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Gates' $100 million grant to Hillsborough schools is a boost Florida needs

What makes rich folks give to good causes? Is it generosity? Ego? Legacy? Passion for change? Influence? Appreciation? Practical tax planning?

The answer is yes to all of the above. But even then it's tough to nail the precise mix of gut-checks and decisionmaking that makes philanthropists like the world's richest man, Bill Gates, and wife Melinda Gates commit $100 million to the Hillsborough County School District, or successful banker David A. Straz Jr. ante up what is reported to be close to $25 million to support the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center and see it renamed in his honor.

To be sure, we're glad these givers chose to commit such substantial funds to our metro area. Tampa Bay's suffering a head-on collision with a nasty recession, and major gifts such as these go a long way to aid the recovery and spread goodwill.

As larger metro areas go, Tampa Bay has a chronic lack of bench strength when it comes to major corporations. As a result, this metro area tends to be philanthropically starved, ranking low in giving per person. The double whammy is that while plenty of philanthropy originates here, a good portion of it goes elsewhere in the United States or abroad, depending on the givers' roots and causes.

So to the Gateses and to Straz: Thanks.

Not that they are the only significant donors to good causes.

Givers and welcome recipients abound with such names as Kiran and Pallavi Patel (USF, Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, University Community Hospital), Frank and Carol Morsani (Morsani Hall of Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center) and Bill and Hazel Hough (University of Florida Warrington College of Business Administration, St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts).

There's also Don and Erika Wallace (Tampa General Hospital, University of Tampa, H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute) Larry Morgan (Morgan Heart Hospital at Morton Plant Hospital), John Sykes (UT's Sykes School of Business) and Donald Adam (Moffitt). There are more with business names like Sembler and Morean and Murray and Muma — too many to list here.

Gates and Straz just happen to be the biggest ones lately, at a time of leaner giving in general thanks to the stock market drubbing of many fortunes.

Still, like most of us, I'm always curious about the super-wealthy, whatever that means in the 21st century, and what motivates them. In magnitude and mission, the Gates grant of $100 million over seven years to Hillsborough schools is especially intriguing.

As we all should know, Bill Gates co-founded Microsoft, whose software operating systems still dominate PCs used around the world. Gates' fortune has topped $70 billion, though it has wavered over the years based on the stock price of Microsoft and also the billions that he has funneled through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Hillsborough school grant's focus is on finding ways to find, educate and inject more effective teachers into the classrooms. Compensation of teachers will be more results-oriented and based less on tenure and education level.

On a broader scale, the Gates grant comes just as the Florida and Tampa Bay business communities are starting, finally, to realize that they can't pursue a "world class" business environment in a state that consistently ranks low in public K-12 education and that, for all its strutting, fails to adequately fund its state university system. Preliminarily, it's heartening to hear leaders of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Tampa Bay Partnership, the Pinellas Education Foundation and other economic development groups say they are preparing to step in and support strong educational initiatives, especially those in science and math.

Is it possible the Gates grant will kick-start a commitment in the Sunshine State to make better education a genuine priority? Too many Floridians already call their state Flori-Duh.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Gates' $100 million grant to Hillsborough schools is a boost Florida needs 11/28/09 [Last modified: Friday, November 27, 2009 11:07pm]

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