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School superintendent plays fast and loose in presenting report card

Photo: Superintendent Mark Rendell

Superintendent Mark Rendell tried to make the case that things are going great in the School District to the Indian River Taxpayers Association luncheon last week, and some of his claims played fast and loose with the facts.

The guest speaker reported the School District was named “best place to work” in Indian River County last year, which is something he might well be proud of, and claimed the honor was based on results of employee surveys. In reality, CareerSource based the award on a single survey completed by an administrator.

The questionnaire was filled out by then-Assistant Superintendent William Fritz, whose contract was not renewed. As head of the Human Resources Department, Fritz negotiated union contracts that ended in impasses last year, imposing big hikes in employee insurance premiums to make up for a $7 million deficit in the health insurance fund, which he also oversaw. 

Rendell said the district has given raises the last three years to teachers, resulting in a nearly $48,000 average teacher salary, which matches the state average. He added that Indian River’s average beats out surrounding counties.

But teachers union President Liz Cannon challenges his claim. While the $48,000 figure is correct, she points out the “raise” was actually compensation for more hours worked, and notes the dramatic increase in health insurance premiums reduced teacher take-home pay to fourth place among the five counties.

Rendell said teacher turnover in the district was about 15 percent last year, claiming that percentage matches the national average. But Vero Beach 32963 has found that nearly 200 teachers out of 1,120 left the district last year, which amounts to 18 percent turnover.

Rendell told the group the high school graduation rate is “the best measure of success” for a district, and reported that Indian River’s rate was 87 percent last year. 

But a truer picture of educational success is the Florida Standards Assessment ranking. In English Language Arts, the district had just a 52 percent pass rate last year, ranking 32nd among the 67 school districts in the state. In math, the district only managed a 53 percent pass rate, ranking 44th among 67 Florida school districts.

And even those numbers come with an asterisk, because they include results from the charter schools, which Rendell does not directly oversee and which outperform the traditional schools he supervises, boosting the district’s pass rate.

Rendell claimed that Exceptional Student Education services have improved during his three-year tenure, pointing to what he called an “audit” with no negative findings. He was referring to a letter from the Florida Bureau of Exceptional Education and Student Services Chief Monica Verra-Tirado, but Verra-Tirado disputed Rendell’s characterization of her letter.

“I wouldn’t call it an audit,” Verra-Tirado told Vero Beach 32963. She said she had looked at “one monitoring point,” transition plans for ESE students 16 years and older. Six student files were examined and passed muster. That was the extent of the so-called audit.

The district has been monitored by the Bureau for the last three years. It had to file an improvement plan because it fell far short of state standards for educating and taking care of students classified as exceptional, many of whom have learning problems and other limitations.

The superintendent also brought up the district's nearly $2 million capital project to be completed in August, the construction of an adult education building next to Gifford Middle School that will house vocational training classes, including 10 welding class bays.

“Welding is one of the most sought-after jobs,” Rendell said, claiming welding jobs pay an average wage of $64,000. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics’ most recent data, however, the average wage for welding jobs in the U.S. in 2016 was $40,200.

Rendell said the School District’s success was largely due to important partnerships, drawing attention to the Learning Alliance.

He restated the partnership’s feel-good goal – that 90 percent of third graders will pass the Florida Standards Assessment English Language Arts test by 2018 – a key metric for measuring how well a student will do in school and life. But he didn’t give an update on where the district stands in attaining the goal.

The results for the 2017-2018 academic year will be out in June, and it seems unlikely the goal will be achieved since the pass rate in the prior year was only 55 percent, three points below the state’s dismal average.