August 26, 2008

Mom Works Online for Education Funding Florida’s Last-Place Ranking for Per-Capita Spending on Schools Makes Her Angry.


Brette Reiman was angry and embarrassed.

She has two children who attend Landrum Middle School, one who attends Ocean Palms Elementary, and she's been a longtime volunteer and supporter of Ponte Vedra Beach-area public schools, serving with the Parent Teacher Organization and School Advisory Committee.

But when she learned that Florida ranks 50th of all 50 states in terms of per-capita spending on education, Reiman decided she needed to do more.

Now she's become a supporter of Florida schools throughout the state by helping create a Web site that educates people about how impending budget cuts will not improve the situation, but could make it worse.

Along with another embarrassed and angry mom from northwest St. Johns County, Colleen Wood, Reiman has created the Web site called

Since its creation several weeks ago, about 700 people from around the state have visited the site and signed petitions supporting the nonpartisan organization's efforts to improve funding for the state's public schools.

Since she's aiming to raise awareness about three amendments that could appear on November ballots, which education support groups believe will further slash school budgets, Reiman is looking for more people to sign and get involved.

"People are shocked to find out Florida is 50th; St. Johns County has fantastic schools," Reiman said. "But our county is very lean. We have fantastic, dedicated teachers. We've got parents who bend over backwards volunteering in the schools. But we're not the norm," she said. "We've got to look beyond our own schools statewide."

Public schools are "the center of our community. If they fail, our community may start to go downhill."

School Board member Beverly Slough said she is "in full support" of 50th No More, especially since more budget cuts are looming.

"I can talk and yell as long as I want to, but the key is when parents rise up," said Slough, who is also president of the Florida School Board Association and legislative liaison for the School Board.

"I'm excited they're energized behind this."

While 50th No More organizers' long-term goal is to ensure that "adequately funded education is a priority in Tallahassee," they are shining the spotlight on three immediate concerns "that may change education in Florida as we know it," according to the site.

Amendment 5, a property tax swap proposal, would replace property taxes that go to schools with a penny sales tax hike, deep budget cuts and taxes on some services.

A judge in Leon County recently ruled that the language was misleading and took it off the Nov. 4 election day ballot.

But Amendment 5's supporters, primarily the Florida Association of Realtors, are appealing the judge's decision.

Amendment 7 calls for religious freedom, by allowing money slated for public education to go to any religious organization that wants to set up a school in Florida.

Amendment 9 calls for 65 percent of funding to go directly to classrooms, which is already the case in every county, but also allows school vouchers to be allowed back in Florida, which would also remove money from public schools.

Amendments 7 and 9 were challenged by education supporters and will also go before the Florida Supreme Court, said Reiman, who said she has many area parents, school administrators and school board representatives on her side.

"Most of the general public has no idea of how the amendments will impact public schools," said Donna Lueders, executive director of St. Johns County Education Foundation. "We support the efforts of 50th No More."

"Anything that gets public awareness up about where we rank in education funding in the country is important," said Duval County School Board member Nancy Broner, who represents most Beaches schools.

On Amendment 9, "Duval County already spends 82 percent of its budget on classroom instruction," Broner said. The state's lowest- funded school district, Dixie County, already spends 72 percent.

So the 65 percent wording in Amendment 9 "is feel good, sound good," she said. "Look beyond it and see what's there."

Reiman got involved in educating others about the amendments in June, when she learned that state budget cuts to the schools, announced in May, meant each St. Johns County school would have a 20 percent cut in its operating budget for the coming school year.

After contacting Superintendent Joseph Joyner and Slough, to see how she could help, they put her in touch with Wood, who had also called to offer her support.

Reiman said she is hearing from many parents throughout Florida, who sign petitions and voice concerns on the Web site, and who sent e-mails in support.

"People will stop moving to Florida if we don't offer a decent education," one e-mail says.

"My eighth-grader will not have the option to attend her out-of- zone high school due to these costs to our family," wrote another mom. She told Reiman that her daughter won't be able to attend the International Bacculeaueate program at Nease High School because transportation for out-of-zone students who want to attend specialized academies has been eliminated in St. Johns County because of the budget cuts.

A lack of transportation for academies is impacting academy enrollment, Slough said.

She's heard of parents pulling their children from the Performing Arts Academy at St. Augustine High School because they can't drive them to and from school from other parts of the county.

When the Legislature and governor approved budget cuts this spring, that translated to about $11.3 million less for St. Johns County, said the school district's chief financial officer, Conley Weiss.

To make up for the cuts, there will be 200 fewer district employees this school year.

Tuesday, Joyner planned to speak to the School Board about another 3.5 percent cut in the budget, which will translate into an additional $7 million, Weiss said.

The cuts now are all driven by the economy, and reductions in collected real estate taxes, he said.

Sales tax revenues have been deteriorating across the state since July 2007.

And a recently passed Amendment 1 allowed people to transfer homestead exemptions to new homes.

If the situation worsens, "we will have to dip into our reserve; we will be down to a minimum reserve," Weiss said.

Reiman is pleased with the awareness 50th No More has generated so far, and she encourages people from around the Beaches to get involved by contacting their elected officials and urge them to make public schools a priority.

"Our schools are facing a crisis and everyone needs to come up with creative ways to help," she said.

"We need legislation that will support our kids," said mom Jody Sabet, who has joined the cause. "I just think we all need to be educated on what we are voting on."Maggie FitzRoy can also be reached at (904) 249-4947, ext. 6320.50TH NO MORE- More Beaches- area information meetings are planned, beginning next week.- To be placed on the mailing list for meeting information and education updates, people can send an e-mail to: [email protected]

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