Vice President Joe Biden came to Land O'Lakes on Tuesday to talk jobs. You would think a visit to the rural poverty of Lacoochee would be more appropriate than a photo opportunity in the Republican suburbs.
But, the jobs Biden talked about revolved around education — teaching and rebuilding schools to the tune of $25 billion across the country, $1.2 billion in Florida and $32.4 million for Pasco County. And, the White House wanted to highlight middle class families, so the backdrop became 6-year-old Oakstead Elementary School, which serves the heart of the State Road 54 corridor along the county's southern tier.
The north side of Oakstead's campus is filled with vanilla-colored boxes that are 22 portable classrooms. The school was intended to house 762 student, but enrollment is at more than 1,000, said principal Tammy Kimpland, making it the largest elementary in Pasco. Meanwhile, the school lost eight of 83 staff positions. That was its share of the School District remedy for filling a $54 million budget hole by eliminating 513 full-time positions and reducing wages via forced furloughs for those who remain. The outlook is just as bleak for the 2013 budget year as the district stands to lose $21 million in federal stimulus dollars that prevented additional layoffs.
After visiting a classroom and shooting hoops with the kids in a physical education class, Biden came to the school's media center to tout the American Jobs Act, a $447 billion plan that includes tax cuts and tax credits for individuals and small businesses, new spending on schools and transportation and higher taxes on the wealthy by limiting tax deductions. Biden drew applause when he said he favored retaining tens of thousands of teachers over a $54 billion tax credit for oil companies.
He spoke for 29 minutes framed by the vice presidential seal affixed to the front of the podium and a wall filled with student art work in the rear. Visible over the vice president's left shoulder was a third-grader's depiction of a scene from Where the Wild Things Are, the children's story by Maurice Sendak in which the youngster, Max, initiates the action with his call, "Let the wild rumpus start.''
In this case, the wild rumpus is the 2012 presidential campaign. Biden three times referred to the economy as "God awful,'' twice reminded the audience that the Obama administration inherited the recession and two times referenced looming education cuts around the nation as an emergency. Not to be outdone, U.S. Rep. Rich Nugent, R-Brooksville, released a statement critical of the jobs plan at nearly the precise moment Biden exited the building.
"This isn't a serious proposal. This is a transparent attempt to limp through his re-election campaign,'' Nugent said.
Try telling that to the unemployed teachers, several of whom sat and listened from the audience. Or to those who are working but haven't had a raise in four years and this year took a pay cut. Or tell it to the schools that need technology upgrades, or those that have the equipment but no full-time information technology specialist to train staff and to trouble-shoot and maintain the computer system. Or tell it to the exceptional education students who now have fewer teachers in their classrooms.
Biden would say to tell it to the kids warehoused in the portable classrooms who must retreat to the main building during severe weather. Students, he said, deserve to be educated in school buildings that are safe and sound and conducive to success.
"We should do better than that,'' he said. "We can do better than that as a nation.''
The audience included district staff members, faculty, School Board members, Superintendent Heather Fiorentino, Democratic Party heavy weights Alex Sink and her husband, Bill McBride, the school's fifth-grade honor society members and a few visiting students from the nearby Charles S. Rushe Middle School. By the end of his remarks they were familiar with the Biden household as the vice president referenced his mother, his father, his first wife who died, his current wife and his pet German Shepherd "Champ.''
Biden, whose wife teaches college and whose first wife also was an educator, delivered a personal message to the parents attending.
"Thanks for telling these teachers what they're doing for your child is important and you appreciate it.''
It is the kind of message that went lacking eight days earlier at a meeting of state legislators.
Incidentally, the vice president's staff selected Oakstead as the site of Tuesday's speech because of the school's proximity to the Suncoast Parkway and for its size. But there was a much more appropriate reason: The School District built Oakstead Elementary with proceeds from Penny for Pasco, the penny-on-the-dollar sales tax voters agreed to assess themselves in 2004. In Pasco, people dug into their own pockets – and still do – to bolster public education.
Do we really need a wild rumpus for others to see the wisdom of doing likewise?