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Florida needs a lasting solution

On Oct. 26, Times editorial writer Tim Nickens issued "a plea to parents whose children are crammed into Florida's public schools. . . ." Well, that's not me _ my kids have already graduated. So who cares?

He wrote, "This is a wake-up call to anyone in business who depends on skilled workers and literate consumers. . . . " Well, that's not me. By definition, somehow, some way, my workers will be highly educated and my consumers will be literate. So who cares?

And he continued, "This is an appeal to every Floridian genuinely concerned about the future of this state and the quality of public education _ and willing to use some common sense."

Bingo!

Finally, an argument for the core question: What do we want this state to become? What do we want for our long-term future? What are we willing to sacrifice now to build that future? And, yes, what am I willing to sacrifice for my neighbors' kids now that mine have graduated?

For me, Nickens captured the heart of this debate with his article, Is this what we want for our children? I grow weary from the expediency of most political decisions _ incremental decisions designed to "fix" the immediate problem, but lacking the vision or wisdom to place the decision in this broader societal context.

The fact is our schools are overcrowded. The fact is "portables" are present the day a new school opens because the system does not allow for advanced planning. The fact is my neighbors' kids are being educated in substandard classrooms. The fact is many of our teachers are teaching in ridiculous conditions. The fact is our local school boards are doing the best they can with what they've got. The fact is that, as a state, we are ranked fourth in population, but 47th in education spending as a portion of personal income.

And the fact is our state will never be a great state unless we decide to become one.

I am an architect and, like many other architects, have not entered this or similar debates for fear of appearing self-serving. But appearances be damned, it's time to talk about the physical and fiscal conditions of our schools. Both are in dreadful shape.

In recent years there have been many attempts to focus on cost-saving measures. Good idea. No one wants to waste money. Many ideas have been valid, others have not. One of the less brilliant moves is the notion of building "prototype" facilities to be copied by many schools. On the surface this approach may make sense. Beneath the surface it does not. Florida communities are so dramatically different that it is unreasonable to think that this approach could truly be effective.

Certainly the curricula and educational philosophies vary from one county to the next, as do economic conditions, cultures, site availability, site conditions, building codes, and climate. This "one-size-fits-all approach" simply does not make any sense on a statewide, intercounty basis. By accepting state mandated standards or by "buying" a prototype school, school boards have lost their ability to tailor their construction budgets and facilities to the issues their constituencies deem important. Also, and most important, in a rush to save initial construction dollars we are dramatically adding to the cost of operating and maintaining these facilities _ the huge, hidden costs associated with our current shortsighted decisionmaking process.

This brings me back to "portables," and the special session that begins Monday. If anyone is so bottom-line focused as to believe that our schools are adequate or that "portables" provide a reasonable solution to overcrowding, please pay attention to the true bottom line. I hope someone considers "life cycle cost" (the initial, replacement and long-term costs of operating and maintaining a facility) of a "portable" versus a well-designed and constructed classroom. We must find a permanent solution, not only for better teaching and learning environments, but also for the bottom line.

As citizens, we can choose to invest in our future or ignore the physical and fiscal problems in hopes that they will go away. They won't.

As legislators, you can choose to push money around looking for a magic bullet or bite the bullet and build the future.

It's time.

+ William Blizzard is a St. Petersburg architect with the firm AIA, Criswell Blizzard Blouin Architects Inc. +

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