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Sarasota School Board sets vision for next 6 years, addresses VPK cost gap

The school district's strategic plan prioritizes early childhood education and literacy.

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The school board unanimously passed a new strategic plan on June 4 titled “Every Opportunity 2030.” 

The vote follows the suspension of the district’s strategic plan in August 2023, to give Superintendent Terry Connor, who had been sworn in the previous month, an opportunity to bring it in line with his goals. 

“This is a well-defined strategic plan that will guide our efforts for the next six years,” Connor said. “It ensures that we are aligned, and we’re working collaboratively towards our common objective, which is ensuring that we are continually advancing and we have the accountability and transparency measures and expectations outlined within this plan.”

The road ahead

The plan features five pillars, the first of which is “Every Student Achieves” and includes the plan’s foundational elements.

Components of that pillar include improvements and expansions to preschool programs, comprehensive literacy initiatives through changes like the addition of literacy coaches and interventionists, new strategies and support systems for instructors, and ways to equip students for the future like expanded career and technical education and dual enrollment opportunities. 

The second pillar, “Every Student Supported,” includes facets such as improving staff-to-student ratios, a multi-tiered system of support for students, enhancements to student activities, an increase in district-operated mental health service providers, new specialized learning events and attendance rewards. 

The third pillar, “Every Employee Valued” focuses on hiring and retaining staff and creating a strong workplace culture. This includes initiatives like “equitable and transparent” compensation structures, specialized professional learning and mentorship for new teachers and new forms of employee engagement.

It also discusses what it says are innovative staffing practices, including creative approaches to recruitment like leveraging employee narratives and testimonials. 

The fourth pillar, “Every School Equipped,” includes maintaining sustainable financial practices via an Enterprise Resource Planning system, creating high-quality infrastructure through activities such as capital budget discussions with principals, enhancing school security through measures like collaboration with law enforcement, new reporting and compliance systems and new technological resources. 

The fifth pillar, “Every Community Engaged,” seeks to involve students, families and local organizations. It includes enhanced online and media presences, “Coffee with Connor” forums and annual State of Schools presentations, enhanced collaboration with marketing, enhanced community partnerships and expanded volunteer opportunities. 

Weighing in

Commenter Carol Lerner called the plan “a thoughtful roadmap for our district.” 

“It should be supported tonight, although I would have liked to have seen community schools for all Title I schools, and district-based dual language immersion programs in it,” she said.

Like other commenters, she highlighted that families would be required to pay out of pocket for Voluntary Pre-K (VPK) programs under the plan’s funding model. 

“I was curious about the district’s exploration of new funding sources to keep the preschool programs sustainable,” she said. “With further research, I was dismayed to learn that one of the braided funding sources, however, came from some parents paying for the extended day.”

Connor explained that federal COVID-19 funding formerly covered the cost, but with those funds set to expire in September, leaving a gap of about $4 million, the district had to explore new options. 

He said while additional state funding was able to cover a half-day of the program, for the remainder of the day, the district combined other sources, which meant some out-of-pocket costs.

“It is a burden for parents to have to come out of pocket, but we did a deep dive and we analyzed this very deeply,” he said. “We looked at the private providers here in Sarasota County, and we looked at similar sized school districts across Florida to determine, what would be the appropriate charge, per week, per month, per year, where we believe that we could close that funding gap that we have, provide a full day of service, and meet the needs of our community?”

Families eligible for free meals won’t be charged for the programs. For families eligible for reduced meals, the programs would cost $1354.50, and for those eligible for neither free nor reduced meals, they would cost $3,870.

This translates to what Connor said is about a $107 average weekly cost to parents for full-day services, which he said made the district “very competitive” with other districts and private providers.

He also said charging too low a fee for the programs could put private providers, which serve students the district does not have the capacity to handle, out of business. 

“That’s a balance that we strike with the (Early Learning Coalition), and we look and have those conversations,” he said.

Following up on Connor’s comments, board member Tom Edwards said the affordability of certain priorities in Sarasota was decreasing, which he attributed to the voucher program, district expenses and unfunded mandates.

Board member Tim Enos suggested having charitable organizations offset some of the gaps in funding in the plan.  

Some commenters criticized the plan for an alleged lack of dual language programming, but, Board Chair Karen Rose noted it’s mentioned twice in the document, with Edwards calling it “alive and well.” 

All board members expressed support for the plan. 

“I’m very, very happy about a lot of the public comments of a lot of those who are very interested in early childhood education,” Connor said. “For me, it’s the first priority of the strategic plan. An early, strong, solid foundation is really critical for us, so the fact that we’re having the conversation and it is the priority, really excites me.”



Ian Swaby

Ian Swaby is the Sarasota neighbors writer for the Observer. Ian is a Florida State University graduate of Editing, Writing, and Media and previously worked in the publishing industry in the Cayman Islands.

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