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Sunday, May 15, 2011

Parents of Florida's school children should prepare for the worse

From the Daytona Beach News Journal

by Amy Nowell

When was the last time you read the Florida Constitution? Apparently, it's been a while for our legislators in Tallahassee.

They seem to have skipped over Article 9, which states: "The education of children is a fundamental value of the people of the State of Florida. It is, therefore, a paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders."

Paramount duty? Perhaps our Tallahassee friends need to go back and ask a teacher what the word "paramount" really means. Because the budget they are passing is far from paramount.

Here in Volusia County, we've seen more than $75 million cut from the district budget over the past three years. Were some of those cuts warranted? Absolutely. Did it make our school administrators and School Board members take a hard look at expenses? You bet. But there came a point when tough decisions and close examination were done and painful cuts began.

Three years ago, I doubted things were as bad as what I was hearing. Surely much of the complaining was crying wolf.

So I took the time and delved into the budget. Not fun reading, not enjoyable, but I reassured myself that I was doing it for our children and wouldn't it be nice when I could look up and say, "Eureka! I have the answer!"

But no "aha" moment was to come. What I found instead were hard choices that I didn't necessarily agree with, but were absolutely necessary. So I got involved at the grassroots level, and started educating other parents and talking to elected officials -- making my voice heard. I wrote letters, sent emails, boarded buses to Tallahassee, attended every local meeting I could find, initiated meetings, and found ways to expand Volusia County's voice to Central Florida and the entire state.

Did parents like me make a difference? Well, it wasn't tremendous, but may have been enough to keep cuts to education from being catastrophic -- enough to make legislators think before they cut. Seriously, it could have been much, much worse.

And next year, it's going to be. That's why it continues to make a difference when parents speak. Yes, it helps when teachers, administrators and school board members talk. But when parents start making calls, sending emails and knocking on the doors of representatives, that's when our elected officials really sit up and pay attention.

I am proud of the education my children receive in Volusia County schools. I love their teachers. I admire the administrators who make do with less. Every day, I am awed how education happens with such passion and dedication. If you're in the halls of our schools, you know we have lots to cheer about.

But we shouldn't have to ask the teachers to pay for their basic classroom supplies. We shouldn't have to weigh whether athletics or performing arts is more important. We shouldn't have to watch our small community schools close because it's the only cost-efficient thing to do. And we certainly shouldn't have to watch testing take over teaching, and unfunded mandates from the state take precedence over what's best for our students right here at home.

So as our Volusia County School Board grapples with the need to trim millions from the budgets for this year and the next, I will continue to make calls, send emails, board buses to Tallahassee, initiate meetings, and educate parents. Because it's going to be even more important next year.

Amy Nowell, of New Smyrna Beach, was just elected to a second term as chairman of the Volusia County Schools District Advisory Committee. She is also chairman of FundEducationNow/Volusia

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