Education a key theme for upcoming session

Education was a recurring theme among speakers at a recent meeting held by the Pasco County Legislative Delegation before this year’s annual session.

Local citizens and civic leaders voiced their concerns on this hot-button issue during a Jan. 18 gathering at Sunlake High School, with six local representatives to the state Legislature.

Dozens of interest groups and local government leaders also talked to legislators about their priorities for the legislative delegation.

The Pasco County Legislative Delegation had a pre-legislative session on Jan. 18 at Sunlake High School. From left, on the dais, are Richard Corcoran, incoming Speaker of the House for the Florida House of Representatives, and State Reps. Tom Ley, Danny Burgess, State Sen. Wilton Simpson, State Rep. Amber Mariano, and State Sen. Jack Latvala.
(Kevin Weiss)

Rising school enrollment and additional education funding were just two topics raised during the four-hour meeting with State Sens. Wilton Simpson and Jack Latvala, incoming Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran, and State Reps. Tom Ley, Danny Burgess and Amber Mariano.

Spencer Pylant, speaking on behalf of Superintendent Kurt Browning for the Pasco County School District, talked to the delegates about concerns increasing school enrollments and the lack of funding to provide adequate school capacity.

“It’s fitting the delegation is meeting at this school, because it rests in one of the highest-growing segments of Pasco County,” Pylant said.

“After opening 10 years ago, it is at 114 percent capacity; this additional growth demands additional capacity,” he said.

Pylant said 1,707 new students chose Pasco schools in the 2016-2017 school year.

That’s only a preview of things to come, he added.

“We expect approximately 20,000 new students in 10 years, based on our projections,” he said.

School board members and district officials are concerned that current funding sources cannot match the growing demand.

He presented two suggestions:

  • Restore the authority of the school boards to levy—by simple majority vote — up to 2.0 mills for capital purposes.
  • Provide Public Education Capital Outlay (PECO) funding for school construction.

“A balanced capital funding stream is necessary to provide a proper learning environment for our students and families,” Pylant said.

He also suggested some other changes:

  • More flexibility regarding assessments
  • Elimination of End-of-Course exams not required for graduation
  • Authorization of the use of a nationally recognized assessment (ACT or SAT)
  • Letting school districts decide when to administer personnel evaluations

“These recommendations reduce quantity and increase the quality of student assessments, while ensuring simple, meaningful accountability,” he said.

Later on, Kenny Blankenship, president of the United School Employees of Pasco, pleaded with delegates to improve public schools by providing “additional funding” and “more support for teachers” in the county.

Education was a recurring topic during the four-hour delegation, which featured several hundred attendees. ‘I think this is one of the best turnouts we’ve ever had at a delegation meeting,’ said State Rep. Danny Burgess.

Blankenship, a 20-year teaching veteran, endorsed “much-needed” school health centers, small class sizes and “adequate compensation” for teachers.

“We need your help to work with us to improve our public schools, because public education benefits everyone,” Blankenship said.

Jessica Hooper, representing Project Lead The Way, advocated for mandatory computer science education in schools, suggesting, “kids will be more prepared for the 21st century workplace.”

Improvement is needed in this arena, Hooper said. “Unfortunately, there are not enough offerings. You would think that Florida — being the hub of computer science technology employers — would need more (offerings) in this area in the education space.”

Pasco-Hernando State College President Timothy Beard also asked state legislators to increase funding for facilities.

Specifically, he requested $2.5 million in PECO funding for the West campus in New Port Richey.

He also asked for $10 million for an education performance arts center, which would be built on the campus of Cypress Creek Middle/High School.

Saint Leo University representatives lobbied for continued funding of Bright Futures scholarships, along with the Florida Resident Access Grant (FRAG), which provides tuition assistance to Florida undergraduate students attending an eligible private, nonprofit Florida college or university.

The Florida Legislature kicks off the 2017 session on March 7.

Published January 25, 2017

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