The time has come for Florida's education leaders to have a frank talk about money, priorities and public schools.
At least that's what Roberto Martinez, a Florida Board of Education member, hopes will happen today in light of a stark reality:
School funding has steadily decreased — last year by about 1 billion dollars — and a turnaround is not imminent.
"We've never really had that conversation," said Martinez, a Coral Gables lawyer and member of the Florida Board of Education since 2005. "So I think we need to have it."
He has organized a workshop at the Tampa Airport Marriott to highlight the issue and seek solutions. Superintendents, college presidents, prekindergarten advocates and others will be on hand to offer suggestions for Florida to use its resources moving ahead.
"I'm hoping that this forum can be useful in jump-starting a very important conversation," Martinez said, "so that the people of Florida can give their elected officials more input, and the elected officials can become very much involved in the public discussion as to how we prioritize our resources."
Lawmakers from both political parties welcome the workshop.
"I look forward to hearing what they have to say," said state Sen. David Simmons, a Republican who oversees the Senate's education budget plans.
Simmons shares the view that education needs more money. He has called for a fall special session to allocate about $350 million more to education.
He said he would take the state board's proposals as they come.
"They make a recommendation to the governor, and the governor ultimately makes his recommendations," Simmons said. "Certainly, we respect what the governor sends over as a recommendation, but that's all it is, a recommendation."
State Rep. Martin Kiar, a Davie Democrat, called the board's plans very positive.
"I hope it's not to just put on a show," said Kiar, who has served on several education committees in the House. "Truthfully, I believe the more input you have from more folks, it makes it easier to make good decisions. Maybe the Board of Education is turning over a new leaf and becoming more proactive."
That's the hope of many in the education community, as well.
Joe Pickens, president of St. Johns River State College, didn't recall "much if any dialogue" with the state board or its members on K-12 or higher education issues while he served in the Legislature. Moving to the college, he saw no change.
"This is such a very, very positive occurrence," said Pickens, chairman of the college presidents' advocacy committee. "We hope and expect this will become a regular occurrence."
Longtime Charlotte County School Board member Lee Swift, president of the Florida School Boards Association, noted that the Legislature and governor have approved many unfunded mandates for districts to follow. At the same time, he said, per-student funding has returned to levels of nearly a decade ago, while costs have risen.
He was hopeful that Tuesday's session will set a tone.
"It at least gives a starting point for the Legislature and governor to work with," Swift said. "If (the board) were to take a strong position, saying spending priorities have to be reordered. … I think that would help."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.