State teachers group calls on DeSantis to protect education funding

“We at this point need help from our state officials,” Polk County teacher union head Stephanie Yocum says.
Students line up at Hillsborough High School on Aug. 31, the day campuses reopened in Hillsborough County.
Students line up at Hillsborough High School on Aug. 31, the day campuses reopened in Hillsborough County. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Sept. 18, 2020|Updated Sept. 18, 2020

Contending the reopening of Florida’s schools has not worked well, leaders of the state’s largest teacher union on Friday pressed Gov. Ron DeSantis to improve the situation.

In a letter to the governor, Florida Education Association president Andrew Spar spelled out two steps he said would help stabilize the schools as they struggle with teacher departures, online instruction woes and health-safety concerns.

Florida Education Association president Andrew Spar
Florida Education Association president Andrew Spar [ Courtesy of the Florida Education Association ]

Spar asked for a guarantee that the state’s $12.9 billion education budget not be cut, despite multibillion-dollar revenue shortfalls stemming from the coronavirus pandemic. And he proposed continuing the funding protections implemented in the state’s school reopening order, in which per-student money is provided based on pre-pandemic projections rather than current enrollment, which is down statewide.

The association is in the middle of a lawsuit challenging the reopening order.

In an online news conference, Spar said his organization also wants the state to be more transparent in the reporting of COVID-19 cases in schools. The state recently withdrew its own report, after briefly publishing it, and some school districts have stated that the Department of Health told them the virus cases are confidential.

DeSantis and education commissioner Richard Corcoran have said they pushed schools to open their doors in August, and created the current budget and spending models, in the best interest of students and schools. If that’s the case, Spar said, they should listen to the parents, students, teachers and staff who are seeking their support now to improve a system that has caused them problems.

“This is a difficult time,” he said.

A spokesperson for DeSantis said the governor welcomed the association’s acknowledgement that the financial flexibility provided in the emergency order is important for the public school system.

“With this request, the FEA will hopefully end their lawsuit and other expensive, non-educational endeavors,” press secretary Cody McCloud said via email. “Governor DeSantis will continue to be a champion of education in Florida and do what he feels is in the best interest of our students, parents, and educators.”

During the news conference, Spar turned to parents from Polk and Seminole counties, who spoke of the difficulties their children have faced returning to school. Those ranged from an inability to access special needs accommodations to troubles keeping the attention of teachers who must instruct online and in-person students at the same time.

“This isn’t good for the emotional well-being of anyone involved, and it’s heartbreaking," said Amy Volpe, a Seminole County parent of a sixth-grader who has struggled.

Stephanie Yocum, president of the Polk Education Association, appealed to state government leaders to help the schools, which she said have proven to be the backbone of the state’s economy as it tries to reboot after months of closures.

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“We continually step up,” Yocum said. “We are working double time to provide the quality education that our students deserve. ... We need the mandates to be on our side and on the kids' side.”

She and others noted that the situation has led teachers to resign, retire and take leaves of absence in large numbers — anecdotally much higher than in usual years. Spar said leaves of absence in some districts, such as Hillsborough and St. Lucie, are five times greater than normal years.

He said he has made a public records request to see the total numbers from every district.

If the state protects the education budget as requested, Spar and others suggested, district officials will have more flexibility and comfort to hire, adjust and spend without fear they might lose the money they thought they had.

“This is not a political event,” said Antonio White, United Teachers of Dade vice president, whose organization has demanded greater safety protocols before Miami-Dade County schools reopen their doors. “Drop the politics. Let’s do what’s best for children.”