Florida editorial roundup
Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:
Palm Beach Post says money is short for teachers amid the state’s scramble to secure schools:
With teachers walking off the job in West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma, demanding higher pay and more money for education, it should surprise no one if this prairie fire were to spread to another Republican-led state, our very own Florida.
Just like the states where we’re seeing teachers taking drastic action to elevate the dignity of their profession — if not simply claim a living wage — Florida dwells in the nation’s nether regions on education spending.
Florida ranks 49th among the states in per-capita spending for K-12 schools, and 35th in teacher pay, according to the National Education Association. Elementary-secondary teachers earn an average $49,199. That’s $9,154 less than the U.S. average.
That ranking won’t improve a bit with the recently approved state budget for 2018-19. Gov. Rick Scott brags of “increasing per-pupil spending to a record high,” but that’s deceptive.
Most of that spending is dedicated for specific purposes, some good ($400 million to make schools safer in the wake of Parkland), some bad ($41 million for tuition vouchers allowing students bullied in conventional public schools to transfer to charter schools).
Take away all the earmarks, and the increase in per-pupil spending for general purposes is a paltry 47 cents.
In Palm Beach County, that means no new money for teacher raises, district officials say with regret. And forget about starting new educational or enrichment programs. Or covering rising costs of retirement benefits, utilities and other expenses.
The state’s school superintendents, rightfully alarmed, begged Scott last month to call lawmakers back for a special session to approve more money for the public schools. But Scott ignored them and signed the budget on March 16.
Broward County Superintendent Robert Runcie, whose district includes Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, spoke for all the education chiefs. “We are grateful the state stepped up . to pass a school safety bill,” he said. “However, that I believe is being done at the expense of our core business.”
Before the legislative session started, Scott had asked for an extra $200 per student, which districts could spend as they chose to improve programs and pay for increasing costs. What was approved was an increase of $101.50, half the original request — and again, almost all of that is eaten up by specific earmarks. Example: $145 million to charter schools for maintenance and construction (as opposed to $50 million for the far more numerous conventional public schools).
At the same time, the lawmakers refused to spend $377 million in revenues generated by rising property values, on the ideological grounds that doing so would be a tax increase. And it gave away $170 million in general tax cuts. That’s money that could have improved classrooms.
The lawmakers did, however, see fit to pass a law that’s meant to weaken teachers unions: a local union now must have a majority of a county’s eligible teachers as dues-paying members, or face possible decertification as a collective bargaining unit.
So far, however, the attack is backfiring. The Florida Education Association (FEA), the largest labor organization in the Southeast and a traditional contributor to Democratic candidates, said it’s turning the law into a rallying point for recruiting. It’s added 3,200 new members in the past nine months.
“We saw this coming and know it’s driven by politics, plain and simple,” FEA President Joanne McCall told GateHouse Capital Bureau. “But it’s going to help us. So I say to the Republican Legislature, thank you very much.”
In other words, there is resistance to state government’s continual starving of public schools. In other states that same frustration has boiled over into massive teacher walkouts.
We would prefer not to see that happen here. But who could blame teachers here, both maligned and underpaid for years, if they did?
West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma are much worse off economically than Florida. It makes little sense to see teachers treated so disrespectfully in a state as wealthy as ours. Yet here we are.
It should alarm all of us that the governor and Legislature have rigged school spending in a way that virtually guarantees that teacher salaries, and the quality of education for today’s schoolchildren and tomorrow’s leaders, won’t be improving any time soon.
Sun Sentinel says the state’s capital has once again snubbed workers struggling to afford housing costs:
When it comes to helping people of modest means find affordable housing in one of the nation’s most expensive places to live, Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature this year took another pass.
When it comes to helping South Florida businesses address the challenge of recruiting and retaining workers who increasingly spend 40 to 50 percent of their paychecks on housing, Tallahassee shrugged it off yet again.
And when it comes to doing what they said they would do — spend a dedicated portion of real estate taxes on affordable housing programs — well, you didn’t think they really meant that, did you?
In a year when the state budget grew by $6 billion, it’s hard to understand why Scott and the Florida Legislature would raid the money meant to address the crisis in affordable housing to address the crisis in school safety.
But that’s what happened.
To put $400 million toward hardening schools, increasing mental health services and equipping some school personnel with guns, the governor and state lawmakers robbed the piggy bank for workforce housing.
For a moment, it appeared this year would be different, that lawmakers would end their decade-long raid on the Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust Funds.
In the early days of the annual session, Florida Senate President Joe Negron refused to go along with Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran’s push to sweep the trust funds for money to spend on pet projects, tax breaks and other priorities.
But the Parkland school shooting “changed everything,” said Sen. Rob Bradley, who chaired the Senate’s Appropriations Committee.
Let’s get real.
Last year’s budget was $82.3 billion. This year’s budget is $88.7 billion. Are we to believe the so-called fiscal conservatives running Tallahassee saw their only choice as robbing Peter to pay Paul?
In the end, while blaming the Parkland school shooting, they stripped $185 million from the $300 million on tap for affordable housing.
Then they patted themselves on the back for a job well done.
Worse, they boasted about having allocated “record” levels of funding for schools, even as they shortchanged public education. After subtracting the financial obligations they place on public schools, larger districts, including Broward and Miami-Dade, will get only 47 cents more per pupil next year to keep the lights on and give teachers a raise.
An extra 47 cents — in a record-setting $88.7 billion state budget.
Superintendents say they will be hard-pressed to give raises to teachers, who, given the push for them to carry guns, deserve to be paid like the first responders they are.
To help teachers in Miami-Dade afford a place to live, meanwhile, the school system is talking about building affordable housing units on school campuses. It’s an idea worth considering, much like some universities offer faculty housing. A better alternative, though, would be to pay teachers what they’re worth so they can live where they want.
Given the bait-and-switch on taxes paid to support affordable housing programs, you can understand the cynicism expressed Thursday by Tallahassee reporters who participated in a Tower Forum panel in downtown Fort Lauderdale.
“They raid the Sadowski Trust Fund year after year and their rationale is, ‘They can’t possibly spend it all in one year,’ ” said Steve Bousquet, capital bureau chief for the Tampa Bay Times.
“The only trust fund that cannot be swept is the trust fund for concealed weapons permits. That’s the only sacred cow,” said Dara Kam, senior reporter for the News Service of Florida.
“Joe Negron, during a Q-and-A, said, ‘I don’t even know why they call it a trust fund.’ He wasn’t saying that as a bad thing. He was serious. He was saying, ‘We shouldn’t call it a trust fund,’ ” said Dan Sweeney, who covers the Legislature for the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
The problem is that it is a trust fund.
In 1991, the Legislature passed a law that places a 10-cent surcharge on every $100 paid for real estate — for the purpose of funding affordable housing programs.
Talk to any South Florida business or political leader and they’ll tell you skyrocketing rents and home prices are critical issues in our economy. There’s a shortage of rentals for people of lesser means and the cost of starter homes is out of sight for young workers.
“One thing I hear from a lot of folks in real estate and housing is that they wouldn’t have supported Sadowski when they had the opportunity if they’d known this would have happened,” said Broward County Commissioner Chip LaMarca, who moderated the panel discussion and is running for election to the Legislature.
LaMarca described the challenge facing too many workers in Broward’s economy, including service workers at beach hotels.
“A good deal of those employees, who take care of the rooms and make everyone have a great experience, probably live multiple bus rides and an hour-plus away because of housing issues,” he said.
“We should have options. People should have the opportunity to live in a safe, clean environment that’s not two hours from work.”
Voters have a chance to make a difference this November.
Vote for those who have a track record of keeping their word and a focus on solving the state’s problems.
The Daytona Beach News Journal says Gov. Rick Scott was right to veto what opponents call the “toilet to tap” bill:
It’s an experiment on a vast scale, with Florida’s hydrological future on the line.
Florida’s economic future depends heavily on the continued availability of fresh, clean, affordable drinking water. Any measure that could endanger the state’s already-stressed water supply should be viewed with extreme skepticism. Florida legislators dance nervously around that concept, playing lip service to conservation while knocking down restrictions that could help protect the Floridian aquifer, the vast network of underground caverns the state relies on for fresh water.
The apparent goal: Keep Florida development from being hampered by concerns about available water in the short term, even though it could mean serious trouble for the state in decades to come.
The state needs solutions. But it shouldn’t rush into reckless experimentation. Gov. Rick Scott’s veto Friday of a bill that would have allowed large-scale injection of treated wastewater into Florida’s aquifer gives the state a chance to explore this option cautiously, with limited test sites and scientific evaluation. Scott made the right call.
Opponents of the bill relied heavily on the gross-out factor, calling it the “toilet to tap” bill and asking if Scott wants to be known as “Gov. Poopy Water.” It was a juvenile approach that underplayed what’s really at stake.
It’s not that difficult to clean reclaimed water of what are euphemistically described as “bio-solids” before the water is injected into the aquifer; some cities, including ones in the U.S., already mix reclaimed water into their drinking-water supply. It’s a far trickier task to ensure that other contaminants, including prescription medications, petroleum-based pollution, radioactive material and heavy metals, are removed from the water before it’s forced into the state’s water supply.
What will happen to those contaminants once the wastewater mixes with drinking-water supplies? Will it stay where it’s put, or migrate to other parts of the aquifer, potentially spreading contamination (or becoming contaminated itself by salty water from other layers of the aquifer)? What will the impact be on Florida’s freshwater springs and water bodies, which are already showing signs of trouble in higher bacteria counts and other pollutants? And what will happen to the soft limestone lacework of underground caves that comprise the aquifer? If the water is injected with too much force, will they be damaged — and could that damage trigger sinkholes?
The answers to these questions could indicate that Florida’s found an affordable, sustainable way to secure its water supply. But the state doesn’t have those answers yet. The process the bill would have permitted, known as “aquifer storage and recovery,” is only active in three states: Oregon, Colorado and Texas, where ASR wells are serving the water-starved cities of San Antonio, El Paso and Kerrville. None share Florida’s unusual underground geology. When Florida was considering experimenting with aquifer storage in South Florida, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers raised multiple concerns.
In the long run, aquifer storage and recovery might be the right answer for Florida. But diving headfirst into the practice — in a state with multiple other options on the table, including capturing some of the billions of gallons of fresh rainwater that fall on the state every year — should be approached with extreme caution. By wielding his veto pen, Scott hit the reset button, not the kill switch.