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Mitchell High student makes plea to Gov. Rick Scott about education cuts

Mitchell High drama student Justice Greene, 16, e-mailed Gov. Rick Scott about the importance of education.

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times

Mitchell High drama student Justice Greene, 16, e-mailed Gov. Rick Scott about the importance of education.

TRINITY — Justice Greene found her niche at Mitchell High School when she discovered drama.

"I feel more important when I'm with the thespians than anywhere else," said Justice, a 16-year-old rising junior who loves belting show tunes with friends.

When she heard that spending cuts might claim the arts, she cried.

Then she spoke up. Encouraged by her parents and teachers, Justice e-mailed her despair to Gov. Rick Scott, the "person in charge," urging him not to slash school funding.

"It is not fair to anyone to cut these jobs," Justice wrote, mentioning her fear that drama teacher David O'Hara might get forced out. "These kids are our future and without the proper education, our generation will not succeed. We need teachers, assistants, and extra curricular activities to help us succeed."

Little did she expect the governor to respond. He did, though through a representative, and more than two weeks after signing a budget that reduced education spending by close to $1 billion.

And in his brief letter back to Justice, Rex Newman of the state Office of Citizen Services deflected.

The governor believes in education, he wrote. Well educated students are key to a strong economy, he wrote.

But this isn't the governor's issue, Newman continued: "Because this is a local government matter, the Governor's ability to assist is limited."

He sent contact information for Pasco schools superintendent Heather Fiorentino. He forwarded her e-mail, too.

Justice was unimpressed.

"I feel like they put a lot of the blame on Heather Fiorentino," she said. "I feel like Rick Scott does have say in the budget cuts."

So, too, did Pasco School Board member Steve Luikart.

Luikart, a retired high school assistant principal, noted that the governor and lawmakers made clear from the start of the session that they would reduce state funding for public education. They knew that local taxes also would decline because of falling taxable property values, he said, and they knew that school districts face so many mandates that only a few areas — such as the arts — could be targeted for cuts.

They cut the funding anyway, and then told the school districts to deal with it. The Pasco board, facing a $55 million shortfall, reduced its arts offerings without eliminating them.

"If they are going to point fingers," Luikart said of the governor's office staff, "they have to look in a mirror, because it starts up there."

David O'Hara, Justice's beloved drama teacher, said he was "proud and somewhat humbled" that his student would stand up for him in such a public way. He said he held his breath through Pasco's budget town hall meetings and workshops, and then the layoff and forced transfer announcements that followed, fearful that his program might lose out.

He kept his job at Mitchell. Other arts-related teachers around the county weren't so lucky, O'Hara quickly acknowledged.

He, too, was nonplussed with the governor's response to his student.

The part of the letter expressing the desire to provide Florida's children with the "best educational opportunities in the nation" is the right thing to say, O'Hara said. But to then suggest that local officials are responsible for the cuts is less than fair, he added.

"From our standpoint, the district did everything they could to prevent this from happening," O'Hara said, referring to the layoffs and cutbacks under way. "It's because of what the state allocated this year that each individual district had to make these decisions."

Justice now gets that.

Because this year's round of education funding cuts threatened her core, Justice sat up and took note. She's too young to vote, but she took the time to learn about the system and her place in it.

It's a lesson she won't give up any time soon.

"I think I'm going to let (the matter) go for now, because I don't think there's anything more I can do," Justice said.

"But I feel like I know more now, and I feel like I can make an impact."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

Mitchell High student makes plea to Gov. Rick Scott about education cuts 06/10/11 [Last modified: Friday, June 10, 2011 10:20pm]
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