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9 Investigates high price of virtual schools conference

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Florida Virtual School is holding its annual conference in Orlando this week, with a price tag of $925,000, including rooms for staff and teachers from outside the Central Florida area.

The conference, which will wrap up Friday evening at the Hilton on International Drive in Orlando, is the first for the school since it was forced to lay off more than 800 full- and part-time staff as part of a reduction in enrollment and funding from the state.

"This is probably the most important thing we do," said Florida Virtual School Chief Officer of Educational Transformation Pam Birtolo. "This year is probably the most important."

Despite the cuts to funding and drop in enrollment, the school is standing behind the importance of the conference, specifically as the school prepares for the full implementation of Common Core standards.

"The professional learning conference has always played a big role in the professional development for teachers," said Florida Virtual School Director of Curriculum Jill Dickinson. "There is a blueprint for professional development that is geared towards common core."

A portion of the $925,000 cost is being paid for through corporate sponsorships. In addition, the school is not providing hotel rooms for teachers inside 50 miles from the conference location and is requiring room sharing for those attending.  Florida Virtual School estimates the cost per teacher to attend the conference is $368 for the three-day event.

"Most of those dollars come from outside of the general fund," said Birtolo. "Research shows that people who work virtually need to be together from time to time."

FVS does conduct much of its training for teachers and staff over the Internet.  The school said the Orlando event  is one of the few times staff members and teachers meet face to face during the year.  In addition, the school points out that teachers are required to have 120 hours of continuing education, with this conference fulfilling up to 19 hours for this year’s attendees.