April 01, 2016

Former state Rep. Phillip Brutus announces bid for Florida Senate

@ByKristenMClark

Former North Miami state Rep. Phillip Brutus is making another go at returning to the Florida Capitol.

He's running in a crowded Democratic primary for the new District 38 Senate seat. The coastal district includes parts of northeastern Miami-Dade County -- including Aventura and Miami Beach -- areas currently represented by longtime Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Hollywood.

Brutus, who filed in the race in February, officially announced his campaign today.

"We need to send a senator with an intimate knowledge of the Legislative process, good rapport with other legislators and a commitment to improving the lives of District 38 citizens and businesses," Brutus said in a statement.

Margolis -- a former state Senate president who has represented Miami-Dade County in the Legislature for much of the past four decades -- is seeking re-election to the chamber in the new District 38.

Brutus served in the state House from 2000 to 2006 and has been a lawyer in Miami-Dade County for nearly 30 years. He also is a longtime weekly news show host on WLQY 1320 AM.

In 2014, he campaigned to return to the state House but lost in the primary against Democratic incumbent and current state Rep. Barbara Watson, D-Miami Gardens. He also previously ran unsuccessfully for County Commission, Florida Senate and Congress since 2006.

Three other Democrats have also filed to run in the August primary for District 38, including current state Rep. Daphne Campbell, Anis Blemur, and Don Festge.

No Republicans have filed to run. The district is heavily Democratic.

Mail fraud in South Florida Senate race? Andrew Korge thinks so — and accuses Anitere Flores

@ByKristenMClark

A Democrat running for a state Senate seat in South Florida alleges someone has -- perhaps illegally -- sent out fraudulent campaign letters to his donors, and Andrew Korge believes his Republican opponent, current state Sen. Anitere Flores, or her supporters are responsible.

Flores, R-Miami, denies the allegations, but Korge said "whether it’s her or her people, it’s irrelevant to me."

Korge and Flores are running for a hotly contested Senate seat that spans western and southern Miami-Dade County and Monroe County, including the Florida Keys.

Thanks to the recent redistricting of the state's 40 Senate seats, several Senate candidates have had to re-file their campaigns with the Florida Department of State to run for the correct newly renumbered district.

As part of that switch, candidates are required to notify their past donors and give them the opportunity to get a refund, because the money won't be used for the race it was intended for.

Korge said his campaign sent out such letters after he switched to run against Flores for the new District 39 seat, but he became alarmed when he started to receive response forms that were vastly different than the ones he sent out.

The suspicious letters -- copies of which Korge provided to the Herald/Times -- purport to be from Korge's campaign and are vaguely worded to suggest that Korge isn't running for Senate anymore at all.

They include no identifying marks nor a campaign disclaimer, so it's not possible to know from where they originated or who is responsible for sending them.

But Korge alleges it was Flores or her political backers.

"I think we all know who did this. I only have one opponent here. This is the type of corruption that people are sick of and a big part of what we’re running for," Korge said. "Do I have definitive proof that she did it? No, but I have common sense."

Flores told a Herald/Times reporter "no way, no how" was she involved with sending out the suspicious letters.

"Why in the universe would I spend any resources on doing something that you just told me he’s legally required to do?" she said.

Continue reading "Mail fraud in South Florida Senate race? Andrew Korge thinks so — and accuses Anitere Flores" »

March 29, 2016

Looking for something to do in Miami? How about a political fundraiser?

@PatriciaMazzei

Good-bye, spring break. Farewell, Florida's presidential primary. See you soon, legislative session. Now that all that has been taken care of, it's time for Florida House and Senate candidates to begin campaigning in earnest.

Three fundraisers are scheduled to take place in Miami between Tuesday and Wednesday nights alone, and that's just for Republican candidates. (A fourth event is planned in Tallahassee.) Contenders have struggled to get political donors' attention, what with two Miami Republicans running for president until recently, an open U.S. Senate seat and a slew of congressional contests.

Here are invitations to the four GOP events:

Continue reading "Looking for something to do in Miami? How about a political fundraiser?" »

March 23, 2016

National liberal group targets Anitere Flores as 'queen of corruption' in Florida

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@ByKristenMClark

A national Democratic advocacy group has proclaimed Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores to be "The Queen of Corruption" in Florida because of her past work with the unaccredited Doral College in Miami-Dade County.

In an online video this week -- that declares her "Florida's most corrupt politician" -- Occupy Democrats takes Flores to task for her former job as president of the college and for supporting legislation that benefited Florida's charter school industry.

The group alleges she "takes tax dollars meant for education and pockets them" for her own enrichment and those of her "friends."

Doral College is run by Academica, a for-profit company that's believed to be Florida's largest charter school operator and that a few Miami-Dade Republican lawmakers have connections to. Flores worked as president of Doral College from its inception in 2011 until July 2015.

Occupy Democrats -- which bills itself as a "counterbalance" to the conservative tea party movement -- posted its video Monday on Facebook, sharing it with nearly 2.6 million fans on the site. As of noon today, the video had 250,000 views and counting. It's also been shared more than 7,500 times.

Flores said Occupy Democrats was lobbing "recycled and baseless attacks."

 

Meet Senator Anitere Flores, a Florida politician who's enriched herself with state funds that were supposed to go...

Posted by Occupy Democrats on Monday, March 21, 2016

 

"Doral College is an independent non-profit college that I did help establish with the mission of offering college access to low-income students at no cost to them or their families," Flores said in a text message.

"Doral College is regulated by the state and completed a rigorous process to receive a Florida license" and is pursuing accreditation, which takes several years, Flores said. "Every institution of higher education starts off without being accredited." 

The video inaccurately claims that Flores is "still employed" by "Doral College's parent company," but Flores has never worked for Academica. Since leaving Doral College last summer, she now works as development director for The A.C.E. Foundation, a non-profit that supports charter schools that serve at-risk students.

It's unclear why the national political group chose to target Flores specifically -- the group could not be immediately reached for comment -- but it's likely their reasoning has to do with Flores being potentially vulnerable in her bid for re-election in November.

Democrats are looking to pick up more seats in the state Senate under newly redrawn district maps. Flores faces Democrat Andrew Korge -- the son of prominent Hillary Clinton donor Chris Korge -- in what's expected to be a competitive contest for the new District 39 seat, which leans Hispanic and Democratic. (Independent Sheila Lucas George has also filed in the race.)

Korge and Flores both plan to move into the district, which spans western and southern Miami-Dade County and Monroe County, including the Florida Keys. (Flores and Democratic Sen. Dwight Bullard worked out a deal where Flores would move to avoid facing Bullard in the new District 40, where both now live.)

Flores isn't the only Florida lawmaker with ties to the charter school industry -- or specifically Doral College and Academica -- but unlike some of the others, she faces a tough contest in November.

State Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, is the current chief operating officer and former dean of Doral College. He is seeking re-election to the House in what's expected to be a non-competitive race.

Meanwhile, the sister and brother-in-law of outgoing state Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, are executives at Academica. Fresen is a land consultant for a firm that specializes in building charter schools, many for Academica. He faces term limits and won't be on the November ballot.

March 18, 2016

What all was in the Florida Legislature's final "school choice" bill?

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@ByKristenMClark

In one of their final votes of the 2016 session, Florida lawmakers passed sweeping "school choice" legislation with numerous changes to the state's education policies, affecting schools from pre-K through college and university.

The final, approved version of HB 7029 -- released Thursday, reflecting changes lawmakers made prior to the final vote late last week -- came in at 160 pages. 

We read through it to break down exactly what is in this proposed law, which is still pending Republican Gov. Rick Scott's approval.

There are literally dozens of new policies that would be enacted, so if you want to know every little detail, we suggest reading it for yourself, but here are the major highlights:

Continue reading "What all was in the Florida Legislature's final "school choice" bill?" »

Direct funding for after-school programs intact, despite Senate's push for competitive grant

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@ByKristenMClark

How Florida gives state money to organizations that provide after-school care, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Boys & Girls Clubs, won’t change anytime soon.

The 2016-17 budget that Gov. Rick Scott signed Thursday maintains a decades-old funding structure that designates money to a handful of prominent organizations — which means an ambitious, but controversial, reform plan pitched by Republican Senate leaders is on hold for at least another year.

Administrators of affected groups said they are glad lawmakers didn’t embrace the Senate’s idea to create a competitive grant process this year. The proposed program — introduced midway through the nine-week session — would have included several million dollars more in available aid, but it would’ve made many more non-profits eligible for a single pot of money.

Traditional programs opposed creating a competitive grant on such short notice, fearing it would have caused their funding to, at best, be interrupted or, at worst, be cut. The taxpayer aid helps pay for homework assistance, mentoring and gang-prevention services for children and teens often living in Florida’s most vulnerable and impoverished communities.

More here.

Photo credit: House and Senate Appropriations Chairmen Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, and Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, talk to the media on Sunday, March 6, 2016, after a budget conference meeting at the Capitol in Tallahassee. SCOTT KEELER / Tampa Bay Times

March 14, 2016

Florida 2016 legislative elections 'our opportunity,' FEA president McCall says

Via @JeffSolochek and The Gradebook:

Florida Education Association president Joanne McCall has big ambitions for the state's 2016 legislative elections.

Many lawmakers who have been unfriendly to the teacher union's view of public education will depart, while others face more realistic challenges than they have in the past. It's a chance, McCall said, to begin changing the complexion of Tallahassee education politics.

"The message I'm sending to all my members is, this is our opportunity," she said. "Fair Districts has given us just that, fairer districts where people can actually compete."

FEA officials are analyzing the newly drawn state Senate map, with an eye toward targeting districts where it sees the possibility of influencing the outcome, supporting "people that can win and won't forget why they came to Tallahassee."

Campaigns can be costly and demanding, McCall acknowledged, and the organization wants to be effective and strategic in its efforts. It isn't likely to jump into races where its type of candidate has no chance, she said, because that's just not worth the effort. The FEA also will have to work to get out the vote, she added.

"We have an opportunity to change the debate in this state," McCall said. "I think we'll see a different kind of Tallahassee each and every year."

Trial challenging Florida's education system gets underway in Tallahassee

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@ByKristenMClark

A Tallahassee judge heard opening arguments this morning in a month-long civil trial that could up-end Florida's entire education system.

Attorneys representing Citizens for Strong Schools want Leon County Circuit Court Judge George S. Reynolds III to declare that the Florida Department of Education -- and by extension, the Florida Legislature -- has failed to fulfill its constitutionally mandated "paramount duty" to provide a "high quality" education for all public school students.

A constitutional amendment in 1998 requires the state to make "adequate provision(s) ... for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools."

Attorneys for the advocacy group argue the state hasn't done that, citing -- among other complaints -- the lack of parity in student achievement for minority students in Florida public schools.

But attorneys for the Department of Education and the Legislature counter that, while there's still more work to be done, Florida's education system has come a long way in the past 20 years.

The two sides started laying out their arguments today in the non-jury trial, which is expected to last five weeks and include expert witnesses such as current Education Commissioner Pam Stewart.

In lambasting Florida's education system, the plaintiff's lead attorney Neil Chonin decried Florida's controversial and high-stakes "accountability" framework, which includes using the results of students' standardized exams to, in part, determine student retention, teacher evaluations and school grades.

Continue reading "Trial challenging Florida's education system gets underway in Tallahassee" »

Might Florida 'Best and Brightest' bonus renewal face legal challenge?

Via @JeffSolochek and The Gradebook:

Despite strong opposition by some Florida senators, the state Legislature approved a second year of the controversial Best and Brightest bonus that rewards teachers, in part, for their ACT or SAT scores of long ago.

Some key naysayers, including outgoing Sen. John Legg, criticized the action. Legg challenged the placement of Best and Brightest in the budget implementing bill, arguing the courts have said substantive policy that hadn't been approved otherwise did not belong in the appropriations act.

"I believe this Legislature has not has an opportunity to weigh in," Legg told his colleagues. "The process is circumvented by putting it in the implementing bill."

Appropriations chairman Sen. Tom Lee contended that there wasn't a problem, because the $49 million for the program appeared in the actual budget, and the implementing language simply commemorated the money. Calling it a symbolic victory for House supporters, Lee noted that the language would disappear if Gov. Rick Scott vetoes the expense.

The bonus has a "one year life span," he said. "We will have to come back and get our head around the continuation of Best and Brightest."

That debate, though, has led to a broader conversation about whether lawmakers went too far in legislating through the budget. Several organizations are talking about how to proceed if the governor leaves Best and Brightest in the budget, said Tallahassee lawyer Ron Meyer, who often represents the Florida Education Association and the school boards association.

"Sen. Legg's debate brought out ... that this is another classic example of logrolling," Meyer said.

Such moves have been found inconsistent with the Florida Constitution, he said. The constitution states that all laws "shall embrace but one subject and matter properly connected therewith, and the subject shall be briefly expressed in the title."

In Brown vs. Firestone (1980) the state Supreme Court wrote, "Were we to sanction a rule permitting an appropriations bill to change existing law, the legislature would in many instances be able to logroll, and in every instance the integrity of the legislative process would be compromised."

The question becomes whether what happened with Best and Brightest fits the definitions that Legg put forth, or those suggested by Lee. Getting an answer would depend on a lawsuit being filed, and so far it's all just talk.

Legg said he would suspect a suit if Scott does not veto the provision. Meyer said the taxpayer who might consider filing would have to balance the principle at stake and the value of everything else in the bill, which also would be challenged.

March 12, 2016

Florida lawmakers OK principal autonomy program for 7 school districts

@ByKristenMClark

Select principals in seven Florida school districts -- including Broward, Palm Beach and Pinellas -- could soon have more power to oversee operations at low-performing public schools.

In one of its final votes on the last day of the 2016 session, the Legislature gave final, bipartisan approval to HB 287, which creates the three-year "Principal Autonomy Pilot Program Initiative."

The program aims to give principals at some failing schools more say over staff assignments and program funding.

Republicans Sen. Rene Garcia, of Hialeah, and Reps. Manny Diaz Jr., of Hialeah, and Chris Sprowls, of Palm Harbor, sponsored the legislation with the goal of trying a new way to improve student performance and school operations at failing schools.

The other four school districts eligible to participate are Duval, Jefferson, Madison and Seminole counties. 

Districts have to seek approval from the state board to engage in the program -- by identifying three schools that received grades of "D" or "F" in two of the past three years and offering a plan of how "highly effective" principals assigned to those schools could better allocate resources.

Senators passed the bill by a 36-4 vote on Friday, about an hour before ending the 2016 session. Those opposed were Democratic Sens. Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth, Dwight Bullard of Cutler Bay, Eleanor Sobel of Hollywood and Arthenia Joyner of Tampa, the Senate Democratic leader.

The House passed it in mid-February by a 97-17 vote. Those opposed in the House were also some of the chamber's Democrats.

The bill now goes to Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who still needs to sign it into law.

The annual budget lawmakers also approved late Friday includes $910,000 to fund the pilot program. Of that, $700,000 is a one-time allocation.