Saturday, February 24, 2018
Education

DeWitt: Legislators, including Ingoglia and Simpson, attack public schools

For years, some school administrators and union leaders have said the ultimate goal of Tallahassee Republicans is to destroy traditional public education.

And for just as long, it was easy to brush this off as fear-mongering or hyperbole.

Not so much anymore. Not with the passage this week of the vast, messy, catch-all education bill, HB 7069, and the sadly inadequate education budget that went with it.

One opponent of the bill called it a "piece of junk," and even that is too kind because it implies shoddiness, while the reality is much worse.

Lawmakers flat-out assaulted public education this year, casting themselves in the roles of sadistic teachers lavishing favors on their pets — private-school vouchers and charter schools — and pointedly withholding them from their designated black sheep, the public school system.

And though at least a few Republican senators stood up to this onslaught, all three of Hernando County's Republican lawmakers — Sen. Wilton Simpson of Trilby, Rep. Blaise Ingoglia of Spring Hill and Rep. Ralph Masullo of Lecanto — went right along with it.

Even if Gov. Rick Scott vetoes the bill or the budget measures, our local legislators should be held accountable for supporting them.

What did lawmakers do, exactly?

They cut the base level of per-student funding by $27, an unthinkable action considering that Florida already ranks far below the national average in this category and that districts such as Hernando have just barely started to recover from the recession.

Last year, the School Board passed its first budget in years without major cuts, a deceptive indicator of health because schools continue to limp along with past cuts, including librarians and art and music teachers. Now, thanks in part to Simpson, Ingoglia and Masullo, the depleted district expects to once again face a shortfall.

More outrageous, this action devastating students all over the state has only one obvious beneficiary, Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran, who is looking at a run for governor on a low-tax platform and who insisted the Legislature pass on the hundreds of millions of dollars that would have accrued by just keeping the local school property tax rate at the same level rather than cutting it to the rolled-back rate.

He also shepherded through the attack on another local funding source for schools, the optional 1.5-mill local tax for capital improvements.

Now districts must share this with charter schools, which, as has been true for several years, will also get a big chunk of the statewide pot of capital improvement money.

The remaining amount from this fund, spread among 67 counties in a rapidly growing state, comes to an insulting low total of $50 million — less than the cost of a single new high school.

Lawmakers were on a path to do one good thing — set aside $140 million for low-performing schools. Unfortunately, it caps the number of schools that can qualify for this extra funding at 25, while the number of perennially substandard schools is more than 100.

And who gets the rest of the money? You guessed it: charter schools. Not only that, HB 7069 gives charters an easier path to collect those funds and exempts them from pesky requirements such as zoning laws and hiring college-educated teachers.

Just to round things out, a separate bill increased the funding amounts for low-income students who receive tax-credit scholarships, a.k.a. vouchers, from 82 percent of per-student funding to 96 percent for high school students, thus undermining one of the key arguments of this program — that private schools could deliver more education for less money.

Now it's pretty much the same, not to mention that this program is on track to get the standard 25 percent increase it has received annually since 2010.

Another large and growing scholarship program, for children with disabilities, also got a big bump in this year's budget.

Lawmakers tried to cover up all this wreckage with a few student- or teacher-friendly provisions, such as mandatory elementary school recess (applying, naturally, only to public schools), cutting the tie between test scores and teacher evaluations, and expanding a bonus system of questionable value and fairness.

In that way, and by touting increased "flexibility" allowed in this law, they will try to pass themselves off as friends of educators, just as Simpson and Ingoglia have claimed to be advocates of education by making sure that Hernando received the admittedly very welcome $2 million annual stipend that goes to small districts.

Don't believe it.

As Hernando superintendent of schools Lori Romano said in a statement about school funding, it's a "gut punch . . . a watershed moment that will negatively alter the future of our public schools."

This is not an exaggeration. Now, no doubt about it, it's the truth.

Contact Dan DeWitt at [email protected]; follow @ddewitttimes.

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County commissioners, touting their conservatism, their support for personal property rights and their dislike of any extra government rules, have unanimously overturned the county's so-called supermajority ordinance.

The vote came Tuesday evening after a final public hearing and despite a parade of audience members who largely spoke in favor of keeping the requirement.

The 4-0 vote, with Commissioner John Mitten absent, means that any future proposals to change the county's comprehensive plan, its blueprint for growth, will require just three affirmative votes from the five commissioners, rather than four, which has been the rule since the supermajority ordinance was approved in 2006.

Those who supported keeping the rule argued that it protected the property rights of people who came to Hernando County and established their homes or businesses, knowing from the county's future growth plan that they were investing wisely. They pointed out the need to plan for green spaces and wild places, in keeping with the county's marketing slogan — the Adventure Coast.

They also reminded commissioners that the plan was drawn up by professional planning staffers and that the timing was bad because the county is in the middle of an update of its comprehensive plan.

Brooksville resident DeeVon Quirolo, who led the successful battle against the Cemex mining expansion on Cortez Boulevard west of Brooksville a couple of years ago — with the help of the supermajority ordinance — presented commissioners with another batch of petitions from supporters, but she acknowledged that it seemed the commission had already made up its mind.

Quirolo tried one more time, though, to explain that diluting the comprehensive plan makes it easier for influential property owners to get what they want from the commission, even if it doesn't fit with the land-use plan.

Rosemarie Grubba called the comprehensive plan "a covenant or a contract'' that the county makes with its residents. "That's what a land-use plan is,'' she said. And while the idea of a future land-use plan might seem bureaucratic, she noted that its influence is seen in its effects on every single resident every single day.

Representing the homeowners of Ridge Manor, Lynn Gruber-White said plan is the way the county protects residents from special interests.

"It is the covenant that Hernando County makes with its residents and potential residents,'' she said.

Anthony Palmieri asked what was broken that commissioners believed they needed to fix.

"You are doing this for some special interest group such as the builders, the Realtors or Hernando Progress,'' he said.

The Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce had sent out a call to action to its members before the hearing, urging them to come out to support repeal of the ordinance.

Teri Nichols, chairwoman-elect of the chamber, kicked off public comment Tuesday evening by saying that the requirement for a supermajority "is very restrictive to economic growth.''

At the first public hearing, there were no speakers in favor of overturning the rule, leading commissioners to question whether they were hearing the full story. They also were told that the Hernando County Planning and Zoning Commission, whose job it is to make recommendations to the County Commission on land-use changes, unanimously recommended that the supermajority ordinance stay in place.

Buddy Selph, a local Realtor with years of experience in local land-use issues, urged repeal of the rule.

"The comprehensive land-use plan needs to be understood for what it is. It's a guiding rule,'' Selph said, noting that requiring four votes rather than three politicizes land-use decisions.

Commissioner Nick Nicholson said he had long wanted the supermajority requirement to be overturned, and Commissioner Steve Champion said he has talked with many business people and none wanted the rule kept in place.

The county doesn't need more green space, with 44 percent of Hernando already in public ownership, argued Commissioner John Allocco. The rule wasn't of historical significance, he said, but had been pushed by "a radical commissioner'' several years ago.

In 2006, just before rampant county growth ran headlong into the real estate bust, the supermajority requirement was proposed by then-Commissioner Jeff Stabins. He argued that the county's comprehensive plan was meant to be a long-term, long-view document that acts as the blueprint for growth. Because of that, he reasoned, changes to the comprehensive plan should require stronger support than a simple majority vote.

Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes, who has pushed the repeal issue twice in recent years, passed the gavel so he could make the motion to repeal the supermajority ordinance, saying it was not logical.

"My conscience is absolutely clear,'' Dukes said. "I don't have any hidden agenda.''

Contact Barbara Behrendt at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.

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