December 03, 2015

Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart has breast cancer



Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart has been diagnosed with breast cancer, her office announced Thursday.

Stewart will continue working while she undergoes treatment, which is expected to "require minimal time out of the office," said Meghan Collins, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.

"She wants to emphasize that while her prognosis is positive, her diagnosis is the result of a self-examination and to remind Floridians to be diligent in their health care," Collins said.

Stewart has been the state's education commissioner since 2013.

Collins' full statement:

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart has been diagnosed with breast cancer. She has worked extensively with her health care providers and she has been assured that treatment will require minimal time out of the office and, therefore, she intends to continue fulfilling her duties as usual. She wants to emphasize that while her prognosis is positive, her diagnosis is the result of a self-examination and to remind Floridians to be diligent in their health care. We will provide updates over the coming months, but hope that you will respect her privacy as it relates to this matter.

Photo credit: The Florida Channel

Florida senators support, scrutinize plan to offer computer coding as foreign language


A controversial plan from a Broward County Democrat to require high schools to offer computer coding courses and let students count them toward foreign language requirements was heralded Thursday as "novel," "innovative" and "forward-thinking" -- but some members of the Florida Senate also have major concerns that it would place a costly mandate on school districts that have strapped digital resources as it is.

Despite the myriad unknown expenses that would come with implementing the proposal, Senate Bill 468 -- by Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate -- earned favor from the Senate Pre-K-12 Education Committee on Thursday by an 8-2 vote.

Fellow South Florida Democrats Dwight Bullard, of Cutler Bay, and Jeff Clemens, of Lake Worth, voted against it.

Bullard cited the "severe unintended consequences" the legislation poses, similar to when lawmakers endorsed computer-based testing but schools lacked the capabilities and ran into problems, such as last spring's debut of the Florida Standards Assessments.

"It sings of the same problems we faced back then," Bullard said, also raising concerns that the plan could further disadvantage minority students and those who live in poorer districts, which already can't afford decent computer classrooms.

Ring spent most of Thursday's hearing on the defense, trying to correct what he said was a general misunderstanding about what the bill would do. He repeatedly emphasized computer coding as another "option" for students, "not a requirement."

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December 02, 2015

Computer coding could count as foreign language for high-schoolers

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A Broward County Democrat wants to let high school students take computer coding courses in lieu of traditional foreign language classes necessary for graduation.

The proposed law from Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, would also require high schools to offer computer coding courses of "sufficient rigor" so students can exercise this alternative.

Another change: Students pursuing a Florida Bright Futures Scholarship would have to earn at least two credits in computer coding in order to be eligible to apply.

Senate Bill 468 gets its first hearing Thursday morning before the Senate Education Pre-K-12 Committee.

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, has filed an amendment that would require state colleges and public universities in Florida to honor the computer coding classes as foreign language credits.

There is no House companion yet, a necessity for the proposal to have a chance at becoming law.

If it's enacted, school districts would have until January 2017 to develop a curriculum plan.

Image credit: Reuters

Florida lawmakers want to improve teacher training to aid struggling readers



A proposal moving in the Florida House would require better training for teachers and district and school administrators in order to help students improve their reading skills, especially during their elementary school years.

House Bill 7021 -- the product of the House K-12 Subcommittee, led by Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach -- would include $345,000 in state funding to the Florida Department of Education to help the Just Read, Florida! Office implement the mandates of the legislation.

Among the bill's requirements, the state must:

-- train "highly effective" reading coaches

-- train K-12 teachers and principals on "effective content-area-specific reading strategies"

-- provide technical assistance to help school districts develop and implement plans "for use of research-based reading instruction"

-- develop a handbook to assist parents whose children have difficulty reading

-- periodically review state standards for reading at all grade levels

Florida law already requires school districts to identify and help struggling readers, but the bill lawmakers are considering for 2016 builds on that by creating a more rigorous framework to ensure teachers are better trained to recognize a struggling reader and help them early on in their elementary school years.

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December 01, 2015

Florida lawmakers urge consideration of enhanced penalties for texting-while-driving



A bipartisan push to crack down on texting-while-driving by making it a “primary” offense in Florida is back for the 2016 session, and along with it comes a stern message for Republican legislative leaders: Let the bills be heard.

Efforts in the 2015 session to enhance enforcement of texting-while-driving stalled, with bills in both chambers failing to make it to the floors for up-or-down votes.

Legislation (HB 537/SB 328) filed for 2016 by Sen. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge, and Rep. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, has yet to be considered. This is the final week when legislative committees meet in preparation for the session that begins in January.

"There's been a divide, and many people have asked me: 'Can you explain why somebody would be against this?' ... I cannot defend or explain why anyone would feel that way," Altman said. "It really is beyond explanation."

Texting-while-driving has been illegal in Florida since 2013, but it’s only a “secondary” offense, which means a driver has to commit some other infraction -- such as driving recklessly, running a red light or even causing an accident -- in order for a law enforcement officer to ticket them.

Making texting-while-driving a primary offense would improve safety on Florida's roadways by reducing crashes and traffic-related deaths, say supporters, like AAA, the Florida Police Chiefs Association and the Florida Sheriffs Association.

Only 1,800 citations were given for texting-while-driving last year in Florida, Altman said.

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November 27, 2015

Lawmakers seek to crack down on gas pump 'skimmers'


With the simple swipe of a credit card at a gas station pump, it’s become easier for identity thieves to steal customers’ information and rack up fraudulent charges in their names.

State Sen. Anitere Flores’ family knows this all too well; a close family member’s credit card information was stolen from a gas station “skimmer” two years ago in Miami, she said.

“Within hours, hundreds and hundreds of dollars worth of charges — specifically gas station charges — were put on the card,” said Flores, R-Miami. “It was scary, but it was also a major inconvenience: canceling credit cards and changing account numbers. You shouldn’t have to go through all that just because you’re using the convenience of paying at the pump.”

With support from Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, Flores and Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, want to crack down on the use of skimmers by requiring gas stations to have better security measures and by increasing the penalties for criminals convicted of credit card fraud.

Skimmers are devices that illegally capture and steal credit- and debit-card information. State inspectors in Putnam’s department have located and removed 161 skimmers statewide since March alone.

More here.

November 25, 2015

Grayson, Murphy are thankful for... your campaign donations


Not even national holidays are immune from being politicized.

In the run-up to Thanksgiving, the two leading candidates battling for the Democratic primary in Florida's U.S. Senate race -- U.S. Reps. Alan Grayson of Orlando and Patrick Murphy of Jupiter -- have both sent out fundraising emails to their supporters asking for donations of "$3 or more" because of the holiday.

Grayson's email on Tuesday, suiting his fiery, sometimes-combative personality, offers supporters the chance to "win a call from me to your most conservative relative on Thanksgiving."

"You know that Republican in your family who always tries to get into a political debate with you over Thanksgiving dinner? This year, they can argue with me instead," Grayson writes.

Meanwhile, this morning, Murphy's finance director released a fundraising pitch for Murphy -- intentionally or not, countering Grayson -- and pledging that "Thursday is off-limits" and that he has a "strict no-politics-on-Thanksgiving policy."

So instead, Murphy's campaign is asking his supporters to donate the day before -- so as not to infringe on the sanctity of the holiday, of course.

November 24, 2015

Miami mayor endorses Scott's $250M proposed reform for Enterprise Florida



Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado is among the latest in a string of local and county officials across Florida who have signed a fill-in-the-blank press release from Gov. Rick Scott's office, backing his plan for $250 million in economic incentives to better attract jobs and businesses to Florida.

Scott sent letters to all Florida mayors earlier this month -- and later, also local and county council and commission members -- asking them to support his proposal to reform Enterprise Florida with the new "Florida Enterprise Fund."

Scott's plan is expected to face some resistance among his fellow Republicans in the Senate. The $250 million request triples the $85 million he requested this year for Enterprise Florida -- which lawmakers sliced in half in the current budget.

In announcing his support of Scott's plan, Regalado cited Enterprise Florida's role in "creating jobs in our community, such as HBO Latin America, LAN Airlines and Univision Network."

"These reforms will continue to diversify our local economy, empower our small businesses and create even more great jobs," Regalado said, reciting a canned quote provided by Scott's office.

Regalado, like Scott, is a Republican.

The most high-profile Democratic mayor to endorse Scott's pitch is Tampa mayor Bob Buckhorn, who announced his support last week.

Others in South Florida who have backed Scott's $250 million funding request include Miami Commission Chairman Wifredo Gort, Miami-Dade County Commissioner Rebeca Sosa, North Miami Beach Mayor George Vallejo and Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez (whom Scott's office two weeks ago originally misidentified as Miami's mayor before issuing a correct version of the press release).

Photo credit: Hector Gabino / El Nuevo Herald

Oscar Ray Bolin, Jr. asks Florida Supreme Court to stay execution


A death-row inmate facing execution in January for a murder in Pasco County 30 years ago is asking the Florida Supreme Court for a stay in the case and to grant a hearing so his attorneys can argue "newly discovered evidence," which a circuit court recently rejected.

Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed the death warrant for Oscar Ray Bolin, Jr., last month, scheduling his execution for Jan. 7.

Bolin killed three women in the Tampa Bay area in 1986. He was sentenced to death for two of them and is serving a life sentence on the third. The scheduled execution is for the murder of Teri Lynn Matthews, whom he abducted from the Land O' Lakes Post Office in the early morning hours of Dec. 5, 1986.

In a motion to the Supreme Court filed late Monday, Bolin's attorneys argue they have new evidence that needs to be heard, including that an Ohio inmate "confessed to having committed the murder." Download Filed_11-23-2015_Motion_Briefing_Schedule

A circuit court last month denied Bolin's request for an evidentiary hearing on the matter, reasoning that the "confession was not evidence of a magnitude that it would probably produce an acquittal or a sentence other than death if admitted at a retrial."

After Scott signed Bolin's death warrant, Bolin appealed his case once more to the Sixth Circuit Court, and on Friday, the court denied Bolin's motion for rehearing and a request to vacate the death sentence. 

Bolin was convicted of abducting Matthews and then bludgeoning her with a wooden club, spraying her with a water hose and loading her into a truck to dispose of her body. She was found wrapped in the sheet on the side of the road in Pasco County later that day with severe head injuries and stab wounds in her neck and body.

Bolin previously appealed his case to federal court but his petition was denied in 2013, and the 11th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals also denied to review the case.

Bolin has been convicted of two other murders in Hillsborough County. He is currently sentenced to death for the 1986 murder of Stephanie Collins and is serving a life sentence for the 1986 murder of Natalie Holley.

Broward circuit judge charged with ethics violations


A Broward County circuit court judge is accused of multiple ethics violations, because he allegedly offered advice to an assistant public defender last spring and engaged in subsequent "inappropriate conduct" in reaction to that accusation.

The Florida Supreme Court announced this morning the Judicial Qualifications Commission's decision to bring formal charges against Judge John Patrick ContiniDownload Filed_11-23-2015_Notice_Formal_Charges

After learning of Contini's email to the public defender in March, the state attorney's office sought Contini's removal from the related case because they said his advice to the defendant's counsel negated his impartiality.

The state attorney's office appealed to the Fourth District Court of Appeals to have Contini removed, and a stay was placed on hundreds of Contini's criminal cases -- freezing their progress and leaving defendants in jail because Contini couldn't hear their cases.

Contini initially refused to step away. Then, in August, Contini asked for and was granted a transfer to the family court division, following a blow-up over his dispute with the state attorney's office, according to a report by the Sun-Sentinel.

The commission wrote that after Contini first appeared before the JQC's investigative panel, "(he) again breeched the judicial canons by exhibiting discourteous, impatient and undignified conduct" during court discussions of the state attorney's appeal.

For example, the commission said he repeatedly referred to attorneys handling the appeal as "idiots" and their work as "fraudulent," and he also called the Attorney General's position in the case as "a lie from the pit of hell."

"The events of this case have been broadcast in the local and regional news media, further amplifying the negative effect of your actions," the commission wrote.

The JQC said his actions "constitute inappropriate conduct" in violation of five canons of the Code of Judicial Conduct. Contini has 20 days to offer a written answer to the charges.