A weekend interview with ...
... Beverly Slough, president of the Florida School Boards Association and a member of the St. Johns County School Board. Slough was the named complainant in the lawsuit to keep Amendments 7 and 9 off the November ballot (Fla. Dept. of State v. Beverly Slough). She spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about her role and the court's decision to yank Amendments 5, 7 and 9.
What made you decide to challenge those amendments in court?
Well, Amendment 5, had it prevailed and had it passed, would have decimated the only funding stream that is stable for education. Education is funded by sales tax and property tax, and sales tax as you know is very volatile. The only stable funding source we have under our present tax structure is the required local effort piece. If it had passed, education funding would have just been decimated.
And Amendments 7 and 9, we challenged those because we felt that the title and summary both were very deceptive. The heart and soul of both of those amendments were education vouchers, not the topics that they were titled.
Were you surprised at all by the results in court?
Well, I watched it on the web, most of it. I watched the discussion on 7 and 9, and I got to watch the first part of 5. I really thought we would prevail on 5 because after Judge Cooper and the way he handled it in circuit court, and the opinion that he wrote, I just felt like the justices were able to see the fallacy in that it was very confusing to the voter. And in listening to the discussion of the justices -- I only got to listen to about 20 minutes of it, and in that 20 minutes, the first four justices, you could kind of read their body language and their comments that they agreed with Judge Cooper.
On 7 and 9, I was hopeful but not as confident. But I'm really glad that the justices determined that the language was really confusing.
Do you worry at all that these items are not dead yet?
Oh, I fully expect things of this nature to come back in some form or fashion. I fully expect that to happen. The pressure is for expanded vouchers in Florida, and tax reform. You know, I support tax reform. But I think it needs to be true tax reform. It seems like what has been happening has been to attack it piecemeal. I would more support true tax reform, a sit-down to look at the whole picture and restructuring things. But the people are really adamant that they want some tax relief, and I don't blame the Legislature or the governor for that. However, to decimate public education to do it is not in my opinion the right path to take.
Everybody has already been talking about how schools are under the gun financially. is there a way to keep schools harmless, as was once the term, now with this discussion of tax reform under way?
Well, as a couple of senators including at least one Republican has said lately, we may need a different funding stream. Maybe an additional sales tax or something of that nature. But the way that Amendment 5 was crafted, it only held education harmless for one year. That really made the education community extremely nervous. Other things are funded by the Legislature. Education makes up about one-third, and health and human services count for about a third, or maybe 35 percent both of them. So our two pieces are big ones. That's why I think we need to look at a total reform. I don't know the answers. It would take a lot of talk and a lot of putting good heads together. But I think that it's doable if we approach it in a thoughtful way.
Okay. What about the feedback now of people who are saying the voters deserved the opportunity to have their say on these issues, this was not fair to the voters of Florida? What do you say to them?
I say to them that the way those amendments were crafted would not have been fair to the voters of Florida, because the voters could not have understood what the amendments were actually going to do. The language was not clear, especially in 7 and 9 -- well, all three of them. In 7 and 9, though, the word voucher was never, ever mentioned. In 7 the title of it was 'religious freedom.' It didn't have anything to do with religious freedom. And 9 it said 65 percent of funding to go to the classroom. Well, in the state of Florida, every single county already puts in excess of 65 of funding into the classroom.
And with Amendment 5, it wasn't clear. Even one of the justices was talking that she couldn't see it clearly that education was only held harmless for one year. So the language was not clear. The voter really wouldn't have been given an intelligent choice on it.
When you met with the FSBA executives (Thursday), did you discuss what the next steps would be from the school districts' perspective as far as pursuing these issues into the future?
Well, we just want to keep our information base strong and understand and watch carefully to see which way the winds blow. We want to be careful that we advocate for our children, and we are just wary when people come to decimate the education system as we know it in Florida. ... There just has to be a different way to craft it so that kids are not hurt in the process.