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The Buzz 5/26/11

BEST SCHOOL DISTRICT The best school district in the Florida panhandle is not Santa Rosa or Okaloosa. It’s Walton County. The State Board of Education approved the designation of 13 Florida school districts as 2011-12 Academically High Performing School Districts. These districts have met the rigorous eligibility criteria as outlined in The Florida Statutes that includes compliance with class size, earning high school and district grades, and receiving sound financial audits.
The school districts are Brevard, Charlotte, Citrus, Clay, Gulf, Indian River, Lee, Martin, Nassau, Seminole, Sumter, Wakulla and Walton.
The Florida Statutes requires that “each school district that satisfies the eligibility criteria in the subsection shall be designated by the State Board of Education as an academically high-performing school district.” Following 2010 class size compliance, school grade appeals and 2010 financial audit reviews, 13 school districts meet the eligibility criteria for designation as 2010-2011 Academically High-Performing School Districts.
Of the 13 school districts meeting the eligibility criteria for 2010-11, 12 are maintaining their designation as academically high performing from 2009-10. Of these 12 school districts, five are in their fifth year of consecutive designation as academically high performing, two are in their fourth year, and two are in their third year of designation.
Will Escambia County catch up with its peers? The State Board of Education made it a little harder when it recently approved a plan to slowly bump up A-to-F grading standards, so schools will need to do better to earn top marks. Currently schools earn A’s for getting 66 percent on the grade calculation. The plan is to match the scale used to grade students: 90 percent or more for an A grade, at least 80 percent for a B and so on.
The change will be very gradual with the first increase bumping up the required score needed for an A by four points, to 70 percent.

SAVING UWF’S BACON Dr. Judy Bense has had her contract to serve as the president of the University of West Florida extended to 2015. She dropped by the IN offices to talk about what we can expect for the next five years.
“Since 2007, we’ve seen our budget cut 30 percent,” Bense said. “I don’t expect that money to come back. What has saved our bacon has been the marketing to attract students.”
She explained that when she took office, Troy University was spending $1.8 million on marketing and the University of South Alabama $1 million. UWF was only spending $100,000, which she promptly bumped up to $500,000.
“We began paying attention to enrollment,” she said. “We realized that we couldn’t be all things to all people. We started to look at return on investment for our various programs. We began to let our plans drive our budgeting.”
Bense believes UWF can be an economic driver. “We want to provide the work force that employers want and need.”
The university opened last year its new state-of-the-art Science and Engineering Building that features cutting-edge teaching and research spaces, including a virtual classroom, robot guides and solar windows that generate electricity. The program has more than 950 students and 53 faculty in the areas of electrical, computer and software engineering, math and statistics, physics, computer science and computer information science.
Bense touted the coalition that UWF has formed with the state colleges from Pensacola to Tallahassee, the President’s Higher Education Coalition of Northwest Florida. Starting in the fall, students at Pensacola State College, Chipola College, Northwest Florida State College, Gulf Coast Community College and Tallahassee Community College will be admitted simultaneously to UWF when they enter a college, which will enhance their ability to more quickly enter UWF and receive their bachelor’s degrees.
The process, Direct Admit, is modeled after a similar program that helped the University of Central Florida attract the second largest enrollment in the country.

FIRE ASSESSMENT The Midway Fire District is faced with another year of declining revenue as property values in south Santa Rosa County continue to decline. The fire department’s revenue has dropped over $900,000 since 2007, forcing the department to lay off nine firefighters, a 30 percent cut in staffing.
Midway Fire has frozen all capital expenditures, eliminated its Haz Mat team and quit paying for annual physicals and cell phones for employees. Fire hydrant inspections are conducted only once a year. Contractual agreements for the two stations, such as coffee, bottled water and newspapers, have been suspended.
Fire Chief Jonathan Kanzigg told the IN that he has run out of places to cut without impacting the quality of service in his district, which stretches from outside the City of Gulf Breeze to Holley-by-the-Sea.
“The Midway Board of Fire Commissioners has directed me to draft a referendum to increase our millage rate,” said Kanzigg. “We haven’t decided how much we should increase it.” The current rate is 1.4 mils, and it would need to be increased to 1.7 mils to cover the projected loss in revenue for the upcoming fiscal year.
In 2008, a referendum to increase the fire assessment failed, and several board members lost re-election. “The former chief was really trying to expand the fire department and the services offered,” said Kanzigg. “We are trying to maintain and be sure that we can provide the service the public expects.”
Kanzigg plans to meet with homeowner associations over the next few months and get input on the referendum. “So far, the discussions have been very positive,” he told the IN.