A weekend interview with ...
... Colleen Wood, co-founder of 50th No More, a parent activist group calling for changes in Florida's funding of public education. Wood, a St. Johns County PTO leader (shown on the left with co-founder Brette Reiman), talked with reporter Jeff Solochek about how the group got started and what it hopes to accomplish. [Photo from Florida Times-Union]
I'm really interested in knowing about how you got interested in starting 50th No More.
Okay. I'm the president of a PTO at my daughter's elementary school. And our School Board member (FSBA president Bev Slough) does quarterly meetings with our PTO presidents. ... For the last year we've been hearing cuts, and budget cuts. And I'm beginning to understand how schools are funded more, sales tax revenue and that that was down, so funding for schools was down. And then we had these big cuts come down during the year. The school year had already started and the budget was in place. And she was telling us we were facing a couple million dollars here, and then the next meeting it was a couple more. And then Amendment 1 came out.
So basically we're just hearing cut after cut after cut, and what programs we're going to have to sacrifice and what teaching positions we won't be able to fill at our district. They've had directors leave and not fill them. They've just had other directors assume the responsibility. And basically I couldn't take hearing it any more without doing something. So I happened to get in touch with Bev. I wanted a concrete list of things I could do. I could mobilize parents if I know what you need. I just didn't know what to do.
And so her advice was to start a group?
No, actually. Her advice was to come out with her to a meeting where another group of parents from another part of our county had contacted her with the same request. And so we all met at the library and we started talking and realized the cuts that were coming were not the extras. We were not losing bonus positions. There was no fat to lose. We were losing bone. We were losing teachers we needed. And so we just started talking and decided if other parents knew what was happening, they would be just as outraged as we were, and what could we do. That was the beginning of the group.
What have you done specifically since then to get the organization rolling?
Well, we started reaching out to as many of our friends, neighbors. Word of mouth. We started to get people involved that way and get a few more people coming to the meetings. And you know how that is. You tell a couple people and they bring a couple friends and it starts to grow that way. And actually what has impressed me most is to have a meeting where 25 or 30 people come, 15 or so of whom are new, during the summer. Because we're all traveling, and it's vacation time, and still we have this commitment from parents. We have a lot of parents who can't come to the meetings, but they are writing letters to the editor and signing the petition. They want to get involved. To me that said a lot. ...
Tell me a little bit about the petition. What are you asking for and who are you asking it of?
What we're doing with the petition is trying to get signatures of parents and community members to say to the state Legislature and to the governor that we want education to be a true priority in Florida, and not just talk. And it's a true priority when we're not making promises that aren't true. When we're not saying Amendment 1, or Amendment 5 that was just struck off the ballot and that's still under appeals ... to say that education will be held harmless by its passage is not true. ... So we're asking that it be a priority.
And part of our goal, really with the group, is just to raise public awareness of what the schools are doing, the great things that we are doing, and how community support makes a difference. Our goal is not only to defeat these amendments. It's to be a long term advocate for public education. It's to get people involved in the schools. I mean, if out of all of this wen end up having a business person that says, 'You know what, I could be a really great mentor and I'm going to help a school,' that's going to make a difference, too. That's going to help support public schools, not just state funding.
Are you looking at being politically active in, say, school board races and legislative races, also, then?
No. We don't have a problem with going to candidate forums to ask them what their views are on the tax swap amendment, what they think about education funding, vouchers. We want to know what they think. But one of the things we all talked about as parents when we first got this group together is, we are busy. We are working parents, we are stay at home parents, we're running our kids around, we are trying to keep our homes afloat. And sometimes the stuff that comes out of Tallahassee is so confusing, trying to understand what is happening before it happens is not always easy. I'm a pretty informed parent, and Amendment 1 came out of left field for me. I didn't know about it. I didn't know what it was going to do. So one of the things we want to do is to simply provide information to parents - 'This is what's coming up, and if you can look at the information and be informed before you go to the polls, and think about what are the long-term implications on education of your vote.'
Now, are you solely a St. Johns County effort? Or are you reaching out to other counties as well?
We are reaching out to other counties. I actually was asked by a couple of Duval School Board members to come to their meeting and just speak in the public comments section so I could talk about what we are doing. We've made contact recently with Volusia County and Brevard County, and are doing some things with them as well. What we want is word to spread around the state about what these amendments will do, because it will have an effect statewide and not just here. We just happen to be the people who got together at this time and coined this phrase.
So if somebody in Tampa or Orlando wanted to get involved, they could contact you and you could share information about how to grow the brand?
Absolutely. And that's one of the things we're doing with the web site, is providing an easy way to get in touch with us and see what we've done. We're happy to share how we started the group, how we reached out. We've been very fortunate to have the support of our superintendent and our School Board in St. Johns County. That has certainly made it easier to get the word out to other areas. ...
Once these amendments are over and done with, do you go away?
No. No, no. ... Our hope is that this is a long-term advocacy group. We don't want things to sneak up on us. We also want the politicians in Tallahassee to know that we're not going away, that we are going to be paying attention to what you do and what priority you place on our children's education. And we want to also continue to talk with people in the community about the importance of a solid public education, not just for the children in the school but for the community. The effects of a quality education on our business community, on companies that want to relocate to Florida, all of that is important to us. We have business people who have no children in the schools that are part of our group who recognize that importance.
Well, I look forward to seeing how you succeed in this. I know that the lawmakers have been getting a lot of people upset lately.
Well, I don't think they have a very easy job, because tough decisions have to be made. And we don't have a problem with fiscal responsibility. We are not asking for unaccounted for, unlimited funds. What we are - I would say asking, but we are not even asking - what we are demanding is that the basic services are provided. As demanded by the constitution of our state, it is our responsibility to do that and we're not going to beg for extras. I have told people I will be happy to fund-raise for the extras. I will not fund-raise for a reading coach for a school that has to have one.