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9 posts from July 30, 2013

July 30, 2013

Gov. Scott silent regarding future of his education commissioner


Nationally celebrated education reformer Tony Bennett was wooed to Florida in January to bring stability to the state education department.

But barely eight months later, his tenure as education commissioner could be in trouble.

Scathing emails obtained by the Associated Press suggest that Bennett, while serving as education commissioner in Indiana last year, intervened to raise the grade for a charter school run by an influential Republican donor. Bennett was already under fire in Florida, where influential superintendents and state Board of Education members have raised questions about the validity of school grades.

Gov. Rick Scott has been silent on the scandal engulfing his education commissioner. He declined two opportunities to speak publicly on the matter Tuesday, saying he had not read the AP report.

Scott spokeswoman Melissa Sellers later said Bennett was “clearly committed to making Florida’s education system the best in the nation.”

But with the 2014 governor’s race on the horizon, observers say Scott has a tough decision to make.

“If the governor wants to appeal to moderates across the state, he has to get rid of [Bennett],” said Brian Peterson, a professor at Florida International University and editor of the Miami Education Review online newsletter. “If he doesn’t, the message is that the game is rigged, and that public schools are going to be treated from charter schools.”

Read more here.

Plan B: Dream Defenders work to persuade lawmakers to call special session


The Dream Defenders say they have enlisted enough state lawmakers to poll the entire legislature on whether to hold a special session on Stand Your Ground. If the poll takes place, 96 lawmakers must give their consent for the special session to take place.

Meanwhile, Rev. Jesse Jackson came to the group's mock special session at the Florida Capitol.

Check out the story here.

Obama and Rick Scott agree: Amazon jobs good for economy

On his national jobs tour, Pres. Barack Obama stopped Tuesday at an Amazon fulfillment center (née warehouse order center) in Chattanooga, Tenn. The visit came a day after the online company announced it was expanding, hiring 5,000 for 17 new warehouses like the one in Chattanooga across the U.S.

Obama, who is using the tour as a chance to highlight the need for higher paying jobs for the middle class, sounded like he was impressed.

“I just finished getting a tour of a very small part of this massive facility,” Obama told the crowd. “It’s the size of 28 football fields. Last year, during the busiest day of the Christmas rush, customers around the world ordered more than 300 items from Amazon every second – many of them traveling through this building. So it’s kind of like the North Pole of the South.”

Such a glowing review puts Obama firmly alongside Gov. Rick Scott in the Amazon fan club.


Continue reading "Obama and Rick Scott agree: Amazon jobs good for economy" »

Obamacare brings new coverages, higher premiums to Florida

UPDATE: An unnamed senior official from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released a statement in response to today's state update on the health care law, mainly on the issue of rising premiums and the lack of statistics in the report:

"We are consistently seeing in states across the country that premiums are lower than expected.  In 11 states that HHS studied, premiums were on average almost 20 percent lower than what the Congressional Budget Office projected. We are confident that Florida’s premiums will be affordable, and that consumers will have multiple options in a competitive and transparent marketplace.  When the marketplaces open Oct. 1, consumers will be able to shop for the plan that best fits their budget and needs.  Without releasing the premiums, the statistics released today don’t provide consumers with any information on what they will actually pay in the marketplace."

ORIGINAL POST: A state health insurance advisory board received an update on the federal health care law today, including new projections on how premiums could change in the coming months.

Wences Troncoso, Florida's deputy insurance commissioner, told the panel that small group insurance plans have increased 5 to 20 percent, and some plans even decreased their premium rates. Individual health plan premiums increased more drastically, 30 to 40 percent on average. 

That is largely attributed to the portion of the law that requires new policies to be sold to eligible applicants regardless of their pre-existing medical conditions. Because these people are now guaranteed coverage, the state has dissolved the Florida Comprehensive Health Association. About 160 people who couldn't get insurance otherwise were participating in this plan, which hasn't allowed new members in since 1991 because of the high costs.

Other highlights from the presentation:

-11 companies have filed paperwork to state insurance regulators indicating they plan to participate in the federal health exchange being set up in Florida for individuals.

Continue reading "Obamacare brings new coverages, higher premiums to Florida" »

Rev. Jesse Jackson joins Dream Defenders

Since Gov. Rick Scott won’t call a special session to address the Stand Your Ground law, student protestors called their own mock session on Tuesday, with the help of a special speaker: the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Jackson said he would be joining the students, known as the Dream Defenders, for  “at least one night” outside the governor’s office. 

“He’ll be on the floor with the rest of us,” said Dream Defenders Executive Director Phillip Agnew.

 Jackson is the second national figure to visit the young protestors in two weeks. Singer Harry Belafonte spoke to the group on Friday.

Continue reading "Rev. Jesse Jackson joins Dream Defenders" »

Miami lawyer and Obama warbucks-raiser Kirk Wagar tapped for Singapore ambassadorship


Raising big bucks for a president has its privileges.

A Miami lawyer and Democratic Party fundraiser soon will be off to Singapore as a State Department ambassador, pending Senate confirmation this week.

Kirk Wagar, 44, accepted President Barack Obama’s nomination this month and appeared at a hearing Tuesday afternoon in front of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, which could confirm his ambassadorship Thursday.

“I am a true believer in this country, so this is easily the most humbling experience of my life and I am going to work my butt off,” Wagar said Tuesday.

Wagar has practiced insurance law at his Wagar Law Firm since 1998, after earning a law degree from the University of Miami. A native of Ontario, Canada, and son of a ship-captain father and schoolteacher mother, Wagar became a U.S. citizen in 2004, during a ceremony at the Miami Beach Convention Center.

For more than a decade, Wagar has been a major financial player in Florida and national politics.

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/07/30/3531637/miami-lawyer-tapped-to-be-ambassador.html#storylink=cpy

Story here

Despite DCF contact, 2 more children die



Summer Stiles had no idea her toddler son had been missing for much of an hour.

When Indian River Sheriff’s deputies returned 3-year-old Dakota Stiles to his mother July 12 — he had wandered into a neighbor’s backyard — she acknowledged she had lost track of her children that day.

“I guess I’m missing one,” the 34-year-old said.

More shocking, though, to state child welfare investigators was the condition of the Stiles home: One toilet was clogged with feces, and the only working bathroom was in a garage that was filled with garbage, mold and stacks of wet clothing.

Dakota’s room was “a pigsty,” piled with garbage, old food and other “filth.” But it was the pool that concerned the investigator the most: It was described as “exceptionally unsafe… green from disrepair, filthy, filled with unsanitary water and bugs and unknown contaminants.”

The report noted Dakota could get to the pool “by merely turning a knob.”

“These conditions, and the parents’ flat reaction to the child victim getting out of the home,” an investigator wrote, “pose a significant risk of harm” to Dakota.

Nevertheless, the Department of Children & Families did nothing to protect Dakota as it continued to investigate his parents.

“At this time,” a report said, “there does not appear to be an immediate negative impact on the victim’s safety.”

On Thursday — two weeks after he’d been found in his neighbor’s yard — Dakota drowned in the slimy green pool the department had found so dangerous.

He became the seventh child to die in Florida of abuse or neglect after DCF had concluded they were safe.

He’s also the second to die on the watch of DCF’s interim secretary, Esther Jacobo, who inherited a department in chaos after then-DCF Secretary David Wilkins resigned two weeks ago.

“Late last week, I learned of the tragic death of Dakota Stiles,” Jacobo told The Miami Herald on Monday. “I am deeply saddened and outraged. We have only begun to review DCF’s prior involvement with this family, but we will now turn our full attention to determining what could have been done to prevent this tragedy. No one will bring a more critical approach to this review than me, because we must fully understand what happened and move quickly to take any corrective action that is needed to keep children safe.”

Among the seven deaths is Cherish Perrywinkle, an 8-year-old Jacksonville girl who police say was raped and strangled by a registered sex offender her mother had befriended.

Cherish’s abduction and murder traumatized her native Jacksonville, and the sex offender, Donald James Smith, was indicted on June 21 on three counts of first degree murder, sexual battery and kidnapping. He is facing the death penalty.

Internal DCF records for both Dakota and Cherish were provided Monday to The Herald in response to a public records request.



Dakota first came to DCF’s attention at birth, in October 2009, records say. His mother said she was taking the narcotic Roxycodone for chronic back pain, and the newborn Dakota was born with opiates in his system. Summer Stiles produced a prescription for the pills, and one of her older children, then around 11, told an investigator that although her mother took pills, she “denied it affected her ability to care for” the children. 

Two years later, Dakota’s father, Todd Stiles, was accused of chasing his 13-year-old daughter “down the street,” tackling her, and pulling her by the hair back home for refusing to clean her room. In May 2012, Dakota’s brother arrived at school complaining of pain in his head, and said his father had thrown a blanket over him, causing him to fall on his head. DCF determined the children were safe following all three investigations, and took no action.

But by the time a DCF investigator returned to the family in mid-July, it had become clear that Summer and Todd Stiles had profound difficulty raising their children.

The children, a report said, “do not listen” to Summer and Todd Stiles, and could not be coaxed to comply with the “simplest of things,” such as cleaning their rooms.

“The parents appear to be paralyzed in parenting the children,” the report said. A significant challenge was “both parents’ ability to comprehend the severity of the situation, with [the] youngest child escaping from the family home and the parents’ total failure to take several security measures at their disposal.”

Still, the investigator persuaded the couple to sign a “safety plan” pledging to clean the house and better supervise their children. While the investigation remained open, Dakota left the home — again — and drowned July 25.


Cherish was found dead shortly after 9 a.m. on June 22. Her body had been dumped near a church.

Finding a suitable parent for Cherish and her siblings had remained a serious problem for years.

By 2009, when Cherish’s name appeared in abuse hotline reports twice, the girl’s mother, Rayne Perrywinkle, had been diagnosed with severe psychiatric problems, and had tried to commit suicide. She once told the department she had stopped taking medication for her bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder and depression “due to not wanting to be addicted.” She threw a plate at her young stepson.

Cherish’s birth father, a sailor with a long history of domestic violence, had been court-martialed for sexually abusing a child.

Perrywinkle and the two boyfriends with whom she shared three children had amassed a lengthy record of investigations that went largely nowhere with DCF, including allegations of physical abuse, domestic violence and claims that Perrywinkle’s history of mental illness made her an unfit mother.

There were two investigations in 2006, when Cherish was 4 and was living with her mom at a homeless shelter, one involving allegations Perrywinkle had “forcefully” shaken and jerked the little girl because she was crying. There was a 2009 investigation involving allegations that Rayne Perrywinkle tried to kill herself by drinking Benadryl and had been involuntarily committed, and another report that year that Cherish’s father had left a “hand print” on the child’s back from beating her.

A May 2009 investigation included the claim that Perrywinkle had thrown a plate at a small child — which she admitted was true, but defended as acceptable discipline. The dinnerware “only hit him in the shoulder,” Perrywinkle told an investigator, and, besides, “it was [his] fault because he was being disrespectful to her.”

A 2012 report to the state’s hotline claimed Cherish was unsafe because her mother’s boyfriend had bruised Rayne Perrywinkle’s arm during an argument. Perrywinkle later dismissed the incident as horseplay, and DCF closed the investigation as unfounded.

In DCF’s long history with Cherish’s family, the agency had made referrals for counseling, parenting classes and domestic violence intervention — but the reports kept coming.

The same day Perrywinkle excused the plate-throwing incident, May 2, 2009, she also told an investigator she watches her daughters carefully, because she was “very sensitive to the possibility of her daughters being molested.”

An older daughter, the report said, had been molested while in Perrywinkle’s care, and had moved all the way to Australia to get away from her mother.

“That daughter,” the report said, “no longer speaks to Rayne.”


Did Education Commissioner Tony Bennett change the grade of an Indiana charter school?

Emails obtained by the Associated Press suggest that when he ran Indiana’s schools, Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett intervened to hike the grade of a supporter’s charter school from a C to an A. 

Bennett told the Times/Herald Monday that the school, Christel House Academy, was among the top-performing charter schools in Indiana. If it hadn't earned an A, that meant something was wrong with the entire grading system, he said.

"It had nothing to do with politics," he said.

Bennett said that Indiana was in the midst of finalizing its school grading formula when the email exchange took place. He said he had hoped to use high-performing schools like Christel House to calibrate the system.

"We needed to make sure the school grades reflected how the schools really performed," he said.

Read the story here.

Awkward: 91 y/o vents Obamacare worries to Rep. Joe Garcia in Key West visit


U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia paid a visit to a 91-year-old Key West senior Friday and found that, even in the liberal Southernmost City, there are serious concerns about the effects of Obamacare, the federal health law that has put Democrats in an awkward spot since 2009.

At issue for widower Rene Stincer: A potential increase in out-of-pocket costs for home healthcare. Stincer fears it could break him, or at least force him out when his fragile state requires he stay put.

"It's better for me to stay in this house," Stincer told Garcia, according to the Key West Citizen.

"It's better than going to the hospital, anyway," The Citizen quoted Stincer saying. "There's nothing wrong with the hospital, but I'm more free here. If I need something I can call a friend. If I want to go to the movies, it's just down the street.""Right now, Medicare pays 100 percent of each home visit," said Wilkerson, whose company employs 26 people to care for the infirm at home.

The owner of the agency that helps Stincer, Island Home Care's Kim Wilkerson, explained: "The problem is that Obamacare [the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act] proposes a $100 co-pay for this service. When you're that age, and living on a fixed income or limited resources of any sort, that kind of an increase can lead to hard choices such as cutting back on food or medicine, and it's got us worried."

Garcia, who represents the moderate swing district extending from central Miami-Dade to Key West, supports the healthcare law. But not blindly. He was one of 23 Democrats to side with Republicans in the U.S. House to delay implementing Obamacare's individual mandate.

Read the full Citizen article here