Something went wrong with the promise to use the extra school tax Sarasota County voters approved to make the school district “world class.” The money poured in, but the scores declined.
Let’s look at the Sarasota school district’s historical performance on the FCAT; how the district’s poor performance escaped public notice; and what to do about it.
Going back a decade to 2001, Sarasota had the state’s second-highest score on the 10th grade math FCAT and the third-highest score on the 10th grade reading FCAT. Of Sarasota’s racial subgroups, the combined math and reading score for our white students was higher than the district scores for 95% of Florida’s white students.
In 2000, the 10th grade math and reading scores for Sarasota’s black students were higher than the scores for 80% of Florida’s black students, and in 2002 the math and reading scores for Sarasota’s Hispanic students were higher than the scores for 80% of Florida’s Hispanic students.
At the same time that Sarasota’s students were already excelling on the FCAT, our school district pleaded that more money was needed to become one of the best districts in Florida. Reversing the rejection of the 2000 referendum, the voters approved the property tax referendum in 2002 based on the vision that the extra money would create a “world class” school district in Sarasota.
Unfortunately, something went wrong. Instead of closing in on the No. 1 ranking, Sarasota’s rankings among Florida’s school districts tumbled. The ranking of our white students fell from being near the top to being just average. Our black and Hispanic students’ rankings fell from the top 20% to the bottom 20% of student rankings.
For seven straight years, Sarasota’s high school FCAT rankings slumped. Sarasota was near the bottom of the districts in the cumulative increase in test scores from 2002 to 2009.
But nobody noticed. Nobody noticed because the educators were looking at the parameters that the state set up to grade schools and districts. They focused on the weakest-performing students and the state’s arbitrarily-established “high standards,” which were set so low that the majority of students met them. There was no category to compare district scores against each other, and no points were awarded for having the highest FCAT scores. The fact that we were falling behind other districts didn’t impact the district’s “A” letter grade from the state, so it didn’t matter.
The public failed to notice because the media only reported the FCAT statistics for our local school districts. All we saw was that we had outscored the Manatee and Charlotte school districts.
Regrettably, the community leaders who had sold the voters on the vision for a “world class” school district had failed to clearly define their vision or to set specific goals that ensured the vision’s implementation over time. Therefore, we lacked a mechanism that would automatically highlight problems if the school district got off track, which it quickly did.
The school district has now spent a half-billion dollars of referendum taxes without ever surpassing our FCAT rankings from a decade ago. Not only are we not a “world class” school district, but we are nothing more than an also-ran in Florida. It’s inexcusable, and it’s a violation of the public trust.
We have two choices: We can either renew the vision of becoming a top school district and set measureable goals to achieve it; or we can turn off the spigot of the referendum taxes and stop the waste. Either option is better than paying for a vision that’s faded out.
David Merrill is a former mayor of Sarasota, on the Better Government Association Board of Directors and is president of Arox Underground Utilities.