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Monday, 26 January 2009 22:00

School Board Meets with Legislators - One Attendee's Summary of Mtg

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I left Thursday?s (Jan 22)  School Board legislative delegation meeting
with mixed feelings.  Maybe it will help to sort out my thoughts by
writing about it.  As long as I?m writing, I?d like to share those
thoughts with Brevard?s finest, just to give my impression of what I saw
and where we?re heading.  Keep in mind the commentary that follows is my
own, not the official word of BFT (Brevard Federation of Teachers).  Janet and John sat with me in the
front row and took great notes, practically in transcript form.  My notes
were mostly in the form of conclusions, perhaps knee-jerk reactions.  I
now share those impressions.

The overall tone of the meeting was quite friendly and conciliatory.  That
seemed a bit surprising to me at first, but in hindsight that makes
perfect sense.  With all the behind the scenes talk about holding these
guys accountable for the damage the legislature is doing, I still should
not have expected hostility.  There were plenty of back slaps and laughs
between our board and the legislators.  The board members and legislators
were tripping over themselves with praise for our district?s
accomplishments and the legislators ended with each one stressing that
they were on our side and wanted to do the best thing for our schools.  To
give credit to our board members, it was about as good a grilling as could
have been expected from one set of elected officials to another.

After introductions and niceties, Senator Mike Haridopolos spoke for the
delegation first, seemingly trying to discredit our whole claim that we
were in crisis.  He?s done this before, inspiring many a Florida Today
blogger to repeat his mantra.  He opened with the statement that eight
years ago the Board?s budget was about $500 million.  This year it was
over a billion.  ?That?s an increase in eight years of one hundred
percent.?  Dr. DiPatri jumped on that immediately by pointing out that the
first number did not include capital, while the second number did.  In
reality, he pointed out, eight years ago our operating budget was $400
million.  Today it?s $600 million.  Given increases in costs and student
enrollment, that?s a responsible increase.

In the grand scheme of the meeting, it was a brief and friendly exchange.
Yet it?s important we realize that the first tool used to discredit those
calling for a revenue increase is to show inflated numbers.  We are in
this mess because Tallahassee?s consistent mandate is to trim the fat.
When senators drop misleading numbers like that, in an effort to show a
bloated budget, we need to recognize the move for what it is: further
justification to slash revenue sources.

From there Dr. DiPatri seemingly rightfully thanked the delegation for not
making January?s special session worse.  We all knew about last fall?s
$9.8 million holdback.  That holdback has already been budgeted.  When we
heard about a $10 million cut this spring, many of us believed that would
be an additional $10 million.  In reality, the spring?s $10 million cut
was confirmation of the fall?s holdback.  We do not need to cut another
$10 million.  To soften the blow slightly, the legislature is allowing
some flexibility of spending, including allowing us to transfer some money
out of the textbook categorical to operating expenses.  In tough times,
that small favor goes a long way.

Judy Preston gave her report on the district?s actions towards moving some
operating expenses to the capital budget.  She spoke to the dangers of
shifting mils from the capital collections to operating collections.  
Basically, shifting mils allows districts to collect some tax dollars for
the operating budget that they otherwise would have collected for capital.
 However, if the legislature is already allowing some expenditures to be
shifted between the accounts, then shifting mils really doesn?t make a
difference.  Shifting mils is a trick politicians use to try to look like
they?re helping a situation without raising taxes.  In reality, the net
gain of dollars is zero, so nothing is really helped, except the budget
lady gets dizzy watching the money around.

After Judy?s report, each school board member spoke on a pre-arranged
topic.  While speaking, some discussion flared up among the board members
and legislators.  On the whole I was impressed with our board, for the
topics they brought up and for their delivery.  But before the synopsis, I
have to give extended props to Dr. Barbara Murray, who showed her skills
of preparation and speaking.  At one point, Representative Ralph Poppell
cut to the chase and said he knew we were all calling for a revenue
increase.   He?s against a revenue increase and isn?t shy to say so.  He
said he wanted the economy to recover the right way, through the creation
and support of high paying jobs.  When we get highly qualified, high paid
workers back on their feet, he said the economy will improve and the
state?s revenue will increase.  Dr. Murray immediately pointed out that in
most Florida districts, the School Board is the largest employer.  If he
wants high paying, skilled jobs, he need look no further than to teachers.
 Build them up, and here comes the economy.  Great point, Dr. Murray.

Andy Ziegler spoke about A plus money, pointing out that we were victims
of our own success.  Because the state budgeted this year?s reward money
at last year?s level, we had to shell out our own operating dollars to
cover a chunk of school recognition money.  Next year, there is talk that
the school recognition money could be rolled into FTE dollars.  That?s a
fancy way of saying they might end the silly A plus program and just take
the vestiges of the money and put it into the education pot.  The problem
for Brevard is that we always get a slightly higher share than we would
?deserve? if the money would be just divided up equally.  We have 2.7% of
the state?s population; yet we get 3.75% of the A plus money.  So if they
just divide up the money and spread it evenly across the state, we would
come out behind.

Amy Kneessey spoke about the National Board program, to which Ritch
Workman made some slightly sarcastic remarks about National Board teachers
and their fondness for clogging his e-mail box.  He praised the teachers
who get the certificate, but didn?t see the application fee as a true
?need.?  Representative Workman spoke a lot about ?wants? and
?needs,?
citing a time when his business, which he owns with his brother, went
through hard times.  He had to list all their expenses and categorize them
as ?wants? or ?needs.?  To keep the business afloat, they had to stress
the ?needs? and cut the ?wants.?   At any rate, he said that the state
has
this program where they pay teachers to apply for a certificate that they
just get so they can get a bonus.  Somebody hammered him on that statement
(just get the certificate to get the bonus) and he quickly back peddled.
But he stood firm that the National Board program is a ?want,?and it gets
cut in times of ?need.?  Amy Kneessey further defended the program,
claiming it was a true ?pay for performance? indicator, which led to her
plea to just kill the MAP program by cutting the funding.

Karen Henderson brought up the topic that probably dominated discussion
more than any other ? class size amendment.  It is a nasty little topic
that quite easily becomes divisive.  She had plenty of help from fellow
board members, and I grew concerned as discussion moved towards consensus
about the need to ?fix? CSA.  Legislators Haridopolos and Poppell led the
charge against the impending full implementation of class size amendment,
saying it was the South Florida unions that pushed for it and that won?t
budge today.  Dr. DiPatri pointed out that we easily meet the mandate if
you take a school average.  Looking at class size as a school average is
much less confining than meeting classroom-by-classroom caps.  There was
so much happy and hopeful talk about how -- if we could just get unions,
superintendents, administrators, parents, etc. ? to unify and rally around
a voter mandate to repeal the class size amendment and replace it with a
less restrictive one, we could solve our financial mess.

The reality, as I see it, is that if we relax class size goals, the money
to meet those goals will relax as well.  It took a lot of hard work to get
meaningful class size provisions in place.  To me, it seems that if this
researched based, voter approved, initiative is short on funding, the
solution should be to find the funding, not try to divide the education
stakeholders.  And yet the delegation seemed to imply that without the
class size overturn, they could not find more money for us.  Right after
the meeting, the guy from Channel 6 came over to us and asked for our
comments on the meeting.  I did what any courageous man would do; I fled
the scene.  Janet answered his questions and spoke of our unwavering
support for protecting class sizes.  The issue here is funding, not
blaming the voters for demanding a better education for their children.

Dr. Murray gave a brief report on charter schools and Dr. DiPatri gave the
details of the February 23 Town Hall meeting, before the legislators took
turns giving final remarks.

Representative John Tobia gave us a little education on the state?s
inability to just print money when it needs more.  He says he?s a teacher
too, and appreciates smaller class sizes, but the impending cuts are
unavoidable.  He says he takes the time to return all calls and e-mails
when they are not form letters.  So, if you want to write to him, don?t
just copy-paste standard messages.  (I believe he?s a college teacher, not
K-12)

Senator Mike Haridopolos? closing remarks focused on his record of making
education his top priority.  He says in good times when revenue is up,
education gets the most increases.  And when times are tough, education
gets the smallest cuts, in terms of percent.  Then he listed out potential
sources of revenue, but said they would not bring in as much money as
expected, even if they did them.  For example, the internet tax has been
touted as a $2 billion revenue stream, while his estimates show it as
being $30-40 million.  He did not mention the penny sales tax that FEA is
pushing.

Representative Steve Crisafulli did not say much, but he said something I
believed was very hopeful: everything is on the table for revenue in the
March session.  He explained that January?s special session was not about
raising revenue, but in March they could, and that they would look at
everything.

Representative Ritch Workman closed with his ?wants and needs? speech
again and encouraged more e-mails, but suggested making them personal.  He
says he?s returned phone calls to people who e-mail him and they?re not
sure what they wrote.  In other words, don?t just copy-paste your message.
 But then, earlier, he said that before he came to the meeting he copied
?leadership?s? speaking points on class size amendment.  He probably
wasn?t supposed to say that out loud, and Representative Poppell may have
to school him in being a more coy politician.  ?Leadership?s speaking
points? refers to the approved message of the Republican leadership of the
Legislature.  While we?re supposed to believe that every representative
carefully weighs each issue, the reality is that no Republican strays very
far from ?leadership?s? stand.  Somewhere in the new guy training, they
forgot to tell him to make sure the invisible hand of Leadership stays
invisible.

And then there was Representative Poppell, by far the most experienced
politician of the bunch, who best speaks the ?cut taxes to stimulate the
economy? line.  His comments kept coming back to class size amendment and
his ?told you so? attitude that the legislator can?t fix what the voters
break.  My overall impression was that the entire delegation, with
probable exception of Haridopolos, looks to him for speaking points and
guidance.  He offered some token solutions like putting all new building
projects on hiatus (they are) and dropped his standard fortune cookie
line: ?You all need to remember that private schools can?t continually go
back to the public tax dollar trough.?

Let me leave you with some final observations and thoughts.  If you
thought the rest was commentary, wait until you read this:

Last modified on Tuesday, 05 January 2010 21:35
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