Rick Baker has used mailers, forums and social media to relay one big message in his campaign for St. Petersburg mayor: Schools in St. Petersburg saw drastic improvements when he was mayor from 2001 to 2010.
During an interview with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board July 13, Baker touted his efforts to help improve public schools in the city, which included a mentoring program he started in 2001.
"We went from zero A elementary schools when I took office to 16 when I left, and our total A and B schools went up by 260 percent," Baker said. "I don’t take credit for that, I honestly don’t. I know that there’s a lot of factors that build into that, but I’m just saying we were a helper and the schools did not feel abandoned in St. Pete when we did that."
With this talking point coming up again and again, we wondered about the number of A schools Baker referenced.
Baker’s data is right on the numbers, but as he acknowledged, there are a lot of factors that can affect school grades.
The number of A elementary schools increased
The relevant data comes from the Florida Department of Education.
Every year since 1999, the Florida Department of Education has released individual grades for schools in the state after the academic year.
The grading formula gauges schools’ performance based on how many students score at grade level and how many students made improvements in core curriculum areas of math, language arts and science. Schools can receive a grade of A, B, C, D, F or I (incomplete).
Baker’s evidence for his statement is based on the grades of elementary schools included in his "Mayor's, Mentors and More" program, which included the majority of elementary schools in St. Petersburg starting in 2001. The program included initiatives such as scholarships, corporate partnerships and business mentoring.
Baker spokeswoman Brigitta Shouppe said schools that had 51 percent of their students living in the city of St. Petersburg were included in the program, ranging from 27 to 30 schools each year.
According to the state data, there were zero A elementary schools from that group in 2001.
At the end of Baker's last full year in office in 2009, the number of A elementary schools had jumped dramatically to 16. The number of A and B total schools (not just elementary schools) went from seven in July 2001 to 26 in July 2009. That’s an increase of about 271 percent.
The improvement in A-rated schools was not a steady build; the number fluctuated year to year.
The education department made significant changes to the grading system between 2001 and 2009, so schools were not graded based on the exact same criteria over the eight-year period.
"In the past the department has shown grades over time but has generally also pointed out the changes made from one year to the next," said Audrey Walden, Florida Department of Education spokeswoman.
School improvement takes a village
As Baker acknowledged, a mayor can only do so much when it comes to local education. The school board sets local education policy and the superintendent carries it out.
In an interview with PolitiFact Florida, Baker stressed again that the gains were a team effort.
"It’s great for the St. Pete schools to have an advocate in the mayor’s office and do it in partnership with the School's Board and the school system," Baker said.
Julie Mastry (formerly Julie Janssen), who was Pinellas County superintendent from 2008-11 and deputy superintendent from 2006-08, said the school board and Baker’s office had a "healthy partnership."
Current Pinellas County School Board member Rene Flowers served on St. Petersburg City Council for a potion of Baker’s term and was clear that she supports Mayor Rick Kriseman in this election.
She said "the mayor has nothing to do" with daily operations in county schools.
"School reform is complex, and it is hard to attribute improvement to one program or source," said Alyson Adams, a clinical associate professor of education at the University of Florida.
Adams said that it’s possible Baker’s mentoring program put a greater focus on learning, but added there may also be other programs happening in these schools that contributed to the improvements.
Baker’s tenure did not see as much of the effects of the School Board’s vote in December 2007 to end integration and create neighborhood schools. (Baker said he did not have a position on that.) The decision and a lack of follow-up with resources by the board created a concentration of poverty in schools in St. Petersburg's black neighborhoods. The Tampa Bay Times documented the outcome of five elementary schools in its "Failure Factories" investigation.
Baker said, "We went from 0 A elementary schools when I took office to 16 when I left, and our total A and B schools went up by 260 percent."
Baker’s evidence comes from the Florida Department of Education and the statistics he cites are accurate. Local community members gave him credit for starting a mentoring program, but Baker himself has acknowledged that many factors outside of the mayor’s control influence school grades.
His statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information, so we it Mostly True.