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Takeaways from Tallahassee — Closing the (grade) book

The Florida Department of Education has closed the grade book on the 2018-19 school year, and a lot of schools are happy with their report card.

DOE evaluations show 36 percent of Florida schools earned an “A” grade for the year, up from 31 percent in 2017-18.

Many of the state’s lowest-scoring schools saw significant improvement as well — three-quarters of “D” and “F” institutions netted up at least one letter grade.

Both Ron DeSantis and Richard Corcoran have high praise for the Florida Department of Education school grade book for 2018-2019.

In sum, there are more “A” and “B” schools and fewer “C,” “D,” and “F” ones. And at the district level, 54 of Florida’s 67 county school districts earned an “A” or a “B.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis said the data “shows we are on a successful trajectory.” Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran also extolled the evals, calling them “spectacular news.”

There are a couple of other stats the ardent school choice advocate is probably giddy about, too — half of the charter schools aced their evaluation, and nearly three-quarters earned a “B” or higher.

The letter grades are based on several measurements.

For English and math, the state uses standardized test scores and students’ year-over-year improvement on them. For high schools, things like graduation rates and AP test scores are added.

The system has supporters and detractors.

To the state’s largest teacher union, the Florida Education Association, the grading system helps mask the correlation between poverty and poor education outcomes, and can even make the problem worse.

“School grades are part of a broken accountability system that has labeled and segregated communities for two decades,” said Florida Education Association President Fedrick Ingram.

“Lawmakers continue to break the system with bad policies, defund our school systems, and push educators away from our classrooms.”

To pro-school choice group Foundation for Florida’s Future, however, the letter grades help parents know whether their kid’s school is any good without combing through a spreadsheet.

“With a single letter grade that reflects these fundamentals, families can genuinely celebrate their school’s success or call on school and district leaders when improvements are needed,” Executive Director Patricia Levesque said.

“Having the knowledge about whether their child’s school is meeting the needs of its students gives parents — and communities — the power they need to ask questions and help drive academic improvement.”

Coming up, the usual assortment of tidbits, leftovers and not-ready-for-prime-time moments by Peter Schorsch, Drew Wilson and the staff of Florida Politics.

But first, the “Takeaway 5” — the Top 5 stories from the week that was:

Take 5

Jimmy Patronis wants bank regulator fired — Chief Financial Officer Patronis asked for the Governor and Florida Cabinet to fire suspended Office of Financial Regulation Commissioner Ronald Rubin. And he wants it done at the next Cabinet meeting July 25. “Rubin and his associates have publicly disparaged victims,” wrote Robert Tornillo, Patronis’ Director of Cabinet Affairs, in a memo released to news media. One sticking point: There is no final report yet, and no established time frame for its completion.

FSU to assess bills’ racial impacts — Academics and activists long raised concerns laws disproportionately affect minorities. Now the state Senate will ask how and how much. In an arrangement embraced by Senate President Bill Galvano, Democratic Sen. Randolph Bracy announced a deal had been struck to have Florida State University scientists assess “racial and ethnic” ramifications of critical criminal justice bills. Assessments will be provided along with the usual fiscal and legal analysis by Senate staff.

FDOT to break from SunPass contractor — Florida will pull the plug early on its contract with SunPass vendor Conduent, but it will take several years to find a replacement and transfer away all toll operations. Gov. DeSantis and FDOT Secretary Kevin Thibault increased total fines on Conduent to $8.3 million, but that represents just 2 percent of the company’s full contract, which has risen to $358 million. An FDOT spokesperson said the agency has no way to determine what percentage of outstanding bills are getting paid until reconciliation is done at the end of the fiscal year.

Court finds marijuana law unconstitutional — Florida’s law requiring pot operators to grow, process and distribute cannabis created an “oligopoly” and ran afoul of a constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana in the Sunshine State, the 1st District Court of Appeal ruled. The decision sent shock waves through the industry, where licenses routinely sell for upward of $50 million. The ruling upheld in part a decision issued by Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson.

Regulators float new hospital rules — Tallahassee health care regulators started the layered process of reshaping the state’s certificate of need program, moving ahead to focus it on nursing homes, hospices and institutions for individuals with developmental disabilities. The proposed changes to CON rules are the beginning of a two-step process for Florida hospitals, as the Agency for Health Care Administration simultaneously moves to change licensure requirements for hospitals. The Legislature this year eliminated certificate of need program requirements for general acute care hospitals and tertiary services.

Governor wants to ‘keep Florida fishing’

The Sunshine State is known as the “Fishing Capital of the World,” and DeSantis wants to keep it that way.

Now, July is officially “Keep Florida Fishing Month.”

DeSantis made the announcement alongside Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein, Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg, Captains for Clean Water Executive Director Daniel Andrews, American Sportfishing Association President Glenn Hughes and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Executive Director Eric Sutton.

Ron DeSantis is proclaiming July as ‘Keep Florida Fishing Month.’

“Our state’s more than 4 million anglers account for approximately 106,000 jobs and annually contribute $11.5 billion in economic activity and $56.7 million in conservation efforts,” DeSantis said.

“By proclaiming July as Keep Florida Fishing Month, it is my hope that we are showing the next generation of anglers the importance of protecting our state’s most precious natural resource.”

Gary Jennings, the director of Keep Florida Fishing, praised the designation.

“Gov. DeSantis is a champion for Florida’s fishing community, and under his leadership has dedicated historic funding for the state’s environment,” he said. “Through this commitment, he is ensuring Florida remains an attractive destination for anglers year-round.”

Top cop names top SRO

After sifting through a pile of nominations, Attorney General Ashley Moody and the Florida Association of School Resource Officers named Cullen Coraine the 2019 School Resource Officer of the Year.

Coraine, an Okaloosa County Sheriff’s deputy, works out of Liza Jackson Preparatory School. He’s developed several programs during his time as an SRO, including a “Junior Deputy Program” focused on teaching and encouraging positive character traits.

Okaloosa County Sheriff Deputy Cullen Coraine is honored as School Resource Officer of the Year.

“I want to congratulate Deputy Coraine on receiving this award for his outstanding work as School Resource Officer in Okaloosa County. His dedication and commitment to protecting children in his community sets a shining example of the great work school resource officers, and all law enforcement do every day in Florida,” Moody said.

In addition to Coraine, Moody recognized seven others who earned the designation of school resource officer practitioners after completing a rigorous training program: Sergeant Michael Carver, Polk County Sheriff’s Office; Deputy Joseph Clanton, Polk County Sheriff’s Office; Deputy Rafael Fuentes, St. John’s County Sheriff’s Office; Deputy Debbie Galutz, Seminole County Sheriff’s Office: Deputy Daniel Gibson, Hardee County Sheriff’s Office; Deputy John Marlon, Polk County Sheriff’s Office; and Officer John Rodgers, Melbourne Police Department.

CFO says insurers should ‘step up’

It’s been nine months since Hurricane Michael made landfall in Northwest Florida, and there’s still a bundle of open insurance claims.

CFO Patronis, whose hometown of Panama City was among the hardest hit, said those carriers need to pay those claims ASAP.

Jimmy Patronis, whose hometown of Panama City was among the hardest hit, says insurance carriers need to pay Hurricane Michael claims ASAP.

“While we’ve made great strides in recovery, there is still so much more work to be done,” he said. “There are currently more than 21,000 open insurance claims related to this storm, and I’m continuing to call on insurance companies to step up for their policyholders and work to close out these remaining claims immediately.

“Claim delays only open the door for fraud and costly litigation that hampers storm recovery.”

Since Michael hit, the department has helped recover $23.7 million on behalf of policyholders. Those who’re still running into trouble with their claims can dial up the Insurance Consumer Helpline at 1-877-MY-FL-CFO to get some free help.

“We must work together in every way we can to continue to rebuild the Panhandle and make these people and businesses whole again,” he said.

Instagram of the Week

The week in appointments

Enterprise Florida Board of Directors — DeSantis announced the appointment of Katherine San Pedro and the reappointment of Jesse Biter. San Pedro, of Miami, is a partner at Ballard Partners and has extensive public relations and legislative experience. She is appointed to a four-year term. Biter, of Sarasota, is the President and CEO of Biter Enterprises, a real estate development company. He has been a member of the Enterprise Florida Board of Directors since 2014. Biter’s reappointment is for a four-year term. The appointments are subject to confirmation by the state Senate.

Miami Dade College District Board of Trustees — DeSantis also appointed Nicole Washington to the college’s District Board of Trustees. Washington, of Miami Beach, is the founder of education consulting firm Washington Strategies and is also a current member of the FAMU Board of Trustees and a former member of the 2017-18 Constitution Revision Commission. Washington earned her bachelor’s degree from Princeton University, and holds a master’s degree in elementary education from Mercy College and another in international and comparative education from Columbia University. Her term runs through 2023.

Governor’s Mansion Commission — DeSantis this week announced the appointments of Linda Stoch and Danielle Payne to the Governor’s Mansion Commission. Stoch, of Palm Beach Gardens, is a retired business owner of ‘Innovative Interiors by Linda.’ Her appointment is for the remaining four years of a term. Payne, of Winter Park, is an executive board member of Metro Corral Partners and is also appointed for the remaining four years of a term. The appointments are subject to confirmation by the state Senate.

Construction Industry Licensing Board — DeSantis announced the appointment of Mario Famada and the reappointment of Donald Cesarone Jr. Famada, of Miami, is the owner of City Roofing and Construction and founder of Raise the Roof, a nonprofit organization that provides free roofs for families in need in Miami-Dade County. He’s appointed to a four-year term. Cesarone, of Sunrise, is vice president of the commercial division for Van Kirk and Sons, a luxury pool contractor in Palm Beach County. He’s reappointed to a four-year term. The appointments are subject to confirmation by the state Senate.

Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission — Senate President Bill Galvano appointed Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, a Fort Myers Republican, and Sen. Linda Stewart, an Orlando Democrat, to the commission. It aims to “expand the understanding and appreciation of women’s suffrage as well as the challenges women of different backgrounds and ethnicities faced following the passage and ratification” of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The 19-member commission was established during the 2019 Legislative Session to ensure a statewide observance of the 100th anniversary (in 2020) of women gaining the right to vote.

Florida Children and Youth Cabinet — House Speaker Jose Oliva tapped state Rep. Patricia Williams to on the Florida Children and Youth Cabinet. Oliva made the announcement Wednesday, saying the Pompano Beach Democrat is “uniquely positioned to contribute to the Cabinet’s efforts to ensure all children in Florida grow up safe, healthy, educated and prepared to become future leaders.” Williams, the former director of an early learning center and longtime Guardian ad Litem volunteer, was elected to the House in 2016.

First Lady stresses summer safety

Whether you’re dipping your toes in the water or getting the surfboard out of storage, First Lady Casey DeSantis says water should be a top priority.

“Our great state is known for its beautiful summer weather and abundance of natural waters — a place for families to make lasting memories,” she said.

First Lady Casey DeSantis wants Floridians to stay safe while having summer fun.

“As a mother of two active young children, I know how critical it is to take the necessary safety precautions during the summer months. Active supervision, swim lessons, and safeguards for your home and vehicle are proven steps to ensure the safety of our children.”

The Sunshine State leads the nation in drownings and near-drownings, but a few precautions could change that statistic for the better.

The most crucial safety measure: Never take your eyes off children playing in the water. For younger kids, barriers and pool alarms can be helpful too.

It’s also important to know your limits before getting in the water — if swimming isn’t your strong suit, sign up for some lessons before diving in headfirst. And if something happens, having CPR training and a cellphone nearby could be the difference between drowning or near-drowning.

Election security upgrades on the way

The Florida Department of State doled out more than $2.3 million to county supervisors of elections to enhance election security.

The cash was redistributed from a pot of unspent election security money. The wave of grants is in addition to $2.8 million for election security that the Florida Legislature approved in the 2019-20 budget.

“I want to thank Gov. Ron DeSantis for supporting the redistribution of the $2.3 million in funds to Supervisors of Elections for election security,” said DOS Secretary Laurel Lee.

“I commend Supervisors of Elections for working quickly to submit their grant applications so that the Department could approve the funding in a very short time frame.”

Lee said all 55 counties that asked for a slice of the funds had their requests approved. The grants ranged from $524,838 for Orange County to just $229 for Hendry County.

DOE antes up for safe schools tool

The Department of Education is putting seven figures on the table to overhaul the system used to identify safety threats at Florida schools.

Haystax Technology will handle the revisions to the Florida Safe Schools Assessment Tool and will receive about $1.3 million for their efforts, which include maintaining the system for the next three years.

The Virginia-based company will add tracking for a school’s preparedness plans and security capabilities to the system.

While the tool has been in place since 2013, the school safety package passed by lawmakers after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School requires it to be updated.

All of Florida’s public schools — including colleges, universities and charters — are required to use the tool.

State snags more springs

The Department of Environmental Protection this week bought Hardee Springs, a 316-acre property within the First Magnitude Springs Project.

 “With the thoughtful stewardship of the Hardee family, who has owned the parcel since the 1930s, the tract has remained in a largely natural state and is a perfect complement to Twin Rivers State Forest,” said DEP Division of State Lands Director Callie DeHaven.

Callie DeHaven, director of DEP’s Division of State Lands, is applauding a new acquisition of spring lands.

The Hardee property adds 1.5 miles of Withlacoochee River frontage to the state’s portfolio of parcels, and the Florida Forest Services says that’ll help protect the aquifer while giving residents another spring to enjoy.

“The acquisition of the Hardee Springs Tract will forever protect a significant spring system while adding public recreational opportunities in Twin Rivers State Forest,” said State Forester and Director of the Florida Forest Service Jim Karels.

The acquisition was facilitated by Florida Forever, the state’s land-buying trust fund.

Florida’s springs are the source of 90 percent of Florida drinking water, and the First Magnitude Springs Project is the top priority within Florida Forever’s Regional Incentives project category.

FWC debuts new decals

Those looking to spruce up their car bumpers might find what they’re looking for at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The commission this week unveiled fresh designs for its manatee and sea turtle decals. The stickers are waterproof, FWC said so that the aquatic animal decals can hang on to the side of a boat as well as the back of a car.

The FWC 2019 Sea Turtle Decal.

It takes a $5 donation to snag the stickers, and the money helps boost conservation efforts for the threatened species.

“When someone purchases a manatee or sea turtle decal and displays it, they’re not only contributing financially to conservation,” said Carol Knox, who leads the FWC’s Imperiled Species Management Section. “They’re raising awareness about these species and specific issues they face. It’s a simple way to make a difference for Florida wildlife.”

More than 6,000 manatees swim in the state’s coastal waters, rivers and springs. About 20,000 sea turtles make their nests on Florida’s beaches each year.

Volunteer Florida ready to cut checks

Volunteer Florida has $395,000 in its Volunteer Generation Fund, all it needs is some nonprofits to apply.

 “As Florida’s lead agency for volunteerism, we are proud to announce this grant funding that will strengthen the operations of many nonprofit organizations across our state,” said Volunteer Florida CEO Clay Ingram.

“Florida receives the second highest amount of VGF grant funding in the nation, which is a true testament to the impact our subgrantees have had over the past eight years of the program’s history.”

The grant funds, provided by the federal Corporation for National and Community Service, are aimed at helping nonprofits recruit and retain skills-based volunteers.

Organizations that have been around a few years can get up to $20,000 from the fund, while new ones are eligible for $15,000. In either case, nonprofits will need to match those funds with donations.

Volunteer Florida said it’ll give special consideration to organizations involved in disaster services or those centered on combating prescription drug and opioid abuse.

In addition to a check, Volunteer Florida said grantees would receive additional training and administrative support associated through the VGF program.

SunPass saga to Senate?

The Florida Department of Transportation said it would cut ties with Conduent, the vendor behind the SunPass system’s 2018 meltdown and ongoing troubles.

Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Miami Democrat, praised FDOT Secretary Thibault for making the call, but she says Florida deserves answers about what went wrong.

Annette Taddeo is looking for answers to the SunPass saga.

“The problems caused by Conduent’s ongoing system failures were extensive — including contractual breaches, mismanagement, oversight issues, billing issues, customer data safety, among others,” she said.

“The magnitude of their multiple breakdowns cannot be ignored. In order to get to the bottom of these problems and ensure that the same mistakes are not made again, we have an obligation to hold hearings and investigate how things went so wrong.”

While FDOT won’t renew the Conduent contract, the company will still be administering SunPass — and getting paid by the state — through 2022. Taddeo said Senate hearings could shed light on FDOT’s oversight of the contract and what steps it took to solve problems as when they popped up.

“This contract has been plagued by problems from the beginning,” she said. “We need to fully understand how a company with such a dubious track record was selected in the first place, and why accountability for its terrible performance was not demanded sooner.

Bankers cheer wetland mitigation law

The Florida Association of Mitigation Bankers this week praised DeSantis for signing a bill adding new wetland mitigation options for development projects.

State and federal regulations balance the need for development with Florida’s ecosystem by requiring projects to avoid, minimize and then mitigate wetland impacts.

The Florida Association of Mitigation Bankers is praising Ron DeSantis for a bill adding new wetland mitigation options for development projects.

Before breaking ground on a new project, developers must earn mitigation credits by completing restoration projects. The credits aren’t doled out until the projects are deemed successful.

But in some cases, state and federal mitigation credits aren’t even available. Before HB 521 getting DeSantis’ signature, that would’ve been the end of the road.

Now, local governments will be allowed to authorize mitigation of conservation lands they have purchased and own if the developer provides financial assurances for the perpetual maintenance of the property.

“As Florida continues to grow and welcome more residents, we must ensure our state’s wetlands are appropriately conserved,” FAMB President Joe Sicbaldi said.

“That is why we are pleased that Gov. DeSantis signed HB 521 into law, which will help ensure that roads can be built promptly and that housing stays affordable, while most importantly protecting Florida’s precious natural resources at the same time.”

ALLinLEON racks up arrests

Law enforcement strike force ALLinLEON launched last month, and it’s already scratched some names off the most wanted list.

U.S. Attorney Lawrence Keefe said Friday that the team up between the U.S. Marshals and the Leon County Sheriff’s Office produced loads of arrests, including three last week in cases that involved weapons charges, kidnapping and car theft.

The ALLinLEON strike force has been racking up arrests on weapons, kidnapping and car theft charges.

The string started July 3, when U.S. Marshals nabbed a Georgia man wanted by the Thomasville Police Department. Torrieo Monte Johnson fled during a traffic stop last month, and police found two stolen rifles in his car. More weapons were seized when he was arrested.

On July 9, task force members brought in Etavious Janquis Milton, who police said fled from a traffic stop and stole a car with an elderly woman inside it, eventually abandoning the vehicle — and the woman — on the outskirts of Quincy.

The same day, ALLinLEON assisted the Tallahassee Police Department in detaining Jontavius Monroe, who was wanted for violating the pretrial release conditions. He had been awaiting trial for several gun crimes, including firing a gun in public.

ALLinLEON is aimed at cracking down on violent crime in Leon County. Other components of the initiative include engaging community volunteers to regularly take at-risk youth to places of worship and creating neighborhood crime watch programs.

FSU faculty ‘fanning out’

FSU professors have some big trips planned.

The university said this week that a set of faculty members would “fan out across the world during the 2019-2020 school year to teach and conduct research as part of opportunities funded by the U.S. Fulbright Scholar Program.”

The globe-trotters will touchdown in countries near and far, and one professor — Sharon Nicholson of the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science — will do a triple-header, spending a semester apiece in Namibia, France and Germany.

Globe-trotting FSU professor Dr. Sharon Nicholson (seated) will send a semester apiece in Namibia, France and Germany. Image via Twitter. 

FSU is well represented in the U.S. Fulbright Scholar Program. Of the 470 teaching and research opportunities offered by the program, FSU profs snagged seven.

The rest of the honorees: Nancy Everhart will head to China’s Beijing Normal University; J. Perry Howell is going to Japan’s Yokohama National University and Tokai University; Samantha Paustian-Underdahl will spend the spring at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands.

Ziad Musslimani is en route to the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands; Mary Stewart will trek north to the University of New Brunswick in Canada, and Andy Opel is on his way to the Climate Witness Project in Norway.

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