Hernando schools must cover college costs

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BROOKSVILLE – A Senate bill to take effect Monday will leave school districts statewide liable for tuition costs for high school students dual-enrolled in college courses – an estimated annual cost of half a million dollars for the Hernando County School District this upcoming school year.

“We’re going to do what we can,” School Superintendent Bryan Blavatt said. “The board has committed. We’re going to provide those dual-enrollment services, but that’s an unfunded mandate, and that’s an expense we haven’t figured on.”

Previously, college tuition and fees for dual-enrollment courses were waived at no cost to school districts, but according to Marcia Austin of the Division of Teaching and Learning, Senate Bill 1514 will require a total projected cost of $546,496 for 53 percent of dual-enrolled Hernando students to attend college courses on Pasco-Hernando Community College campuses during the 2013-14 school year.

The other 47 percent of dual-enrolled Hernando students taking courses on school district properties amount to little or no cost, Austin said.

It was mentioned during a school board workshop Tuesday that Pasco County has three times as many students as Hernando County does but will still require about the same projected costs as Hernando County. Blavatt said he asked staff to look into why Hernando County School District’s dual-enrollment expenses are comparable to the same program in larger Pasco schools.

The consensus was there were not enough Hernando teachers certified to teach college-level courses as there are students to attend them, which is why the district is incurring the nearly half-million tuition cost for students to attend courses on PHCC campuses. Students and parents are responsible for their own transportation, according to the dual-enrollment handbook.

“My understanding is (Pasco schools) have quite a few teachers on their campuses that teach dual-enrollment,” Austin said. “We’re limited because of the certification issues.”

According to PHCC Media Specialist Lucy Miller, in order to teach college-level courses at PHCC, the college requires advanced degrees in addition to specialty certifications.

“We are extremely particular about credentials, so anybody allowed to teach college-level courses would have to have that degree as their major, including so many hours,” Miller said. “They would have to have master’s degree with specialization to teach biology. It has to be that particular field of study, which sometimes makes it challenging to find those instructors.”

State law requires instructional materials assigned for use within dual-enrollment courses be provided to students from Florida public high schools free of charge, so the district will continue to pay textbook expenses at a total projected cost of $96,693.44 for next school year, which according to Austin, was included in the current budget.

However, the $449,802.56 difference was not.

“Obviously that’s going to have implications for the budget,” Blavatt said.

Later Tuesday evening, the school board approved a $372,831.20 purchase of Hernando County-approved textbooks from the Florida School Book Depository, PHCC bookstore, multiple textbook vendors and as-needed purchase orders for the 2013-14 school year, which includes the dual-enrollment program.

According to Miller, PHCC has waived up to $2.5 million for dual-enrolled high school students since the program’s inception.

“It was very expensive, and it’s become increasingly popular,” Miller said. “The expenses for the college have increased. We do support the dual-enrollment program; however, the expense really is a problem. Because of its popularity, we had to balance our own students, who needed classroom space.”

In order for a student to be eligible for dual-enrollment, they must maintain a 3.0 grade point average for academic courses and a 2.0 for career courses, and the difference in standards is set by the college, according to the school board.