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The portable nightmare

Florida's dismal record of concern for and responsibility toward its future generations would be laughable were it not so tragic.

I have a child in the Pinellas County public school system _ one of the state's better ones. Yes, he is housed in a portable classroom _ actually, a couple dozen of them _ and, rain or shine, must switch portables for each class. It's hard enough that he has to go out into the weather seven or eight times a day (this, after a 40-minute bus ride just to get there). Even worse, he has to lug virtually all his belongings from class to class eight times each and every day, because there are no lockers available for children who use portables.

His "temporary" school doesn't even have a nurse. Why? No space for a clinic. So, sick children must stay in class (thereby endangering their classmates) or parents must come and get them.

Gene (E.C.) Ayres, St. Petersburg

All of the school overcrowding is new to me because my daughter just started this year.

I happened to be at the media center Oct. 27 to help with a book fair. Instead, because a storm moved in, I got to watch the school staff move all the students from portables to the media center during the heavy rain and lightning. This is not a safe thing to do, and I'm guessing most people don't even know about it.

Also, let's remember that these kids are getting cheated on their education for the future.

Wake up! Find the money!

Connie Doll, St. Petersburg

Portable classrooms are a ridiculous, inadequate phenomenon. Weak-minded, bungling bureaucrats of reprehensible obstinacy may think the portables are adequate, but sensible people know that they are not suitable schools for students.

Floridians truly need political representatives who consult reason, at least partially. Classroom-conscious concerns must begin to take precedence over less vital needs of the state. Clarity concerning classrooms demands that new schools be built for increased student population and that these portables be phased out permanently. Funding can be found by eliminating waste and bringing about new tax-revenue sources if necessary.

When it comes to their kids' education, parents must cement ranks and not reconcile themselves to mediocrity or severe inadequacies, like portable classrooms.

Robert B. Fleming, St. Petersburg

Packed in like sardines

Schools have been overcrowded for a long time. Six years ago, my son was in a class that met in the school hallway from August to December at Orange Grove Elementary School in Seminole. It is probably the best elementary school in Pinellas County, but it was overcrowded. The third-grade class was to be in a portable building, but building inspectors wouldn't approve it because of hurricane tie-downs, etc.

My son spent almost half the school year in a class that met in the hallway where P.E. classes, lunch groups and people going to and from the library or office passed through constantly. The class walls were a couple of portable chalkboards and some beanbag chairs, an environment of major distractions. Teaching young children is challenging enough today without packing them in like sardines.

They just moved another portable in the schoolyard last week. Yes, our schools are still overcrowded.

Dawn Ward, Seminole

Tim Nickens' article Oct. 26 was wonderful. For once I was reading something that was making absolute sense regarding our schools. Our oldest entered public school for sixth grade, with great fear and trepidation on our part. In the first few weeks of school, some of her classes were extremely overcrowded. Of course students were eventually moved out of those classes into others to try to even things up. But how disconcerting for a child to have to switch classes after school has been in session for a few weeks. Furthermore, school starts at 9:30 a.m., and our daughter has lunch at 10:30 a.m., because the cafeteria cannot handle the number of kids at her school. She no longer eats breakfast in the morning because of her early lunch. But by her last class of the day (her math class and her most difficult), which begins at 3 p.m. and goes until 3:50, she is very hungry, and we're beginning to see a decline in her grades for that subject. By the time she takes the bus home and comes in at 5 p.m., she's starving.

In some of her classes, if she wishes to use the textbook at home to do her homework, she must check the book out because there are not enough to go around.

I am praying our legislators will get a huge WAKE-UP call and give education the highest priority. I have never endorsed voting for single issues regarding candidates, but I can tell you that this issue will rank exceedingly high with me come election time.

Gloria McEwen, St. Petersburg

I read with some concern a letter to the editor regarding portables used for classrooms. They were compared to manufactured homes in which many children live. The writer said he could not understand why school personnel and parents were critical of them.

Suppose a school were designed to enroll 1,800 students. It is built with an appropriate number of bathrooms, cafeteria space, science labs, library space, athletic facilities, auditorium space and hall space for 1,800 students. What happens when you increase the enrollment to, say, 2,400 or even 3,000 students?

This situation can easily become chaotic: bathrooms with inadequate facilities; lunchroom schedules spread over many hours, and no longer at appropriate times; science labs inadequate, causing many students to be unable to receive a needed education in the sciences; computer time per student greatly reduced due to lack of facilities; libraries with inadequate numbers of books and students unable to use the library as frequently as they would with a planned enrollment of 1,800 students; athletic programs experiencing the crunch of trying to provide the needed gym programs for the increased number of children in the school.

Educators and parents are not against portables; they are against what happens to schools when the student enrollment increases and additional numbers of portables are added, causing the needed facilities to become inadequate!

Kathleen Brady, Lutz

Expand tax to help schools

The special legislative session offers Florida lawmakers a unique opportunity to repent for their recent sins of educational neglect.

The Governor's Education Commission has recognized the problem and proposed a solution that will, at least, allow many local districts to solve their construction problems. Unfortunately, they backed off a "statewide" solution that the Legislature can and should consider.

Expanding the gross receipts tax (the constitutional answer to school construction needs) is more logical than local sales taxes and real estate transfer fees. In Pinellas County, with comparatively higher property values and sales tax revenues per student, more can be done for less than in Polk County, for example.

On the other hand, expanding the gross receipts tax to water, sewage and cable (with perhaps some residential exemptions as is done for electricity) would allow all the citizens and businesses in the state to participate in the state's needs.

Florida's Constitution recognized education as a state, not local, responsibility. The Legislature must avoid passing the "non-bucks" to local government and meet its responsibility to take care of all Florida's children. Maybe then, legislators can get about the more important business of worrying about what goes on inside your overcrowded, underequipped classrooms, where your teachers and support employees struggle mightily to educate your children.

Kip Mitchell, chairman, and Gloria Smith, vice-chairman,

Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association/Pinellas

Educational Support Personnel Association, Largo

I am the parent of an elementary-age child. I consider the spread of portable classrooms a disgrace. What should have been a temporary solution to the shortage of classroom space has become a permanent fixture, and we should all be ashamed to stand by and let it continue.

My child attended first grade in a portable and was constantly being rained on. He had to walk down rain-slick steps to go to the bathroom, and I always worried about the lack of supervision while he made the walk across a parking lot and down sidewalks to get there.

The school he attended for second grade had so many portables and was so overcrowded that lunch was limited to 20 minutes. Most days he ate next to nothing for lunch because by the time he made it through the cafeteria line and sat down, he simply didn't have time.

Of the options listed by the Times under consideration by the Legislature to correct this problem, the most feasible seems to be extending the gross receipts tax.

If Florida citizens object to this tiny increase in their tax bill, shame on them. If Florida legislators fail to show some leadership by creating a definite plan to solve this problem within a definite time frame, they should not be re-elected. Parents like myself will be watching to see which, if any, legislators have the

courage to do the right thing.

Susan R. Selby, St. Petersburg

If we need money, raise it

We are sick and tired of the state of Florida and our representatives shortchanging our future: children. We are two senior citizens and believe that our legacy must be that we prepare for a brighter future and not political ideology or the next election.

We will gladly support any leader who promises to guarantee a future for our children and not their own personal political agenda.

If we need taxes, then let's do it. It is far more important than "corporate welfare" for the rich in sports, entertainment and certainly prisoners.

Al and Sheila Plunkett, Tarpon Springs

I have been reading with interest all the asinine reasons our addled and brainless legislators are giving for not doing the right thing for our children. Are they trying to raise a generation of ill-trained graduates unable to compete in our modern workplace? They are doing a good job so far to shortchange our children.

I have been a volunteer at Oldsmar Elementary School for about 15 years and have seen the playground full of trailers and children eating lunch at 10 a.m. and long lines at the bathrooms. When the new school opened a few years ago you could see the vast improvement in the children's interest in learning and the attitude of the teachers. We have good teachers, but you can't teach properly in a crowded trailer not designed for the job.

One excuse is that the older generation doesn't want to be taxed for school that their children will not attend. I have made inquiries and find a vast majority are more than willing to pay for schools if the legislators will spend the money where intended and not cut spending somewhere else, so they don't have to raise taxes. I am almost 80 years old and am more than willing to pay a tax for school construction now, instead of later when our graduates can't compete in the job market and won't be able to earn enough to pay taxes.

Almer J. Peterson, Jr, Oldsmar

Thank you for publishing Tim Nickens' column Is this what we want for our children? on Oct. 26.

My child attends kindergarten at Ozona Elementary School in Palm Harbor. There are more children attending this year than last year. However, portables are not used. If it ever comes to that, and if the student/teacher ratio increases, I will send my child to private school.

I would rather see an increase in sales tax for school construction than spend $15,000 a year on private school for my three children. A modest tax for school construction would have far less impact on my life than $15,000-per-year tuition. For those families that cannot afford private school tuition, their only choice is an inferior education for their children. Is this fair? Of course not!

I would also like to save for my children's college education. That's best accomplished by keeping my kids in public schools of high quality. The public schools have so much to offer. I don't understand why children always come last in our society. All of the money spent on new stadiums could have been used for schools.

Karen Cohen, Palm Harbor

Re: Is this what we want for our children? Oct. 26.

Tim Nickens really gets to the heart of the matter of school overcrowding. As a parent and registered voter, I would be more than happy to support a new tax base to build more schools. I think we should extend the gross receipts tax immediately. It would be a place to start while another tax base is implemented.

I am all for a state income tax. I'm originally from Indiana, which has a state income tax. Most states do. Florida needs to cross the bridge into the next century on this issue.

Our elected officials are not responding to our state's growing needs. We all need to wake up and realize that Florida will not be able to compete unless we are serious about educating our children. The portables have got to go. Class size has to be reduced. These are issues that demand our attention now.

I remain optimistic and shall wait to see what the special session produces to alleviate this crisis for the state of Florida.

Thalia Morgan, Safety Harbor

Don't expect much

It was very refreshing to read Tim Nickens' column in the Oct. 26 Times. Finally, someone has expressed in words a complete understanding of the public school situation. As a teacher, I felt a real alliance with him and your paper. Of course, nothing of any benefit to anyone but the politicians themselves _ as they will be able to maintain that they helped solve the problem without raising taxes _ will emerge from the session.

Most people in this country say they value the education of their children but are willing to say anything that will keep them from putting their money where their mouths are. Florida is among the worst of the states in regard to stinginess when it comes to education.

I teach at a middle school in Hillsborough County. Not only are our classes ridiculously overcrowded but because of the low pay for substitutes, we are suffering from an acute shortage. We are forced to split classes up and parcel the children out to teachers who are dealing with so many students already, it's impossible to meet the needs of these extra students when they come to our classes. Often they have to sit on the floor, with no desk to write on, and the result is ineffective teaching and learning for all involved.

Frustration is rampant, but we carry on. None of us is naive enough to believe that legislators _ whose No. 1 worry is that they will be criticized for raising taxes _ will do much of anything to relieve the problems we face in trying to educate children. We are all used to either being denied raises, or pay for years of service, or receiving the inconsequential 2 percent raise we got this year. I don't know of any teacher who is in it for the money. But we continue to do our best _ most of us _ because we care about our students.

Teresa Streitwieser, Tampa

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