons, they may not realize that the School Board is relevant to their lives. It’s just not something they pay attention to.

But they should. The School Board sets policy and hires and oversees the Superintendent who is responsible for the day-to-day operation of our schools.

Our schools do more than teach reading, writing and arithmetic. They teach our children to read and think critically, ask questions, and separate truth from propaganda. They expose them to different cultures, experiences and beliefs. They encourage them to be tolerant, compassionate and understanding. And - hopefully - they teach them to respect the rule of law and protect the rights of all citizens. Simply put, our schools educate our children so when they grow up, they can participate fully as informed citizens in our democratic society.

There are vastly different views in our community, our state and our nation about what makes for good public education. Here in Collier County, seemingly well-funded Florida Citizens Alliance and Parents ROCK espouse views and advocate for actions I do not agree with.

Please help me raise awareness of these groups and their priorities by sharing this post. These groups will be supporting candidates for election to the School Board in the next election. An informed electorate is our best defence.

Please share this post with your friends. You and they can subscribe to Sparker’s Soapbox by email at, “like” me on Facebook at or follow me on Twitter @SparkersSoapbox.

Friday, May 8, 2015

End-of-Course Testing Next Likely Controversy

End-of-course exams are not on the agenda for Tuesday’s School Board meeting, but somehow I suspect they’ll be a topic of discussion, thanks to Parents ROCK.

Under Florida law, students’ grades on statewide standardized end-of-course tests (EOCs) are significant components of two important areas of educational assessment and accountability:

  1. a student’s final course grade, and
  2. a teacher’s or school-based administrator’s evaluation.

But a new law signed by Governor Scott last month changed the rules of the game.

Among many changes, the 65-page law Education Accountability bill (HB 7069) reduced the number of mandatory statewide EOCs to just six: Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II, Biology I, U.S. History, and Civics.

It also eliminated the requirement that districts create districtwide EOCs for all courses, but retained the requirement that all standards taught in all courses must be assessed.

And whatever alternative measures of assessment are chosen, the use of EOCs for the purposes referred to above was also retained, including the requirement that the six remaining statewide EOCs count for 30 percent of a student’s final course grade.

Districts across Florida are approaching these changes in different ways.

In Collier County, the Superintendent decided to continue using districtwide EOCs because they enable the district to:

  • consistently assess student mastery of the standards for the course, regardless of the school or classroom in which the student takes the course, and
  • provide a consistently-assessed student growth metric for use in teacher/administrator evaluations.

On the other hand, according to the Naples Daily News (behind firewall):

In Miami-Dade, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said the school district would dump over 300 district-created exams, and only keep a handful of exams. In Lee, Superintendent Nancy Graham gave teachers freedom to choose their own year-end tests, encouraging them to choose tests “that will most effectively assess student learning and inform classroom instruction.”

I support Superintendent Patton’s decision. While getting rid of districtwide tests may be popular with the local-control crowd, how can the district assess student learning and teacher effectiveness across the district without a uniform assessment tool? When asked how teacher evaluations would be calculated, Lee Superintendent Graham said teachers who choose their own tests, as opposed to the district’s exam, will be evaluated individually. Whatever that means!

Parents ROCK, the community group formed by School Board member Erika Donalds, had this to say in an April 30 Facebook post:

Collier County School Superintendent Kamela Patton says that the district will not drop any end of course assessments, even though the state now allows school districts to eliminate those EOC’s that were created by the district, tests that many counties have already eliminated. Is this a good decision? Is this a decision for the superintendent or should it be up to the school board?

My bet is that Board members Donalds and Kelly Lichter think it was not only the wrong decision, but that it was not the Superintendent’s decision to make.

According to a News-Press article shared by Parents ROCK in another Facebook post: the Lee County School Board took the Superintendent’s decision to eliminate districtwide EOCs even further, voting to NOT use the still-required statewide EOCs in determining student grades. In other words, they directed the Superintendent to violate state law. This act is reminiscent of the Lee Board’s vote last August to opt out of all state testing, a decision they subsequently reversed.

The Parents ROCK post asked, “Should Collier County do the same?”

My sympathies go out to Lee School Board attorney Keith Martin, “who advised that the motion appeared to be at odds with the state,” and Lee Superintendent Graham, who said, “I think we may be in the same conundrum as last August and the possible ramifications…. We are at risk as a district.”

No doubt Parents ROCK and its followers think the Lee County School Board has it right, and Superintendent Patton has it wrong.

Parents ROCK has invited its members to attend Tuesday’s School Board meeting. As of this writing, 19 have said they are going, including some of the usual frequent speakers, and one who posted:
A number of us will be meeting outside the admin building at 4:30pm to offer prayer for our board members, teachers/administrators and students. Come early and add your prayers to ours.

Based on these Parents ROCK Facebook posts, and what we’ve seen in the past, I expect these matters to be the subject of public speaker comments critical of Dr. Patton at the May 12 School Board meeting, and that Ms. Donalds and Ms. Lichter will want to follow the lead of the Lee County Board.

I am troubled by all of this, and I hope you are, too.

I am appalled by the Lee County School Board’s directive that the Superintendent break the law. I do not condone anyone taking the law into one’s own hands - especially not elected officials, who should serve as role models. What kind of example does this set for our young people?

And I am disturbed by the plan for their supporters to gather outside the District Administration Building to pray. Praying does not belong there. It is nothing more than a stunt to gain media attention.

If you share my concern, come to Tuesday’s School Board meeting and urge School Board members to support our Superintendent and not to take any action that violates the law and puts our District at risk.

Public comments start at 5:30PM and you MUST sign up beforehand. You can sign up on line 5 hours prior to at, or in person at the meeting.

What: Collier County School Board Meeting
When: Tuesday, May 12; business meeting begins at 5:30PM
Where: District Administration Building (get directions)

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Friday, May 1, 2015

Last week's School Board session: observations

The Collier County School District (CCPS) is doing a great job of recruiting and retaining teachers, but is also aware of and working on areas that can be done even better.

These are my key take-aways from the excellent presentation by Deborah A. Terry, CCPS Assistant Superintendent, Human Resources, and Ian Dean, CCPS Executive Director, Human Resources, at the April 21 School Board Work Session on teacher recruitment and retention:

Teacher Recruitment
  • CCPS’s 9.1% teacher turnover rate is significantly below the 13% national average.
  • 278 teachers, on average, must be hired each year.
  • Recruiting is done both within and outside Florida.
  • “Grow our own” efforts make current CCPS students aware of career opportunities in the District.
  • Efforts are made to increase employee diversity to mirror student demographics as recommended in the last accreditation review, but challenges are great and more remains to be done.
  • Recent state laws (e.g. tying teacher evaluations to test results; eliminating professional service contracts (“tenure”); new state assessments) have increased recruitment challenges.
  • CCPS has the fourth-highest starting-teacher salary in Florida ($40,400), employer-paid health insurance (though not family members), and opportunities for supplemental pay and professional development. Compensation competitiveness vs. other states was not addressed. 

The success of CCPS’s recruitment efforts is demonstrated by its five-year average of just 6.4 vacancies out of 44, 410 instructional positions (0.014%) on the first student day. By comparison, Lee County’s average first-student-day vacancy rate (0.038%) is almost three times higher; Brevard County’s (0.138%) is ten times higher.

Teacher Retention
Retention strategies focused on keeping teachers in the District include:
  • “class of XX” groups to help teachers entering CCPS each year to connect with other teachers and the community
  • mentorship programs
  • recognition programs

Retention strategies focused on keeping teachers in the same school within the District include:
  • school leader evaluations tied to measures of school climate and the extent of shared decision-making

Several teachers addressed the Board during the public comment portion of the meeting. These are some of the concerns they expressed:
  • A need for more diversity, to “make the teacher group more representative of the students.”
  • The particular challenges faced by teachers in Immokalee, including a lack of quality child care and “constant” principal rotation.
  • A desire to be “validated as professionals, to know what they think and do is important.”
  • The insecurity and fear caused by annual contracts, putting teachers “at risk of not being renewed at the end of every year.”
  • A request to “focus on retention as much as recruitment…. Bring back programs [like tuition reimbursement and professional service contracts] that invest in teachers, and trust us to be the professionals that we are in the classroom - who do not need to be micromanaged.”

As informative and, in some cases, impassioned as the comments from teachers were, I was most moved by the remarks of the last speaker, who referred to herself simply as “a citizen.” I transcribed her comments from the online recording and include them here:
As you know…, the most cited reason for teacher turnover is work conditions, and the main reason teachers are dissatisfied with their work conditions is because they do not have a voice or input in the key decisions. Under the current operating conditions of this Board, that point is only magnified by what has been occurring at recent meetings: a School Board that cannot work together because two members in particular obstruct and challenge policies and motions, which compromises operational efficiency and paves the way for removal of accreditation.

Case in point: at the April 14th School Board meeting, public comments were delayed for almost 30 minutes because they were discussing policy changes to [the Public Comments policy] when those changes had already been decided at the previous School Board meeting. And yet, their priority is the students.

A School Board member in less than 30 minutes at that same April 14 School Board meeting brought up the word “lawsuit” six times in an effort to intimidate those who may oppose her. Other speakers jumped on the bandwagon so by the end of this one meeting the word “lawsuit” was used 11 times…. And yet, their priority is the students.

The same … community members … who stand behind this podium and twist bible quotes to frighten opponents in some holy war they perceive is playing out at a secular public School Board meeting, demanding less teacher input by calling for more censorship of curriculum, textbooks, and removing “filth” from classrooms … and having “naughty” teachers fired…. Yet, their priority is the students.

The local newspaper enables these bullies by assisting them in publicly condemning these teachers. (By the way, the second most cited reason for leaving the profession is teacher-bashing in the press.) Yet, their priority is the students.

What voice or input does a teacher have in this type of environment?

To recruit and retain teachers, become a model School Board that works together to earn and maintain credibility through accreditation. Work for student advancement, not for political agendas. Keep zealots out of textbooks, curriculum and the classroom. Work to support our teachers and better our schools, rather than humiliate and denigrate them.

By the way, the number one reason that teachers become teachers? They want to make a positive difference in the life of their students. And most of them do.

I am glad to know that community members and teachers are paying attention to what’s happening in our District and at School Board meetings. Their votes will be important next year, when two Board seats will be up for election.

At the same time, I am saddened to think that teachers, school leaders, District staff and our superintendent have to endure the environment so well-described by the last speaker.

It makes me appreciate them that much more.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Teacher Recruitment and Retention Topic of Tuesday’s Special School Board Work Session

Research shows that teachers have the greatest impact on student achievement, more than any other factor controlled by school systems, including class size or the school a student attends.”

So begins the Collier County School District’s presentation for Tuesday’s School Board Work Session on Teacher Recruitment and Retention.

They’re doing something right: the District’s overall teacher retention rate is higher than the national average!

What are they doing to hire the best, and retain them?

What recruitment and retention challenges do they face, and how are they addressing them?

If you want the answers to these questions, this School Board Work Session is for you.

The meeting is on Tuesday, April, 21, at 5:30 PM at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Administrative Center, 5775 Osceola Trail, Naples. Agenda here.

The presentation and Board discussion will be preceded by public comments.

Attend in person, watch live on Cable 99 or on the District website, or watch on-demand at your leisure.

This promises to be a great opportunity to learn about how our District works.

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Sunday, April 19, 2015

Last week’s School Board meeting: observations

I titled my last post “Important matters to be decided at Tuesday’s School Board meeting.

Having now attended the meeting, I’d have called it something different.

Yes, important decisions were reached. But as has been the case since November, comments by Board members Erika Donalds and Kelly Lichter and by members of the public were the highlights of the meeting, which didn’t end until 11 PM.

The drama began about five minutes into the business meeting, before what’s usually a perfunctory approval of the Superintendent’s proposed changes to the agenda. Despite publication of New Public Comment Procedures For School Board Meetings stating that all comments from the public would be heard before the Board discussion of business agenda items, Donalds said that consensus on those procedures had not been reached. She wanted to bring the matter back for discussion. Lichter agreed.

Lichter, and later, members of the public, suggested the possibility of a(nother) lawsuit if the public wasn’t permitted to comment on each agenda item right before (or possibly even after) it was discussed by the Board, not just at the beginning of the meeting.

Ultimately, after a 20 minute debate on the matter, the changes sought by Donalds and Lichter were defeated by a 3–2 vote. The new public comment procedures will remain in place – at least for now.

Then came public comments. Some of the topics addressed to the Board were:

  • objection to a section in a U.S. History eighth grade text book,
  • opposition to an online assignment given to a student,
  • objection to a public compilation of speakers at School Board meetings,
  • a statement that the Morgan & Morgan law firm is setting up an Education practice area and “looking for opportunities,” presumably to sue School Boards or Districts on behalf of parents

In addition, several members of the public spoke in support of Board or District policies.

It wasn’t until about 8:15 PM, 3–1/4 hours after the meeting began, that the Board took up the important matters I outlined in my last post.

Here’s my take on what happened regarding those items; minutes won’t be available until next month:

  • Board Bylaws 0160 - Meetings: approved 3–2 (Donalds and Lichtor opposed)
  • Policy 2240 - Controversial Issues: approved unanimously
  • Policy 5830 - Student Fundraising: approved unanimously with non-substantive changes
  • Board Bylaws 1010 - Board-Superintendent Relationship - will come back for a first read with changes at the May meeting
  • Charter School Fees - approved 3–2 (Donalds and Lichter opposed). Donalds and Lichter did not recuse themselves; District counsel said there was no conflict of interest because neither benefited financially from her involvement with Mason Classical Academy. See Naples Daily News story “Collier School Board will continue collecting maximum fee from charters,” behind pay wall.

Thursday’s Naples Daily News editorial, behind pay wall, said “there was progress in the 3–2 split board’s interaction, even if its typical polarized votes didn’t change.” However, it commented on “board members talking over one another” and called out a particularly inappropriate comment by Kelly Lichter:

Lichter’s ending comments were directed at her supporters: “2016 is around the corner” and “it’s going to get fixed.” That apparent reference to the next election when two board seats are up is the type of public affront to other members that wasn’t in the spirit of the consultant’s guidance to board members to try to work together.

I’d say the Naples Daily News was being overly kind.

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