Thousands of teachers rally against budget cuts
ORLANDO – Three days before the start of the most cash-strapped legislative session in decades, thousands of teachers and other school employees rallied this morning to send a message to lawmakers: Find the money.
“What I need someone to explain to me is why budget cuts for education are so high on the list,” said Don Manly, 66, a special education teacher in Pinellas who got up at 5:30 a.m. to board a rally-bound bus at St. Petersburg High. “We can’t sacrifice education for the next generation.”
“We don’t bring in money right now, but we’re creating people that are going to make up these careers and create revenue for the economy,” said Glennda McCallister, a Pasco teacher who caravaned to the rally with family and fellow teachers. “Everybody looks at (education) as a cost. It’s not. It’s an investment.”
Organized by the Florida Education Association, the 140,000-member state teachers union, the rally at the University of Central Florida Arena was expected to draw at least 5,000 people from around the state, including hundreds from the Tampa Bay area. By 11 a.m., masses were still streaming into the arena while those in the stands waved pom-poms, smacked at beach balls and broke into spontaneous chants of “fund education now.”
Behind the festive atmosphere, frustration has been building for months. The Legislature has cut core K-12 education spending by $1.4 billion since October 2007, and may have to cut another $2 billion when they craft next year’s budget. Districts that have already cut spending and frozen pay are now talking layoffs. Pinellas is discussing the possibility of 10 percent pay cuts. Volusia ordered teachers to unplug coffee pots.
“Time and again, voters have gone to the polls to say they want education to be a priority. And (lawmakers) continue to ignore the will of the people,” FEA President Andy Ford told The Gradebook before taking the stage, citing the constitutional amendments mandating smaller class sizes and voluntary pre-kindergarten. “It’s time to tell them, ‘No more delays. Just do it.’ “
The union’s proposed solution is a 3-year, 1-cent increase in the sales tax, which it says would generate $3.5 billion each year. Key members of the Republican-led Legislature say they’re willing to at least consider some tax increases. But to date, they haven’t tagged any of them as likely. And they appear especially cold to the pitch for a higher sales tax.
“We know that Floridians are hurting. Is this the time to go in and ask them to pay more?” said Anitere Flores, R-Miami, who chairs the K-12 appropriations committee in the House. “When I go around and talk to people, they say there’s still money there, we need to be better about how we spend it.”
The Legislature also appears resistant to using the federal stimulus money to offset further cuts to schools. Gov. Charlie Crist has proposed using nearly $900 million of that money to partially plug the anticipated hole in next year’s K-12 budget. But with some forecasts suggesting Florida’s economic funk could last several years, many Republican lawmakers say it would not be wise to use one-time money for recurring expenses such as teacher pay.
Cheryl Ann Tish, a science teacher at Meadowlawn Middle School, said she isn’t sure what the answer is. But putting a bigger burden on teachers isn’t it. “Why do I as a teacher always have to suck it up? The whole community needs to suck it up,” she said before boarding the bus at St. Pete High. “I want everyone to do their part.”