February 14, 2016

Miami lawmaker's ties to charter schools prompt lingering questions

@cveiga and @ByKristenMClark

A familiar face is back at the center of a perennial tug-of-war in the Florida Legislature between privately-managed charter schools and district-run public schools over taxpayer money for construction projects:

Erik Fresen, the Miami Republican who controls the purse for education funding in the Florida House. His connections to the charter school industry continue to raise questions about conflicts of interest.

He has fast-tracked a mid-session bill that would limit school district spending on capital needs. It would also force districts to share their construction tax money with charters.

Fresen is a $150,000-a-year land consultant for Civica, an architecture firm with a specialty in building charter schools. Many of those schools were built for Academica — which has been described as the largest charter school management company in Florida and which counts Fresen’s brother-in-law and sister as executives.

Fresen says he simply wants to hold districts accountable for the money they spend and ensure equitable funding for charter schools, which are classified as public schools.

“Nothing in this bill has anything to do with anything that I do for a living,” he said.

But Fresen, 39, is dogged by questions that his goal isn’t so well-intentioned.

More here.

February 12, 2016

Alan Grayson echoes conservatives, slams Patrick Murphy super PAC over donor with ties to visa program

@ByKristenMClark

U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, is attacking his Democratic opponent in Florida's U.S. Senate race over donations a pro-Patrick Murphy super PAC received from a wealthy donor who stands to benefit from legislation Murphy supported two years ago (but which he hasn't signed on to this session).

Grayson's swipe at the Jupiter congressman comes a day after Grayson himself took heat in the media when The New York Times delved deeper into Grayson's hedge fund management controversy, which the Tampa Bay Times has also reported on.

In a rarity, Grayson's attack on Murphy allies the progressive Democrat with a conservative super PAC, American Crossroads, which has been blasting Murphy on the same donor issue for weeks.

In its most recent campaign finance disclosure, "Floridians for a Strong Middle Class" -- which was established last spring to help Murphy's campaign for U.S. Senate -- reported a $50,000 donation from "230 East 63rd-6 Trust LLC" amid $500,000 in contributions it collected since July. (Murphy's father also donated $200,000 to the super PAC, records showed. Super PACs are not bound by contribution limits nor can they coordinate directly with the candidate.)

As the Herald/Times previously reported, Florida business registration filings show the trust company is an "inactive" business venture associated with Nicholas Mastroianni II. Mastroianni developed the $150 million Harbourside project in Murphy's home city of Jupiter in Palm Beach County. Mastroianni's son, Anthony, also gave $5,000 to the super PAC, the filing showed.

Fortune two years ago profiled Nicholas Mastroianni as someone who benefits from the EB-5 visa program, which the magazine said "essentially allows wealthy foreigners to buy U.S. citizenship by investing $500,000 in a project that creates U.S. jobs."

In 2014, Murphy was one of seven co-sponsors on a bill that would have made the EB-5 program permanent, but the bill died in committee. 

“The bills that Murphy sponsors appear to carry price tags,” Grayson spokesman David Damron said in the campaign statement today. “Patrick’s Daddy PAC should return these deceptive LLC donations. They have the look of someone trying to hide a pay to play scheme.”

It's unclear how Mastroianni's latest donations equate to "pay to play," though, because Murphy has not co-sponsored a similar measure introduced during this session of Congress.

The EB-5 visa program has been reauthorized for two decades, with bipartisan support. The permanent extension of it was also included in 2013 immigration reform legislation, which both Murphy and Grayson supported.

Grayson and Murphy are battling it out for the August Democratic primary in the race to replace Marco Rubio in the U.S. Senate.

Grayson has drawn passionate support from grassroots progressive donors, while Murphy has the backing of the party establishment. Murphy has so far out-fundraised not only Grayson but also each of the four major candidates in the Republican primary.

February 10, 2016

Senators skeptical proposed changes to after-school funding could be in place by July

@ByKristenMClark

State senators peppered education budget Chairman Sen. Don Gaetz with questions on and off for an hour Wednesday afternoon about the Niceville Republican's plan to change how after-school and mentoring programs are funded, as the chamber started deliberating its budget plan for 2016-17.

Gaetz's proposal involves pooling together existing program funding from the departments of Education and Juvenile Justice (which currently go to about a half-dozen or so designated organizations, like Big Brothers Big Sisters or Boys & Girls Clubs), adding more dollars to that pot and creating a $30 million competitive grant program.

Gaetz says it would make a more fair process, free of lobbying and politics, and open up the dollars to more non-profit organizations that provide aftercare services to Florida children. (More here.)

Republican Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and several Democratic senators scrutinized the details of Gaetz's proposal during discussion on the Senate floor -- voicing skepticism through their questions that the plan could be implemented for the next budget year, which starts July 1, without affecting a funding stream that programs rely on.

They suggested a couple months wasn't enough time to set up the new state-appointed board that would vet program providers and decide which got how much money.

"I think President Gaetz is on to something that’s a good thing, because it becomes more of a fairness issue and a ranking issue, but it’s in the implementation that we have to look at this a little more closely," Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, said.

Gaetz countered every criticizing question with a defense.

Continue reading "Senators skeptical proposed changes to after-school funding could be in place by July" »

Love and hate for Miami Sen. Diaz de la Portilla who hasn't taken up gun bills

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@ByKristenMClark

Senate Judiciary Chairman Miguel Diaz de la Portilla has received a lot of praise and a lot of fury, ever since the Miami Republican announced his decision last month that he wouldn't hear a bill allowing concealed weapons on the state's public college and university campuses.

It was the second-straight year that Diaz de la Portilla made that decision, so it wasn't an unforeseen outcome for the legislation, which is now all-but-dead despite easily passing the House last week.

Diaz de la Portilla has grown increasingly reluctant to take up a similar bill that would allow concealed-weapons permit-holders to openly carry -- which the senator said this week is "on life support."

He told the Herald/Times today that it won't be on next week's judiciary agenda, and the committee might hold only one more meeting after that.

He acknowledged he's been getting "hate mail" for not hearing either the open-carry or campus-carry bills, but he shrugs off the criticism.

"I don't feel any pressure at all," he said. "I'm going to make what I think is a good decision based on sound policy reasons and it's no different than any other issue."

That's not stopping gun-rights advocates -- who are livid -- from trying to turn up the heat and persuade him to change his mind, particularly on campus-carry.

"Senator Diaz de la Portilla has taken it upon himself to unilaterally decide the future of a bipartisan bill that the vast majority of legislative members support," Florida Students for Concealed Carry state director Bekah Hargrove said in a statement this week. "He has made a mockery of the American legislative branch and turned Florida’s legislative process into a one-man show, without respect for the safety of college students."

She added: "He should be removed from his office for ignoring his duty to put bills up for a vote." Download Open Letter

Both the student group and Florida Carry have accused Diaz de la Portilla of refusing to meet with Shayna Lopez-Rivas, a rape victim who has testified at every legislative hearing that was held. She has said that if she had had the ability as a student to carry a gun, she feels she wouldn't have been raped.

"He has refused repeated requests to meet with supporters of Pro-Second Amendment bills," Florida Carry said in an email blast today urging its 37,000 members to call on Diaz de la Portilla to take up both campus-carry and open-carry.

Meanwhile, groups that support gun-control regulations and keeping guns off college campuses are thanking Diaz de la Portilla for his "courage" in choosing not to take up the bills, which are priorities for the powerful National Rifle Association.

"I write to commend you for your courage and steadfast commitment to student safety," Dana Bolger, executive director for Know Your IX (a national campus sexual assault prevention organization), wrote in a letter to Diaz de la Portilla that was given to the Herald/Times. Download Know Your IX Letter to Senator Diaz de la Portilla (The same letter was also sent to Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando.)

"I can say with confidence that allowing students to carry concealed weapons on campuses would have dangerous and potentially fatal consequences for Florida students, particularly for women and other marginalized students," Bolger wrote. "Some proponents of HB 4001 and SB 68 have suggested that allowing students to carry guns will protect them from becoming victims of sexual assault. This could not be further from the truth."

February 09, 2016

Broad changes to school construction funding to go before Florida House budget committee

@ByKristenMClark

The House Appropriations Committee will take up legislation this afternoon that could significantly change how public schools use taxpayer money to fund construction projects, while making it easier for charter schools to get capital dollars.

The topic of school districts' construction spending has been a flash-point between education budget committee Chairman Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, and the state's superintendents' association during the past couple of weeks.

A proposed committee substitute version of HB 873 brings to fruition Fresen's promise to rein in what he and other House leaders have argued is a “disturbing pattern” of districts' “glaringly and grossly” exceeding a state-imposed cap on how much in state dollars they can spend on capital projects. About 30 percent of projects statewide during the last 10 years or so went over the cap, according to Fresen.

The substitute bill goes even farther, too, by addressing charter schools' capital needs and forcing districts to assist with funding them in addition to traditional schools.

Continue reading "Broad changes to school construction funding to go before Florida House budget committee" »

February 08, 2016

Capitol Buzz: Five things to watch today in Tallahassee

@ByKristenMClark

Welcome to Week 5 of the 2016 session. Wednesday marks the halfway point! Most lawmakers will be back in town by this afternoon for committee meetings, with a regular schedule of work resuming Tuesday.

Here are some items we're watching today.

* Should future legislative sessions starts in January? The House government operations budget committee will consider a bill to do that for not next year, but in 2018. If enacted, that would mean a full year between the end of this session and the start of the 2017 session next March, but then another short window between 2017 and 2018 sessions. The hearing starts at 3.

* A Senate committee will take up a nondiscrimination bill for LGBT Floridians. It's the first time the legislation has ever had a hearing. The Senate Judiciary Committee at 1:30 p.m. will consider the controversial bill, which would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state's civil rights protection laws, but it's already garnered opposition from social conservative and religious groups.

* Also before the Senate Judiciary Committee: a non-binding "memorial" urging Congress to repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, which is often referred to as the "wet foot, dry foot" policy. It's on the agenda but it could get postponed until Tuesday. The House version also is slated to be heard Tuesday.

* This afternoon, the Senate Criminal Justice will consider fixing Florida's death penalty in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that deemed its sentencing procedure unconstitutional. Unlike the House, the Senate is proposing to go all the way and require unanimous jury recommendations. The hearing begins at 4.

* Community leaders from the western part of Tampa Bay will spend the evening at the Capitol, with "Leadership Pinellas" hosting a reception on the 22nd floor.

February 05, 2016

Attention, parents: Sample score reports unveiled for 2016 statewide assessments

FSAScoreBreakdown_

@ByKristenMClark

State education officials are letting teachers and parents know what the new, redesigned score reports will look like for this year's Florida Standards Assessments, which students will take this spring.

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart first discussed the new score reports with the State Board of Education in early January, and her department rolled them out officially Friday afternoon so parents will know what to expect when they get their children's scores.

There's also a new website to help teachers, parents and students understand the information presented on the score reports.

“Our goal is to ensure Floridians have access to an education system that prepares all students for future success," Stewart said in a statement. "The standardized statewide assessments and the corresponding score reports are critical to achieving that goal because they provide students, parents and educators insight into what students have learned."

"By knowing how well students grasped the information they are expected to know in each grade level, these individuals can work together to make adjustments that will lead to greater success in the future," Stewart said.

Score reports for all statewide standardized assessments are distributed to parents and students through their school districts.

The new design was prompted by lengthy discussions among state board members and Stewart over terminology -- such as "satisfactory" or "proficient" -- and concerns that words are used interchangeably instead of what they actually mean in relation to students' scores.

The Education Department highlighted these new features of the report:

-- Color-coded levels (1-5), so it is apparent which level the student achieved at first glance;

-- clear explanation of what each level means, including the difference between “satisfactory” and “proficient,” with additional detail about the level that the student achieved;

-- comparison of the student’s performance to other students in their school, district and the state;

-- and, references to specific DOE websites that offer resources parents and students can use to increase preparation for the next grade/course. 

Image credit: Florida Department of Education

Florida superintendents, Rep. Erik Fresen spar over school construction costs

Fresen-0128

@ByKristenMClark

Earlier this week, Florida's superintendents sought to correct what they described as inaccurate and flawed information discussed by the Florida House Appropriations Committee a couple of weeks ago, and that response has now ignited a letter feud between the superintendents and the man who controls school funding in the Florida House.

In late January, the Appropriations Committee held a lengthy discussion -- led by House education budget chairman Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami -- about what Fresen and House leaders called a “disturbing pattern” of cost-overruns on public school construction projects paid for, at least in part, with state funding.

Because of those alleged abuses, Fresen said he's prepared to propose limits on how districts use the fixed-capital outlay dollars they get, as well as penalties, should they exceed spending caps. (More here on that meeting.)

The Florida Association of District School Superintendents responded with a two-page letter on Monday -- penned by president Barbara Jenkins, Orange County schools superintendent -- detailing why they felt Fresen's conclusions were "not sound" and didn't show the full picture of the circumstances schools face.

For one, they pointed out: "Many districts across the state have levied local referenda to meet the facilities needs of their communities because of limited capital funding from the state. These locally generated funds are meant to benefit the local community from which the funds were raised."  Download FADSS_Response

Fresen's data depicting cost over-runs didn't specifically include details on the source of funding or how much of it was state versus local dollars for the examples he cited.

Today, Fresen fired back and doubled down.

Continue reading "Florida superintendents, Rep. Erik Fresen spar over school construction costs" »

In historic move, Jorge Labarga to remain as Florida Supreme Court chief justice for second term

@ByKristenMClark

Jorge-Labarga-2015Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga continues to break historical records.

Two years ago, he became the first Hispanic person to lead the state's judicial system. On July 1, he'll begin his second term in that role -- becoming the first chief justice to succeed himself since the end of the Civil War and the first in four decades to serve more than one term.

The court announced this morning that the six other justices chose Labarga to serve for another two-year term as chief justice.

The Supreme Court has long followed a custom of rotating the chief justiceship to the next most senior member who has not yet held the post.

But in this case, Justice James E.C. Perry normally would have received the rotation in 2016, and he will be forced to retire due to age only a few months later. He chose not to stand for election, the court said.

As chief justice, Labarga leads the state's top bench and also serves as the administrative head of the state's judiciary.

“It is a privilege to serve the people of Florida,” Labarga said in a statement. “My second term will continue the work started during the first -– especially the efforts of the Access to Civil Justice Commission and implementation of both our new long-range plan and the first comprehensive statewide communications plan developed for the state courts system.”

Labarga, 63, was the second Cuban-American appointed to Florida’s high court. He came to Florida at 11 years old after the Cuban revolution. He graduated high school in West Palm Beach and then went to the University of Florida, where he earned his undergraduate and law degrees. Before becoming a Supreme Court justice seven years ago, he was a trial judge in Palm Beach County.

The court said the last chief justice to succeed himself was Charles H. Dupont, who was elected in 1860, served during the Civil War and then succeed himself in 1865.

Labarga also will become the first person to serve more than a single term as chief justice since the late Justice B.K. Roberts. He held the post for three non-consecutive terms, the last of which was in the early 1970s, the court said.

February 04, 2016

Florida House member from Aventura 'mortified' by 'mistake' on campus-carry vote

HousePhotoOriginal5887

@ByKristenMClark

CaptureRep. Joseph Geller, D-Aventura, says he's "mortified" and "very embarrassed" today by what he calls an honest mistake Wednesday night.

As the House was called to vote on a controversial measure to allow concealed handguns on Florida's public college and university campuses, Geller said he pressed the wrong button -- not only for himself, but for his seatmate, Rep. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando.

That's why the two Democrats came in as "yes" votes in the 80-37 result, which passed the bill out of the chamber. (The only Democrat to intentionally vote for it was Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, who co-sponsored the bill.)

"It was absolutely a mistake. I just hit the wrong button and they locked the machine too quickly for me to fix it," Geller told the Herald/Times.

The voting board was open for nine seconds, during which time members could cast their votes.

During House floor speeches earlier in the night -- and the night before when amendments were considered -- Geller had railed against allowing guns on campuses, so his "yes" vote raised a few eyebrows.

He and Bracy changed their votes to "no" within about five minutes of the vote, which is reflected in the House record but not in the vote tally itself.

Geller said that Bracy was on the other side of the House chamber -- talking to another representative about a different bill -- when the voting happened, so Geller pushed Bracy's button for him, as they had agreed to.

The practice, though frowned upon, is allowed under House rules, so long as the member is in the chamber when another votes for him and as long as that other member does so on the member's "specific request and direction."

Geller said he normally double-checks the board, but was briefly distracted by someone who came up to speak with him.

And then it was too late.

He said he's gotten calls from constituents today about his recorded vote, and he's kicking himself for what happened.

"I own it; I own the mistake," he said. "I'm sorry for it. I regret it. I'm mortified by it."

Photo credit: Rep. Joseph Geller, D-Aventura, speaks on the House floor during the 2015 session. (Florida House) // The Florida Channel