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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Florida has betrayed its children


By Colleen Conklin

Public schools in Florida have endured five brutal years of budget cuts. Year after year legislators have abdicated their duty to comply with the state Constitution. They have violated local control on every level. Florida politicians have passed unfunded mandate after unfunded mandate—costly laws and regulations passed down to local governments without a dime to pay for them.

Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature boast non-stop about how they have applied a business model to public education. By almost any standard, they should earn an F for failing the people of Florida. It’s fiscally irresponsible and fundamentally dishonest for them to pass bills without funding. It’s the equivalent of writing a bad check.

Local school boards have been forced to make painful decisions that now include massive layoffs across the state. After five years of cut there is no fat.

A sense of fear and retaliation is rampant in our Capitol. Good people on both sides of the aisle are fearful of standing up for what they believe, worried about losing a leadership role, a committee placement or being outcast by their party. These vengeful tentacles reach far and no one is immune.

Just weeks ago, after I recommended that our own school board discuss legal options regarding Article IX, I was reprimanded at my other job—I was the Chief Operations Officer of the Florida Endowment Foundation for Florida’s Graduates—, asked to resign and then terminated. Why? The foundation receives funding from the state and several of my board members were legislators. While I believe the concern over lost funding took priority over my position and value to the organization, I believe the response was disproportionate and indicative of that state of fear, which trickles down to local decision making: you’re either in lockstep with the state’s ideology, or you’re out of luck. Literally.

Being fired and degraded for recommending a discussion with our school board to get taxpayers money back and demand that the state live up to its paramount duty was my responsibility as a local elect official. We must send the message to the lawmakers that they cannot write a check they know will bounce on the back of our children. I don’t regret making my recommendation, or now pressing forward with it.

And that’s what I intend to do.

Districts across Florida are turning to virtual 7th period classes because they can’t afford teachers, decreasing the amount of days students are in school, possibly cutting back to a four-day week, eliminating programs that help students, electives that keep kids in school and abandoning advanced programs that prepare students for the future. K-12 school quality is a key factor for businesses deciding to relocate. Where will Florida be with an underfunded education system and under-prepared workforce?

Talk is cheap and I’m sick of watching every politician stand up and say they care about kids or education and then create a budget that says the exact opposite. Yes, we get it, state revenue is down but how about looking for solutions to our problems instead of simply cutting essential services and education year after year? Flagler is returning to 2006-07 funding levels while the district has grown by 1,100 students, or 10 percent. Don’t be fooled. The difference will be paid by increasing the property taxes of hardworking Florida property owners. In August government employees, including teachers will see their salaries cut by 3 percent, taking $1 Billion dollars out of the economy in one broad sweep, as the requirement that they contribute that portion of their salary to the Florida Retirement System kicks in.

To some, the idea of forcing government employees to pay toward their own retirement sounds reasonable. Remember, the Florida Retirement System is not a typical 401k with contributions matched by employers. This “contribution” is a pure reduction in salaries. Our employees will take home far less now than they did last year.

This isn’t the first time Florida public employees have paid into their retirement. Prior to 1974, public employees contributed to their own retirement. At the time, legislators decided that they couldn’t afford to have employees pay into the system. As it turns out, the longevity of most public employees was less than five years. They were leaving the system and taking their money with them.

The system nearly went broke. So, legislators chose to have the state make the contributions for the employees. If employees quit, the state could keep the money. Today Florida’s retirement system is one of the three healthiest systems in the nation.

Known for predatory raids of trust funds and cutting off money for special projects, legislators couldn’t resist going after the money accumulating in the thriving, stable Florida Retirement System. It’s a temporary fix to a major problem.

In many ways we have ourselves to blame. We didn’t push back. We accepted what Tallahassee shoveled out. Every year, education professionals quietly struggle to “make it work.” Why do they try so hard? It’s simple. Each year, the children pass through the doors of schools all over this district. Teachers, principals and support staff stand waiting, arms open, ready and eager to serve our children.

Our legislators cry foul and warn us about a so-called $3.6 billion dollar shortfall. Yet, they insist on giving away $5 Billion dollars a year in loopholes and exemptions to out-of-state corporations. Florida has one of the friendliest business environments in the country. While presiding over some of the deepest cuts in state history, Governor Scott succeeded in passing an additional $300 Million in new tax exemptions this session.

As a Flagler County school board member, I believe I was elected to advocate on behalf of our students, parents, teachers and administrators. We should be proud of the changes that have taken place in our district over the last decade. Much of what we have is due to the generosity of local taxpayers who supported the 2002 half penny sales tax, which enabled the district to be on the cutting edge of technology, and the .25 mill voters approved last fall, which helped keep jobs in one of the counties hardest hit by unemployment.

Relentless attacks on public education and devastating funding cuts must stop. We ignore the important link between high-quality early childhood education and success in school. Legislators have made it clear that they no longer view teachers as experts. Micro-managing politicians mandate expensive, unproven reforms for teachers and students.

Each child in our great state is precious. My sons attend our public schools. As a parent, I’m outraged that our legislators have wasted our time with partisan politics and “reforms of the month.” Legislators need to remember their “paramount duty,” stop micro-managing our professional educators and stop conjuring ways to funnel public dollars to friends in testing and test-prep conglomerates like Pearson, the company that administers the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT).

As a school board member, I was elected to protect our children and be their voice.

This is a sacred promise shared between moms, dads, teachers, superintendents and school board members. It isn’t in me to betray that pledge.

Above all, Gov. Scott and the Florida Legislature need to honor the promise our state Constitution makes to every child in this state. It isn’t a choice. It’s the law. Every citizen deserves a governor and legislators who respect Article IX, section 1 of the Florida Constitution. Nothing less will do. The children are listening.

Colleen Conklin is a Flagler County School Board member, representing District 2. She was elected in 2000. Reach her by email here.

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