A weekend interview with ...
... Sami Leigh Scott, president of the Pinellas School Advisory Council Association. Since taking the helm of this countywide organization, Scott has taken some high profile positions, such as writing local lawmakers to urge them to stop cutting education funding. She spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about her goals for the organization and about parents role in education.
What exactly are your plans for the SAC committee? And this is an overarching committee, correct?
Yes, it is. It is the Pinellas School Advisory Council Association. I became involved in the school and the different government issues, policy issues, as soon as I enrolled my daughters in 2002 in elementary school. I learned of SAC and became a member at Gulf Beaches and then chair at Madiera Beach, John Hopkins and then vice chair at Gibbs. What I learned first as a member was how little parents knew of this committee and also what purpose it served as a parent in being involved. I sought out training to become a better parent advocate and learned that there was nothing out there. So I basically started joining the district advisory council and I started following the School Board members. I would check to see where I could go and who to talk to when I had problems.
So when you did all of that, did you find that there was a lot that needed to be done?
I learned that there were things being done, but not in the interest of our kids. And sitting as a parent on these SAC committees, the principals basically ran the show. And as a parent I noticed that we were intimidated, sitting in these schools talking and our children being enrolled and now knowing better because the parents are involved. We were just basically rubber stampers. Whenever she would announce something she needed our vote on, we just waited for the cue and our arms went up with no real understanding of what we were voting.
And now with the overarching committee and the different SACs, your goal is to get people more informed and to be active?
That's exactly right. I learned at the Pinellas SAC, and they were just meeting. I got on board and told them of my plight of trying to get help. In an attempt to make a difference, I asked them to do the training session for SACs. Now we put on a basic workshop, budgeting workshops. We put on bylaws workshops. We really try to inform SAC parents and members what we are able to do on the SAC committees and really become strong advocates, learned advocates. That's really what PSAC does now.
I saw you sent letters to the lawmakers speaking on behalf of the schools and students for finances. What prompted you to take that action?
Well, here we find more budget cuts within our school. And they had reduced the statutory amount that they give all schools for SAC from $10 a student to $5 a student. That's a huge handicap. We're already struggling to provide additional resources for our kids in preparing them for FCAT, in getting the word out to have more parents join SAC. To cut that funding in half is just criminal.
Have you heard back from anyone yet?
No. I am disappointed that it hasn't come around yet from our House reps. Today I am going to be sending the same letters to our senators to continue to get their input. I also will follow up with phone calls. ...
Are you getting any other parents or SAC members to support you and do the same thing?
As SAC chair at John Hopkins and vice chair at Gibbs, I have sent that letter to the principals to send to all of our SAC members at those two schools and to encourage the other SACs to join the bandwagon. They need to contact their lawmakers. We really are in dire straits. They cut $43-million in the education budget. To take another amount from SAC handicaps too much. The goal is to continue encouraging SAC members to get involved. ...
Yeah. In fact, I just signed off under PSAC. Its body agreed to push the decentralization concept that the Pinellas Education Foundation has come up with. So we're excited about the School Board reviewing this seriously as another option to improve our academic issues that we find ourselves in. And we've also requested of the School Board to make PSAC its special advisory council on decentralization. So we've got a lot of issues coming up this year.
We've got the dismantlement of our student assignment plan, which has resegregated our education system all over again. In that dismantlement, they have provided much less resources to tackle a major problem. Because when they dismantled it, they set up more behavioral children and other negative issues within certain schools on certain sides of our county with the neighborhood school design, and no resources to cover some of the problems they have created.
We do have a problem with the interim superintendent, who is ill-equipped for the major problems we have.
Have you been looking at the candidates for superintendent and planning to have a voice in the process?
Absolutely. In fact I have talked to most of the candidates and that's a scary process we have going. The issues that the School Board members are facing, I question if these candidates are prepared to take on even the discussion, much less the job. I just read Donna Winchester's interviews of District 2, and it's scary.
So you're talking about the School Board?
I'm sorry. I was talking about the School Board candidates. But with regard to the superintendent candidates, I have seen a few articles written by the St. Petersburg Times on a few candidates, and that's even more scary. (Laughs) That is even more scary that we're coming down to the wire with so few qualified candidates. ... I just haven't seen Julie Janssen's ability or true leadership to take on these massive problems that Pinellas County faces.
What would you say are three main problems that Pinellas needs to deal with?
I think for sure that budget. They are losing programs that have proven successful for our children. Those reading and math coaches, to eliminate those. To reduce staff and increase student population makes no sense at all. The achievement gap is just out of complete control. The graduation rate, of course, is Third World. And that's even with the jiggered math that DOE offers. We know the real numbers are closer to 33 percent than the 67 percent that they publish. This is just terrible. Less parental involvement, less community involvement, less creative teachers just in being handcuffed on all the policy changes and so few resources. I mean, I could just keep going. It's going to be a very difficult year.
I just wonder, then, how you and your organization can really make a difference in the face of what sounds like huge odds.
Well, the first thing is, we will be attending the Pinellas Council of PTAs workshop. And we will be pushing independently for SAC members in greater numbers to show up for those training opportunities. We will put on additional workshops with the intent to recruit, to inform. With the special advisory committee possibility, we can really get in there as parents to have a say about how to drive that site-based management opportunity for our kids. Personally I think we may not be able to do that for the whole district, but if we took some of the more struggling schools under that type of a platform we may be able to see some real change.
But it's going to require parents to get involved. We're going to have to get really, really serious in backing our children and insisting that they enjoy the entitlement of the constitution that says every child must be taught from where they are in the public school system. We can't keep allowing the excuses and the personal bickering that the School Board tends to engage in over our children's success.
Maybe you can offer a model for parents who say there is no time.
There is no time? What do you mean?
That there is no time to be involved.
Well, there is no such thing as that. Your child's future is at risk here. And we know that the schools can't take on this job themselves. One of the problems that the restrictions the board has placed on parents by not allowing them to choose schools closer to their work or closer to their home is that if we allowed parents to make choices based on their own family set-up, those parents would be involved. On their way home, they could go to those schools' SAC meetings, they could attend PTA. Our goal is to hit them in all the different ways that we can. If we need to change the hours of SAC meetings to get more parents involved, we will do surveys to do that. We have to just be vigilant in pushing that parents get involved. You really don't have any choice.